Maliki’s experiences are especially relevant for today’s Middle East: in Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamist parties, long hidden in the shadows, similar to those that nourished the Dawa, are striving to shed authoritarian instincts and make the transition to mainstream democratic politics; in Libya, where regional militias, mindful of recent history, still do not trust one another enough to disarm; and in Syria, which is currently roiled by bloodshed among its warring ethnic and religious groups that rival the darkest moments in Iraq.
It is a mistake to see Maliki or Mohammed Morsi in Egypt or any of the ascendant new leaders in the Middle East as builders or wreckers of new democracies. Maliki was a defender of Iraq, the country’s Shiite population, and himself, the way his predecessors had been defenders of their own amendable ideologies. His experiences were what allowed him to rise in the turbulence of post-Saddam Iraq, but his decades of humiliation set him on the path of running a faltering autocratic state immersed in perpetual war.
In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, it may prove tempting to color the country’s new leaders as democrats when they are not, or to accept their potentially dictatorial tendencies as the natural order. Maliki, the first elected Arab Islamist leader, shaped in the shadows, exemplifies all the challenges of the new breed. He is not bound to authoritarian rule, but his history leads him in that direction. Since taking office in 2006, amid dismal hopes, he has both disappointed and exceeded expectations. There is a fundamental tension among the new Islamists, whether from Maliki’s Dawa Party or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or their counterparts in Tunis—on how to create a society living in harmony with Islamic values. How much of this can be imposed, and how much should be a free choice made by the society, remains an open, but crucial, question. Iraq under Maliki has seen the slow creeping tide of religious values imposed with raids on alcohol shops and nightclubs. Sudden whispers that the government will shut down arts colleges and separate male and female students at university are swiftly dismissed—perhaps planted by the state to see how far it can go. Intimidation and pressure by the state has also been apparent in Egypt since its revolution, as Islamist lawyers bring lawsuits against artists they consider blasphemous. In Tunis, radical Salafis are given tacit freedom to physically attack bars, actors, and political opponents. It is still a riddle for the Arab world’s now ruling Islamists leaders—how to bring their societies into harmony with their religious values. But Maliki and his counterparts all have similar aspirations for their nations. They want to establish modern, vibrant states in accordance with Islam.