Religion and Politics in Iraq
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GWEN IFILL: Shiite Muslims– estimates say up to a million of them– clogged the roads into the Iraqi city of Karbala. The pilgrimage banned for nearly three decades by Saddam Hussein, mourns the death of one of the religion’s most revered saints.
HOVA AL AWI (Translated): We are expressing ourselves freely. And we are enjoying it despite the execution of our sons, killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. What is gone is gone. I lost seven sons.
GWEN IFILL: Today’s walking pilgrimage marks the end of a 40-day period of mourning over the seventh-century martyrdom of the imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The Shiites are a minority in the Arab world, but a long- repressed majority in Iraq, where Saddam’s Sunni Muslims controlled the government. Sixty to sixty-five percent of Iraqis are Shiia. The Sunni and Shiite sects split in the year 680 in a battle over who should succeed the prophet Muhammad.
The mass chanting and chest slapping seen on the march to Karbala today is a Shiite ritual of atonement. Some men cut their heads with swords, symbolizing the imam Hussein’s beheading. His tomb now lies beneath the gilded dome of the great mosque of Karbala, one of the holiest shrines in the Shiite faith. The tomb of Hussein’s father, who was Muhammad’s son-in-law, is another holy site, in the Iraqi city of Najaf.
At that mosque earlier this month, an American-backed Shiite cleric was assassinated. Abdul Majid al-Khoei had returned from exile in London to help run Najaf. His killing was the most violent example so far of growing anti- American sentiment within the Shiite community. Many Shiites clerics feel they were abandoned by the United States when Saddam quashed a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. Some of that lingering resentment was on display today in Karbala.
ABED MEHDI KARADALAI, Imam of Hussein Shrine (Translated ): The millions of people today express their loyalty to imam Hussein’s principles in refusing all kind of oppression and in challenging the American and the British colonialism.
ALI OUENAT (Translated): We have just got rid of one dictator who has been ruling over us for 35 years, and we don’t want any other imposed ruler. We are now a free people.
MAN ON STREET: People here, all Shiite, all Sunni, want an Islamic country, an Islamic government.
GWEN IFILL: To avoid inflaming the otherwise peaceful demonstration, U.S. troops stayed out of the center of the city today.
GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn to Hamid Dabashi, the chairman of the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department at Columbia University. He has written widely on Islam. Yitzhak Nakash teaches Middle East history at Brandeis University. He is the author of “The Shi’is of Iraq.” His parents were born in Baghdad, and emigrated to Israel in 1951. He is an American citizen. And Caryle Murphy, who covered the Middle East for the Washington Post from 1989- 1994. She is the author of “Passion for Islam,” and now covers religion for the Washington Post.
Professor Dabashi, is what we saw today, the long march to Karbala, was it a revival of faith, a revival of politics or both?
HAMID DABASHI: Absolutely both. It is impossible within Shiiaism to separate particularly under dire circumstances such as this between religion and politics. The Shiia minority has been repressed over the last three decades, they have been prohibited from expressing their religious rituals.
This is the first chance that they have had and as it happens, it coincides with one of the most sacred days in the religious calendar. And they have come out, and this religious procession now assumes the energy and performative and ritual power of its own, which will be very difficult to control.
GWEN IFILL: Caryle Murphy, which has the – he talks about things being so difficult to control – which has the greater force at a time like this when all of the these things are happening at the same time, the fall of Saddam, the rise of Shiiaism and then this holiday?
CARYLE MURPHY: Well, I think one thing we have to keep in mind is that although the Shiia are 60 percent of the population in Iraq, they are not totally united politically. They’re religiously but not politically. There are, for example, many secular westernized Shiia in Iraq who would not support an Islamic state. And I think that one thing we also have to remember is that leading up to any full free, fair election Iraq, we hope that there will be a period of discussion between Iraqis to decide what kind of constitution, what kind of state they want.
And I think in that process, there will be a lot to discuss between the different ethnic minorities and religious minorities, and between the Shiia and the Sunni and the Kurds. So that when there is an election, hopefully, there will be a framework that most of the communities have agreed upon.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Nakash, the way it stands right now, if the Shiia were to assert their primacy in the politics in Iraq because of their 60 percent majority status, would this emerge as the kind of liberal secular democracy that the United States envisions, or perhaps a theocracy?
YITZHAK NAKASH: Well, it can be a mixture of both. I’d like to emphasize the fact the Shiite community in Iraq is a very diverse one. We have secularists, we have religious groups, we have urban dwellers, we have rural dwellers. And as we heard, we have Iraqis who haven’t left their country and those who just came back from exile.
So we are going to see a transition period. We already see a competition between various groups within the community for power. It is very possible that in the short-term, we will see some sort of a mixed bag between religious figures and secularists, between Iraqis from within Iraq and those who just came back. It would be some sort of a confessional arrangement that would bring not only people from within the Shiia community but also Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, to form a government.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Nakash, expand on that for a moment. When we talk about the divisions within the Shiia community, especially among the clerics, who are the people we should be watching for who are in positions to either take power or at least compete for power?
YITZHAK NAKASH: Well, within the Shiia religious groups, first and foremost is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf who thus far has attempted to distance himself from politics. Within the religious groups there are observant Muslims who have accepted the notion that there has to be some sort of separation between religion and politics.
But there are also those who claim that there has to be a fusion, there can only be a fusion between religion and politics, and they advocate an Islamic government. Within Iraq, we don’t have that many senior clerics. One of the clerics who is now in exile, Muhammad al-Hakim has advocated a form of an Islamic government but let me say Hakim is an Iraqi. It would be very interesting to see what happens when he eventually comes to Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Dabashi, what do you make of that, the idea of who is going to be in charge next?
