Survey spotlights Iraqi 'survival mode'

It's an elementary principle of child psychology: Safety leads to exploration. The child who feels securely loved at home will venture out and try new things. The child who is insecure will be more passive and cling to what is known.

It's an elementary principle of child psychology: Safety leads to exploration. The child who feels securely loved at home will venture out and try new things. The child who is insecure will be more passive and cling to what is known.

What's true of children is true of adults, and in Iraq we now have a case study in human insecurity. The people of Iraq have endured decades of dictatorship, war, insurgency and civil strife, and the psychological costs have been ruinous. Iraq is the most xenophobic, sexist and reactionary society on earth.

Researchers from the invaluable World Values Survey have interviewed more than 2,300 adults from all over Iraq. The results have just been published by Ronald Inglehart, Mansoor Moaddel and Mark Tessler in the journal Perspectives on Politics.

Inglehart, Moaddel and Tessler describe a people who, buffeted by violence, have withdrawn into mere survival mode. They are suspicious of outsiders and intolerant toward weak groups, and they cling fiercely to what is familiar and traditional.

The researchers asked the Iraqis if they would mind living next door to foreigners. In most societies, there is a small minority who say they would mind. Nine percent of Americans say they would mind, and in the median country internationally about 16 percent say they would mind. Ninety percent of the Iraqi Arab respondents rejected foreigners as neighbors.


As Inglehart, Moaddel and Tessler write, Iraqis "reject foreigners to a degree that is virtually unknown in other societies throughout the world, including more than a dozen predominantly Islamic countries.'

Iraqi Arabs almost universally reject Americans, Britons and the French, and roughly 60 percent reject Iranians, Kuwaitis and Jordanians, the groups they are least hostile to.

Iraqis also viscerally resist social reform and deviation from the traditional ways of doing things. For example, 93 percent of Arab Iraqis said men made better leaders than women, the highest proportion of any group in the world.

Iraqi Arabs were asked which values they would like to instill in their children. They emphasized "obedience' and "religious faith' more than any of the 80 other societies that have been studied. They were less likely to try to instill "independence' in their children than people in 74 of the study's 80 societies.

Meanwhile, Iraqis cling fiercely to their primal identities. Roughly 86 percent of the Arab Iraqis said they were very proud to be Iraqi, and the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds were very likely to trust members of their own community. Such in-group solidarity is almost without precedent.

Iraqi Kurds stood apart from the world in all these various measures, but Iraqi Arabs stood apart even more. This suggests that Saddam's tyranny had already had a corrosive effect on Iraqi society by 1991, when the Kurds were effectively liberated, but over the past 15 years, things have become much worse. It's impossible to tell how much of the trauma has been caused since the American invasion.

We do know, however, that American policy makers were surprised to learn how religious Iraqi society had become during the 1990s. (Iraqi exiles had not prepared them for this.) And we also know this climate of opinion works against the Iraqi leaders as they try to create a functioning nation.

In essence, Iraqis are like turtles trying to pull into their shells, but the big tasks at hand require non-shell behavior. They require getting Shiites and Sunnis to trust each other enough to negotiate a settlement on sharing oil revenue. They require getting Shiite policemen to crack down on their own, and on Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia.


The larger lesson, as we think about future efforts to reform the Middle East and combat extremism, is that the Chinese model probably works best. That is, it's best to champion economic reform before political reform.

We know from a wealth of historical experience that when people see their standard of living rise, they reject the reactionary survival mentality and they become more open to others and to change. If people already see their lives improving materially, they will be more likely to keep their cool as their political institutions are reinvented.

In the age of terror, statesmanship means knowing how to create a sense of security so you can lead people on a voyage of reform. Most of all, it means that if you're going to do nation-building, you have to understand the values of the people you're going to build a nation with.

DAVID BROOKS is a columnist for the New York Times.

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