Iraq Elections


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: As Iraqis this Sunday elect a new parliament, to write a new constitution, a look now at the role of religion in that process.

Fawaz Gerges is professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Welcome.

Dr. FAWAZ GERGES (Professor, International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies, Sarah Lawrence College): Thank you.

ABERNETHY: The Shiite Muslims, 60 percent of the people in Iraq, are widely expected to get a majority in the election — in the new parliament. What will that mean about the role of religion in a new government?

Dr. GERGES: Well, leading Shiite clerics have tried to reassure Iraqis that they will not publicly lead the new Iraqi government. But I believe that Shiite clerics will play a prominent role behind the scenes, as the most powerful cleric, Ali Sistani, has been doing since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, you and others have written that in Iraq, and perhaps all over the Middle East, at the popular level, the street level, people are becoming more religiously conservative — more Islamist. What does that mean?

Dr. GERGES: Well, Islamists are political activists who would like to create a state based on Islamic law. What we are witnessing in Iraq, Bob, is that social space in Iraq is becoming Islamicized by the day. In the last two decades, Iraqi society has become Islamicized from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down.

ABERNETHY: So the combination of what’s going on among the people and the clerics would indicate what for a new government and a new constitution?

Dr. GERGES: Well, even though the new government will not be led by clerics, I believe that writing the new constitution will be much more important than the new government. As you know, Bob, leading Shiite and Sunni clerics were very unhappy, as you know, with the so-called interim constitution written under Paul Bremer. And this is why I believe in the new constitution, Sunni and Shiite clerics will give religion a more prominent role and will try — the constitution will be more conservative, more rigid, and will roll back the rights of women, which gained under the interim constitution.

ABERNETHY: I wanted to ask you about that. Specifically, what would that kind of constitution and government mean for women, for minorities?

Dr. GERGES: Well, it will mean that women will not be able to play a prominent role in public life. It will mean that the educational structure will be more conservative. It will mean less tolerance for dissent and for minorities, including women.

ABERNETHY: And what about Christians in Iraq? There are a few left there. What’s going on with them?

Dr. GERGES: The Christians represent about 3 percent of the population. But what we are witnessing today is a very tragic chapter: exodus of Christians on large scales. Tens of thousands of Christians are fleeing to Jordan, to Syria, to the West because they are being targeted by militant Islamists and Jihadists: Allah Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the militant Jordanian, and Ansar al-Sunna, and others.

ABERNETHY: Time’s up, I’m sorry. Many thanks to Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College.