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Politics & Society

The best books on Democracy in Iraq

recommended by Nabeel Yasin

The Iraqi poet chooses books on civil and human rights. "I want to spread the word. I want people to get more involved in the political process here in Iraq"

Nabeel Yasin

Nabeel Yasin is one of Iraq’s most famous poets. His poems had him branded an enemy of the state under Saddam Hussein. He left Iraq for England 30 years ago with his wife and young son and continued to write and publish poetry from exile. Now he’s returned to his country and ran for prime minister in this month’s elections. ‘In our legacy here in Iraq we have some ideas about the conscience and duty of the state,’ he says. ‘Which should be to give happiness to the citizens, as numerous religious leaders have told us. For me there can be no kind of enlightenment without civil society.’

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Nabeel Yasin

Nabeel Yasin is one of Iraq’s most famous poets. His poems had him branded an enemy of the state under Saddam Hussein. He left Iraq for England 30 years ago with his wife and young son and continued to write and publish poetry from exile. Now he’s returned to his country and ran for prime minister in this month’s elections. ‘In our legacy here in Iraq we have some ideas about the conscience and duty of the state,’ he says. ‘Which should be to give happiness to the citizens, as numerous religious leaders have told us. For me there can be no kind of enlightenment without civil society.’

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You’ve started with a book that had a huge impact on the West – Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s The Civic Culture.

This is also a very important book for Iraqis especially given what they are going through now. It is speaking about the experience of five nations after the Second World War. They were the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Italy, Mexico and Germany.

Civic culture is actually a term which was coined by the two authors to describe the set of related political and social attitudes said to be crucial to the success of modern democracies. What is interesting is the high level of civil involvement they discovered in political decision-making. For example in the United States lots of people got involved in talking about education and the health care system.

The book shows that the United States led the way in civil involvement, followed by the United Kingdom, then Germany, then Italy and Mexico. The authors write about the different levels between a really democratic state like the United States and places like Mexico where democracy can be strained sometimes.

“In the first few years of the new Iraq there was this idea that Iraqis still hoped they could change their lives. That is fading now.”

For me and my fellow Iraqis, a book like this is very important because it shows how we can participate in our civic reconciliation and in politics and we really need a shift towards that right now. I try to write about this book in Iraqi newspapers and websites and to tell my students about it. I want to spread the word. I want people to get more involved in the political process here in Iraq.

So do you think there is a problem with people’s political involvement in Iraq, and if so why?

Yes, unfortunately. Now after six years of the political process we can see frustration inside Iraqi society. In the first few years of the new Iraq there was this idea that Iraqis still hoped they could change their lives. That is fading now. After the third elected government they started to feel that politics in Iraq is hopeless. Even the percentage of voters has become very low, showing that people are losing faith in the political system.

What about your next book, Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt? This continues the political theme.

Oh, this is a really brilliant book. It describes the struggle for human rights in Europe. For me the most important thing about all these books is to remind the people who live in democratic states and societies about how the struggle for human rights started 500 years ago. These modern people are able to enjoy the fruits of that struggle. Iraqi people say we need 500 years to put things right and become properly democratic but they are wrong. Books like this show us we can borrow the big ideas and use them to our benefit.

So you see this book as an example of how Iraq should be developing?

Exactly. Think about the history of the wheel, which was invented over 3,000 years ago. We all have the benefit of that, so why shouldn’t we Iraqis get the benefit of things that have been developed elsewhere. We use things like Western medicines and Western cars so I don’t think we should start having a reaction against Western democracy. We should see what works with it and use it.

Your next book is Derek Heater’s, A Brief History of Citizenship.

I think this one is my favourite. It shows how citizenship became the main concept in democracy during the struggles of the British people, the Americans and the French. It is full of examples about how citizenship started in Athens and in Rome.

Why is citizenship so important to you?

Well, I don’t think you can have democracy without the concept of citizenship. Citizenship needs three conditions: the first is political rights, the second is civilian rights and finally social rights. Without these three rights there is no citizenship at all. For me the beauty of democracy is that it gives people these rights. They can change their lives from those of individuals to become citizens.

Your next book, The Garden of Eden and Its Restoration, has some very interesting theories.

Yes, the author, Sir William Wilcocks, spent three years in Iraq travelling down the main rivers there. His book tries to prove that the biblical Eden was in this area. His theory hinges on information he got from the Old Testament, which according to him stated that the four rivers led to this paradise. I find this a very interesting theory – I like it. He also tried to follow the journey of Abraham. And he tried to show that Moses was in Babylon. So he is trying to say that this area, which forms some of modern Iraq today, was the actual paradise of Eden.

Finally, your last book choice is A C Grayling’s Towards the Light.

This is also a very interesting book, similar to Inventing Human Rights. Grayling wrote about the freeing of the mind everywhere, including outside Europe. He writes about the idea that people need constitutions, that people need freedom from oppression and also people need to express their demands to the state. This is very important because the state should try to provide benefits for the people, not keep them in jail or oppress them.

So you think the state should be a benevolent state?

Yes, and actually in our legacy here in Iraq we have some ideas about the conscience and duty of the state, which should be to give happiness to the citizens, as numerous religious leaders have told us. For me there can be no kind of enlightenment without civil society. The education system and culture play a very, very important role in the democratic state. They are essential. That is why I chose to talk to you about these books because I think they are very important to the Iraqi political process.

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You are running for prime minister in the Iraqi elections – do these books show how you would like to see Iraq governed?

Yes, these books helped me to understand the history of civil rights, the history of human rights and to show how we can use the legacy of places like Britain and the United States to move our country forward. I want to sow the seeds of democracy here in Iraq.

But some people would argue that there are still plenty of problems in democratic countries like the Unites States and Britain. You could say following models like these isn’t necessarily the best way.

Well it’s true that the democracy we live in now isn’t totally complete. But I still think that democratic societies are the best systems we have to serve the demands of people. I still think they give people more chances in life. Nobody says this is the end of history. But the history of democracy will help people around the world, in places like Africa, Asia, Latin America have better lives. And that is something I really want to see in Iraq.

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