Choice vs. coercion

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Sunday’s elections in Iraq have become the litmus test of President Bush’s foreign policy. If they come off with minimal violence and if a respectable number of Sunnis participate, even staunch Bush critics will have to hold their fire. You can almost hear some naysayers hoping for the worst, if only to prove themselves right.

But are we applying the wrong standard? What if there is widespread bloodshed and many Sunnis stay home, either out of fear or loyalty to the old regime? Doesn’t this say more about the evil we fight than it does about whether we were right to take up the fight in the first place?

This week, Abu Musab Zarqawi told his followers, via the Internet, that Islam is not compatible with democracy. He called for “an all-out war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,” promising death to any “apostates” who participate in the democratic process.

In Zarqawi’s brand of Islam, individuals are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals exercise no free will. Liberty becomes synonymous with decadence. Every facet of life, private and public, must adhere to the dictates of those mullahs who interpret the will of Allah according to precepts laid out by an 18th-century cleric named Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, who rejected any post-10th century reforms in Islam.

The message is clear: Bend to the will of the powerful or be crushed. Death will come literally, by the sword or the improvised explosive device, or more symbolically, by being hidden in a burqa and denied the right to learn to read or write.

There is no accommodating holders of such views. They can’t be reasoned with. No compromise will appease them. No power-sharing scheme can buy them off. They must be defeated.

But their defeat will come in two ways. We can kill and apprehend large numbers of these enemies of freedom, but we can never kill or jail them all. More important, we cannot “kill” the ideology that motivates them.

Ultimately, the only way to defeat this ideology is to promote a more compelling countervailing idea. And that is where Sunday’s elections play such an important role.

The Iraqi election is about more than picking a 275-member assembly to write a new constitution. It is a referendum on the very idea that individuals have a right to make decisions about their own lives. Choosing one’s leaders is an affirmation that the person making the choice has inherent worth. It affirms the dignity of the individual. This idea, the cornerstone of Judeo-Christian values, is the basic principle undergirding democracy.

Every Iraqi who goes to the polls on Sunday will exercise his or her free will. He will be saying, I have the right to determine my own future as well as my country’s. She will be saying, I am the equal of every other Iraqi, male or female.

While some clerics will tell their followers how to cast their votes, once in the polling booth, each voter will decide for himself what is best, with only his conscience as witness.

No doubt some radical clerics will try to threaten and intimidate voters. But in the long run they will have to resort to persuasion if they hope to succeed at the ballot box. And this, of course, is what is so threatening to the likes of Zarqawi.

The terrorists hide behind Allah. They do not carry out God’s will but their own lust for power. They want to rule, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban, by terror in a totalitarian state.

But every Iraqi who votes Sunday resists the terrorists. And bullies cannot long withstand challenge from even a few.

No doubt the terrorists will try to kill as many freedom-loving Iraqis as they can on Sunday, and they may discourage some from participating. But in the end, freedom is a more powerful ideology than coercion.

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