News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Democracy in Iraq: They're Just Like Us... Right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Democracy in Iraq: They're Just Like Us... Right?

Polls can be very deceptive. The results depend on the way the poller asks the question. Often, you have to ask many questions to get at the heart of what someone thinks. This makes any poll numbers suspect and often misleading.

Think of the average Iraqi: surrounded by soldiers on both sides, having family members killed in barabaric ways, hounded by religious leaders and their underlings, and worried about how your honor looks to the members of the tribe. Then you have someone ask you your opinion about whether things are better, whether the US should be there, and so on.

As westerners, it's very suspect to think that everyone around the world thinks like we do...

That's why the recent poll results from Iraq that are reported today in the US news media need to be looked at very closely. You have to get out of your own mind-set and think like an Iraqi, if that's possible for us. That's because we live in relative personal security, think and believe in a more secular way, and take a more skeptical approach to religion and politics.

Juan Cole interprets these polls in a recent posting at his blog. He's pretty good to rely on since he speaks the language and has studied Iraqi history and society for a long time. His understanding of these polls is much more nuanced than the black/white way the press is reporting them.

In a detailed analysis of the ABC/NYTimes poll, Cole concludes:

In any case, given the February findings, it seems likely to me that a good half of Iraqis still do not want Western-style democracy, which is not very heartening. Moreover, half of Iraqis don't believe that the US should have come there, 60% think it made no difference or actually made things worse, and 2/3s want US troops out.
Sometimes polls are just polls, numbers aren't just numbers, and the way we see and understand the world is not the way others see and understand it.

One of the key ideas that Cole talks about is what "democracy" means to Iraqis. He says that in the way the questions were asked by the pollers, democracy for Iraqis does not sound so much like what most Americans think it is. But then, what has democracy come to mean for most Americans?

An example of the wrong way to think about what's happening in Iraq comes from VP Cheney's wife, Lynne. In a recent history lesson to an elementary class, Lynne is reported as saying:
Lynne Cheney had a history lesson for elementary school children Tuesday, likening this week‘s parliamentary elections in Iraq to America‘s own early struggle for democracy.

"Two hundred and seventeen years ago, we held our first vote under our Constitution," Vice President Dick Cheney ‘s wife said. "We started then on the path the Iraqis are walking now."
I suggest this is a fallacy, one the logicians call a false analogy. This means that two things are compared that have more differences than similarities. I suggest that what's happening in Iraq is nothing like what happened in America during the revolution since the religious and cultural circumstances are very different from what early Americans faced.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi charles

It's vadim, over from helena's site. Thought I'd reply directly here instead of monopolising her comments section any longer.

Polls in that part of the world are tricky. I was surprised to see a Zogby poll from saudi arabia since formal political polling there is actually against the law. in any case I'm not sure how useful a poll regarding mideast attitudes towards the usa is likely to be. as an example, take this poll:

over half egyptians (in a sample skewed toward the educated) said they felt the US 'deserved it' on 9/11. how is this a useful datum? it tells me something i already knew, which is that arab media loves to rail against the USA, and it makes for good local press. the arab public hates and mistrusts the US as a political entity, its foreign policy, whatever. this isnt likely to teach me much about iraqis and their day to day life. so i think anything to do with the US is worth ignoring.