The tyranny of minorities in Israel and IraqQuestion: What do the Shiite extremist leader Mktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army have in common with the extremist Jewish settlers in Israel? Answer: More than you'd think. Both movements combine religious messianism, and a willingness to sacrifice their followers and others for absolutist visions, along with a certain disdain for man-made laws, as opposed to those from God. The big question in both Iraq and Israel today is also similar: Will the silent majorities in both countries finally turn against these extremist minorities to save their future?
On May 2, the Jewish settlers mobilized enough members of the rightist Likud Party to defeat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and all its Jewish settlements. Polls in Israel consistently show a large majority of Israelis want to get out of Gaza. Nevertheless, Sharon, for now, has submitted to the Likud Party vote.
The ability of the settler minority to impose its will on the Israeli majority means that Israel is not staying in Gaza to defend itself anymore - its own defense minister says it would be safer to leave. It is now staying in Gaza to preserve a settler fantasy - that Israel can and must keep every settlement everywhere.
As Ari Shavit, the Haaretz essayist, wrote on Friday: "The current war has been redefined since the events of May 2. On that day, the current war ceased to be a war on terror. It ceased to be a war for Israel's existence. May 2, 2004, the war became a war of not-a-single-settlement (is to be given up). The young guys of Givati (an Israeli army unit) who were blown up with their armored personnel carrier on Tuesday in Gaza differ from all of their comrades who have been killed there since September 2000. They differ, because they are no longer the victims of extremist Islam. They are no longer the victims of Arafat's insanity. They are the victims of the settlement enterprise. The attempt of the organized settlement movement to force on the citizens of Israel a war that is not their war is unforgivable."
The Israeli silent majority is now taking to the streets under the banner: "Only The Majority Decides." The question is: Will Sharon, the patron of the settler movement, take on the settlers in the name of that Israeli majority and in order to save Israel? Meir Sheetrit, an Israeli cabinet minister from Likud who has been urging Sharon to carry out his plan anyway, told me his advice to Sharon has been very blunt: "Either you make history, or you will be history." An editorial in Haaretz was equally blunt: "A zealous, religious and messianic minority already led the people of Israel to the destruction of the Second Commonwealth 2,000 years ago. Now the struggle is over the Third Commonwealth."
There is also obviously a struggle for Iraq. Last Tuesday, two big events happened in Iraq - but only one of them made headlines. One was disclosure of the horrific beheading of Nicholas Berg. The other was the peaceful demonstration by 1,000 Shiites in Najaf, telling Sadr to get out of town. Sadr's men fired their weapons into the air and shouted at the demonstrators, but the demonstrators shouted right back. The future of Iraq, and the chances of America salvaging any decent outcome there, depend on which event - the Berg murder or the anti-Sadr march - turns out to be the emerging trend.
This anti-al-Sadr march was a truly rare event in the modern Arab world - a large public demonstration by Muslim moderates against armed Muslim extremists. It could only have happened in a post-Saddam Iraq, where, even in the turmoil, people have enough freedom to do such a thing. But it will only define post-Saddam Iraq if it becomes a real movement among the Shiite silent majority and not just a one-day parade.
I am a big believer that what a culture or a society deems to be shameful and illegitimate is the most important restraint on how its people behave. It takes a village. But it also takes a silent majority to act. I'm confident that will happen in Israel, which is already a democracy. And Iraq will only become a democracy if the same happens there.