HAMID DABASHI: I think both Miss Murphy and Professor Nakash are right warning us that the divisions within the Shiia community are wider spread and there are more politically active and less politically active components of it.
However, the fact remains that despite the fact that the senior most figure among the Shiia community in southern Iraq, in Najaf is apolitical – Ayatollah Sistoni. However, the figure who is in Iran and has been in exile for the last two decades or so is the most militant figure among the Shiia communities and the estimates are a group of 10,000 Shiia devotees are ready to take charge and be involved politically.
And a call for an Islamic Republic of Iraq has already been made public, and they will be extremely important in the configuration of power and in… they banned and did not participate in post-Saddam Hussein configuration of power, which was called by the United States. And they are a contender. They will not be controlled. They are not in a position, in a political position to be controlled by anybody.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Dabashi, you just eluded to the fact that some of these exiles are in Iran. So explain to me exactly what influence Iran might have on the way this government is eventually formed.
HAMID DABASHI: It can have either a very catastrophic influence or very constructive influence. It depends which part of the Iranian government we are talking about. The religious right that is part of the Islamic republic which is undemocratic and has been preventing these fragile movements that President Khatami has been making towards democracy, they are very particular supporters of Ayatollah Hakim. And if they become the supporters of Ayatollah Hakim, it will have a catalytic effect between Iraq and Iran generating an Islamic republic both in Iran and Iraq, which will have catastrophic consequences for the future of democracy.
However, if the progressive elements within the Iranian government, those that have been very courageously and gradually working towards democratization within the confinements of an Islamic republic, if they become advocates of the Shiias in southern Iraq, it will have a far different composition and far more affected towards the future of democracy.
GWEN IFILL: Caryle Murphy, do U.S. forces or people who favor this idea of a secular democracy in Iraq, do they have something to fear from the influence of the Iranian influenced Shiia?
CARYLE MURPHY: Well, if it’s the Iranian influence that Professor Nakash first mentioned, i.e., the more conservative Iranians, yes, they do have something to fear. But the second faction in Iran, the moderates, the reformers, if they have more influence among the Iraqi Shiias, there is less danger.
But I think we also have to remember that there’s been an age old rivalry between Iraqi Shiites and Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Shiites are very nationalistic. They don’t want to join with Iran for the most part. They are proud of their Iraqiism and this is something they’ll have in common with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Christians when they sit down to talk about the future of their country. And I think that the nationalism of Iraqi citizens is still a potent enough force that there will be independent decisions made in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Nakash, can you expand on this notion, that in the end, Iraqis will think Iraqis first even if there is a religious commonality there?
YITZHAK NAKASH: I think it is important to note that the Iraqi Shiias are by and large Arabs, they are Iraqi nationalists. We saw it during the Iran-Iraq war when Iraqi Shiites formed the majority of the rank and file Iraqi infantry fought against their Iranian core religionists.
But the thing we have to pay attention to, the big question now is whether the Shiia community in Iraq would be able to develop a strong leadership, a combination of secular and religious elements. A leadership which would be committed to the idea of the separation between religion and politics. A leadership that can unify the various groups within the Shiia community in Iraq, and also reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds and assure them that the change of regime in Iraq will not expose them to Shiite revenge and tyranny. This is the big challenge.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s a tall order. What do you think? Do you think that’s possible?
YITZHAK NAKASH: I think if Iraqi history of the past 80 years is any indication, I think it is possible. Right now there is a power vacuum in the country. Things are very sensitive. It is going to be a delicate act. It is going to be a long-term process, but I think it is possible.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Dabashi, what about U.S. influence? The U.S. as we saw in our piece earlier is kind of tiptoeing a little bit in this right now. A lot of Shiia are saying thank you for coming, but leave now. How does the United States carve out a way to create this new government without offending the very people it came to save?
HAMID DABASHI: It’s an extremely difficult situation that the U.S. has found itself that may in fact aggravate the situation and inadvertently result in the formation of an Islamic Republic of Iraq. It is very important that a question of nationalism has been brought to the force — that not all Shiia are unanimous in the position insofar as the faith is concerned, that Arab nationalism is also a factor.
But all of these factors are not under duress. That is, all Iraqis, not only the Shiias, the Kurds, the Sunnis, the other minorities, they have just come out of a brutal dictatorship and have ended up in what they consider to be a colonial occupation. Under this colonial occupation — whether political or religious — is accentuated, is aggravated and it is extremely difficult to imagine how, under these circumstances, when they consider themselves to be under military occupation, you could have a constitutional assembly.
Imagine 1776 in Philadelphia, people getting together to draft a constitution when the British are in the streets of Philadelphia. It is impossible. So the first thing that has to happen is this state of aggravated religious and political positions has to be eased and some neutral force, U.N. or whatever, come into the scene so under more normal circumstances, these religious and political and ideological factions can play out in the formation of a constitution, which guarantees not only the role of the majority, which are the Shiias but also the Kurds in the North and other religious minorities, including, say, for example, the Armenians that nobody talks about them, but nevertheless, it is a very important community inside Iraq. We are talking about the period of writing of the constitution, women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, these are factors that need to be considered.
GWEN IFILL: Caryle Murphy, briefly has your reporting or your observations over the years of this community, do you think that the U.S. is prepared for all of these different divisions we have been talking about here?
CARYLE MURPHY: I think that they are not prepared for how difficult it is going to be. The Iraqis are very proud people, not just the Shiites, all Iraqis. And we’ve heard calls for the Americans to leave, not just from the Shiites.
I think the United States has to continually stress what it has up to now, that we are not there to occupy the country forever. We are not there to steal the oil. And I think it really would help the United States’ credibility to get the support and the assistance of the United Nations when it does come time to sit down, call a constituent assembly and ask the Iraqis to draft a new constitution.
GWEN IFILL: All right. Everybody, thank you very much.