Beyond the Shi'ite Quagmire

Islamists are not the only Iraqis organizing


So has the U.S. escaped a battlefield quagmire and countless casualties only to find itself hip-deep and helpless in a quagmire of Shi'ite politics? You'd be forgiven for thinking so if you read on the front page that "Bush administration officials say they underestimated the Shiites' organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country." These officials add that they are "flying blind," claim to have been misled by pro-U.S. exile leader (and secular Shi'ite) Ahmed Chalabi, and now realize they are involved in a "25-year project." Sounds bad, doesn't it?

Or how about front-page quotes like these: "We want an Islamic state here similar to the Iranian model," and "I want a Shiite cleric to rule Iraq, whether it be Iraqi or Iranian. I would rather have someone like Mr. Khomeini rule Iraq rather than any secular Iraqi." Sounds worse, no?

Most distressing of all to the distant onlooker, perhaps, would be the context from which this grim information emerged: the long-banned annual Shi'ite rituals of mourning and mortification that have come to include self-flagellation and bloodletting. Surely, when such religious passion is associated with long-denied political aspirations, the combination will be a difficult one to thwart, especially by "unprepared" American officials who confess they are "flying blind." Or will it?

Several pressing questions have emerged from this spectacle of religiousness. One that comes up a lot, and is even posed to Western reporters by Iraqis who want to live in a Shari'a state, is, If a majority of Iraqis choose to be ruled by a theocracy, isn't that democracy in action? (Let's dispense with this in a parenthetical aside: No. If a religious party comes to office within an effective constitutional framework that limits its powers and obligates it to leave office when voted out, that's not a theocracy, it's more or less Turkey. Any other form of clerical power is tyrannical.)

A second question is less often articulated, but seemed to underlie the pessimistic coverage that coincided with the Shi'ite Ashura: Is there anyone who can save Iraqi liberalism from being stillborn? There probably is: Iraqis, including Shi'ite Iraqis.

Shi'ites constitute a majority in Iraq (60 percent is the usual figure cited), but they are hardly the monolith that most recent coverage suggests. As the academic Fawaz Gerges reminded PBS viewers Monday, "The Shia community is highly complex and diverse, there exists several political current[s] within the Shia community… the Shia community is not only divided across or along religious lines, but also along ideology, class and interest, there's a great deal of momentum and complexity within the Shia community."

Shi'ite clerical politics are a truly intricate affair, and a mystery to the uninitiated. That said, it appears that even religious Shi'ites are not a political monolith. Some leading clerics actually oppose clerical rule, among them, apparently, the country's senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani. Indeed, the idea that clerics should refrain from administration and devote themselves instead to spiritual duties is emerging, at least in intellectual terms, as a legitimate Shi'ite political view. (That is, the idea that the ruler must seek consultation before exercising power is being applied by some modernist Shi'ite thinkers to secular rule.) How many Iraqi Shi'ites adhere to this view remains to be seen, but then the nation's own political discourse has hardly begun. On the other hand, Sestani has many followers.

As for those Shi'ites who favor an Islamic state, they are split into numerous factions with serious internal problems. One leading figure, Moqtadah al-Sadr, lacks religious authority of his own and is attempting to advance his cause on the basis of his late (and revered) father's authority. Another, Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, has been in Iran for many years; his opponents have been labeling him an outsider and even a "traitor" for leaving Iraq.

In the meantime, secular Iraqis (and that includes Shi'ites, too) are gradually organizing themselves as well, though their efforts have failed to ignite a front-page media spectacle. A few days ago, for example, The Washington Post reported (on page 14) from a looted and burnt out Basra University, where the faculty had unilaterally dispensed with the old, Ba'thist dean and elected chemistry professor Mohammed Jassim in his stead. He was looking forward to an era of academic freedom.

Wrote the Post, "Iraqi science, [Jassim] contends, will emerge from its isolation. The best academics will again be free to attend conferences in Berlin and Chicago, not just Yemen and Libya, he hopes. The latest journals will arrive in the mail, along with instruments that were prohibited under U.N. sanctions. Professors will be permitted to publish their work. The prospects are, 'to be honest, very exciting,' Jassim said…"

This week, some 50 Iraqi writers gathered to begin rebuilding the nation's wrecked literature. No one ordered them to do so; it was a spontaneous act. According to playwright Aziz Abdul Sahib, "We are here to revive the writing and the poetry that was banned by the regime."

Forty political parties have organized. Artists are meeting. Newspapers have begun to appear in Baghdad (the first was published by Iraq's Communist Party; if nothing else a reminder of pre-Ba'thist Iraqi anti-clericalism). Television, book publishing, and magazines are yet to come. In short, Iraq is only beginning to get on its feet (though, admittedly, much will depend on the Iraqi judiciary getting quickly to its feet). There will be no end of crises, both for U.S. interests and for the potential liberal secular Iraqi agenda. But there will likely be crises for those seeking a religious state as well.

Religious passion rises and falls everywhere, including in Iraq. Religious self-mutilation (which had a long history in Christian Europe, too) is a fairly recent import among Iraqis, having emerged—against strong clerical objection—only in the 19th century. In the short history of Iraqi Shi'ite self-injury, there have been times when not one self-mutilator or flagellant stepped forward, and people had to be hired to play the role. (This also happened in some European cities). It may be rather early to draw too many conclusions about the political meaning of these passions.

But there's a more immediate issue facing those who wish to impose an Iranian-style theocracy on Iraq. They should cast their gaze east to Tehran. General strikes by Iranians who are sick and tired of Iranian-style theocracy have been called for this July.