In reporting a story about the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, I kept asking Iraqis whether they thought democracy was consistent with Islam.
In Najaf, a conservative holy shrine city about two hours south of Baghdad, the answers were pretty consistent.
"We want democracy according to what Sharia law says," said Na'aman al-Mayahi, 28, a student at Sadr Religious University.
"If we apply the sharia by its strictest laws, then we will have democracy. Our laws are peaceful laws."
When I explained that some of the basic democratic rights included the right to free speech, the right to assembly, free direct elections and equal rights for everybody regardless of sex, race, religion, etc. al-Mayahi said quickly "not all these four are allowed by Sharia law."
Adnan Khalil Ibrahim, 42, a retired high school chemistry teacher, told me that in Islam, "we treat everybody equally."
I asked about women.
Men are allowed to have four wives; women are entitled to half the inheritance their brothers get; a woman's word is worth less than a man's in a court of law; a woman's murder if guilty of adultery can be sanctioned in certain cases.
"If you did a census in Najaf, how many people would actually have more than one wife?" Ibrahim said. "You will find a rare number of people who do this."
One reason for the four wives rule, Ibrahim added, was "to protect women from falling in sin or committing adultry because of their sexual needs. "
It's true there are restrictions on women in sharia law, Ibrahim said.
"As far as inheritance is concerned, it's common that the responsibility of putting bread on the table belongs to the man alone and because men are more responsible from this point of view, they inherit more. Each woman has a husband taking care of her, so her financial needs are less, while a man is supporting himself and his family."
Under Saddam, Iraq's three wars decimated the population. There are entire villages - in the Shia-dominated south, ironically - where it seems only the women are left.
(The population is also very young. In 2000, the median age in Iraq was 17, meaning half are under 17. "That tells you this is a population that is very malleable," Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer with the United Nations Foundation told me recently. "They're easily persuaded, they can moved by grievances as well as by greed, they can be called to arms, they can fight.")
Actually, in our laws, we consider women more important than men, said Ibrahim's cousin, Adil Abdul Eelan, 25.
Eelan works in the Islamic Cultural office in Najaf, which publishes leaflets and holds seminars about Islam. "We consider women to be a jewel. No one can touch her."
My translator that day was Shamil Aziz, 51, an engineer and a Christian, with two daughters, Mariam, 24, and Nadine, 21. He is worried about a new government dominated by Shia clerics, if it means an elevation of sharia law. He has relatives in London and in Sweden but he doesn't want to leave Baghdad.
"In the Quran, it says thieves should have their hands cut off, but why should I accept that?" he said. "Women caught committing adultery will be stoned. Why should I accept that? If my wife witnesses a crime and wants to testify against the suspect she will need two women to counter a man's testimony in a court of law. Why should I accept it? If I have five boys and five girls, they are all my children and it's my money, why should I accept their inheritance laws?"
But aren't those rules just for Muslims?
"Look at Iran," Shamil said.
I had dinner with my driver’s family recently, and their views were more optimistic than a lot of the public reaction I’ve been hearing reporting on plans for a new Iraqi government.
“Let me tell you something. The Americans cannot fix everything in 6 months, 7 months, 8 months,” said Mahir Abdul-Razak, my driver’s older brother and a graduate from Baghdad University’s College of Administration and Economics. “In the near future, you will not hear so many explosions. Step by step, this will take time. I know that if Iraq does not get development, it is not good for America.”
Mahir blamed the countries surrounding Iraq for sending in foreign fighters.
“They are afraid of a new Iraq so they send terrorists to stop the progress or they do not stop them from coming. Saudi is the first country afraid of us, also Iran.”
When Mahir graduated, he decided against a government job because they only paid about 3,000 dinars a month (less than $2 a month at today’s rates, but worth slightly more before the war). “I would have had to take ‘commissions’ from people,” Mahir said. “It’s a very big problem in Iraq.”
Mahir now commutes 35 miles to Bacuba each day to work with his father’s building and construction company, which is far when many people can barely afford to fill up their gas tanks.
But things are better now. Before, when government and business officials were asked to for routine transactions, they would always have their hands out, Mahir said. “Now, I notice, in the banks, in government offices, they are shy. Nobody is asking me for money.”
Instead of 3,000 dinars a month, teachers are now getting 240,000 dinars a month (about $140 a month).
“It’s a very big jump,” said Maha Abdul Razak, Mahir’s sister. “My cousin was a teacher and she wanted to retire before the war. Now she is back to work. She has bought a satellite dish. Her children are wearing new clothes. Engineers take even more - $180 US dollars a month.”
Maha is nursing a one-month-old baby girl, Miriam. She and her husband Basil also have a son, Yousef, who is 3.
“It’s difficult for the Iraqi people now, waiting, waiting for something good. The good life will not be for me. It will be for my children,” Maha said.
“I graduated in 1993 but when I wanted to work the government said I must go far away to Dialla. I was in Baghdad and I should teach English to secondary school students here. They said I had to spend three years somewhere else, but I had my family and I’m a girl, so it wasn’t possible. So what am I doing now? Losing my language, just forgetting it.”