September 29, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 190

Islamist Pressures in Iraq

September 29, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 190

For most of the twentieth century Iraq was ruled by secular governments. This is understandable, considering Iraq's diverse religious, tribal, and ethnic composition. Saddam Hussein, in keeping with the secular pan-Arabism of his ruling Ba'th Party, had maintained the secular nature of his regime until the year 2000, when he launched his "faith campaign," reflected in the construction of mosques and the prefacing of his speeches with verses from the Koran. [1] However, there is every reason to believe that Saddam's newfound religiosity was not deeply rooted, but was rather instrumental in nature.

The Rise of Islamist Movements

With the removal of Saddam's regime in April 2003, an unprecedented measure of freedom was introduced into the country. Indeed, perhaps never in the course of an ongoing military conflict have so many freedoms - whether freedom of the press, freedom of association and political organization, or freedom of trade - been introduced. Seizing upon these freedoms, Islamist movements have arisen in various parts of the country, particularly among the Shi'ite majority in the south and some elements of the Sunni majority in the so-called "Sunni triangle," in the north-northwest of Iraq. For the Shi'ites, the demise of Saddam brought an end to oppression and an opportunity to gain political power denied them since the days of the Ottoman Empire. For the Sunni Arabs, the fall of the Ba'th regime has meant the loss of what had been near-total political power and has inflamed a desire to regain that power by any means. The Kurds (most of whom are Sunnis but who are not Arabs) have been able to isolate themselves from Islamist pressures.

Islamic militancy in Iraq, be it Sunni Islamism or Shi'ite extremism, has manifested itself in different ways. Muqtada Al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" operates among the Shi'a of Iraq. [2] The Jordanian-born Abu Musa'ab Al-Zarqawi's "Al-Tawheed wa-Al-Jihad " (Monotheism and Jihad), a group affiliated with Al-Qa'ida, operates among the Sunnis. This group, like the Saudi Wahhabis, is vehemently anti-Shi'a.

Apart from these organized groups, there are vigilante or ad hoc Islamist groups, including members of the Mahdi Army operating on their own initiative, who use threats and intimidation to force an Islamist way of life on secular elements of society, as well as Mujahideen from other fronts of Jihad that are coming into Iraq, seeing it as a center for regrouping and activity.

Implications of Islamist Pressures

There are growing signs that Islamic extremism threatens to turn Iraq, or at least parts of it, into a repressive theocracy reminiscent of regimes such as those prevailing in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even the defunct Taliban regime of Afghanistan. If this were to occur, the result would be a regime in which self-appointed religious clerics would introduce a form of religiously-sanctioned repression in place of the old secular ideology.

The denial of personal freedoms associated with a religiously-sanctioned regime would frustrate the hope of the majority of Iraqis for a democratic form of government, and would also result in another mass exodus of Iraqi intellectuals and educated men and women. This would further deprive the country of the experts needed to rebuild a shattered economy and collapsing infrastructure.

Further, the Kurdish region, which is determined to keep its secular political culture and democratic institutions, would most probably reject an Islamist ideology and, if forced into a theocratic dictatorship, would probably secede. This would mean the break-up of Iraq as it is known today.

The state of lawlessness that accompanied the removal of Saddam's regime and the inability of the central authority in Iraq to enforce the law in many parts of the country has created a volatile situation. Various groups of thugs and vigilantes have exploited these circumstances to terrorize the largely secular educated elite into submission to rules of religious orthodoxy and Islamist norms akin to Saudi Wahhabism and alien to the historical Iraqi reality of ethnic and religious coexistence. An Iraqi writer, Nabil Yunis Damman, put it in these words: "We do not wish to emerge from the cloak of fanatic nationalism only to enter into the cloak of religious extremism." [3]

Although the Iraqi press is enjoying considerable freedom, it is rare to find in the local press criticism of religion or religious institutions. Indeed, in the words of Iraqi poet Khaz'al Al-Majedi, "Freedom of expression is still missing in Iraq. I can write anything I want about the government, but should I criticize some political parties, or religion, my life would be in danger." [4]

It is noteworthy that the goal of the Islamists is not confined to the imposition of Shari'a (Islamic law) as a way of life and governance in Iraq, but rather aims at "the overthrow of neighboring regimes and the liberation of Jerusalem," in the words of an associate of the Jordanian-born Islamist terrorist Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi. [5]

The Islamic Republic of Fallujah

Fallujah, located approximately 40 miles west-southwest of Baghdad in north-central Iraq, is the heart of the Sunni triangle. It was one of the Iraqi cities loyal to Saddam, as many of its men were involved in the regime's military and intelligence services. Fallujah is in the Governorate of Al-Anbar, the largest governorate in Iraq, extending over one third of Iraqi territory. This governorate has common borders with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and has always been subject to Islamist influences from across the border, as well as having served as a key site for smuggling with the three neighboring countries. It is noteworthy that Fallujah has the largest number of mosques per capita of all Iraqi cities. [6]

The city is currently ruled by the "mujahideen" (Jihad warriors), whose ranks are drawn both from the local populace and from Islamists from other countries. One Sheikh Abdallah Al-Janabi, an Islamist Sunni cleric, following the model of Mullah Omar of the Taliban, appointed himself Emir (military-religious leader), and declared Fallujah an Islamic republic founded on the Shar'ia. [7] When a reporter from the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat inquired about the identity of these mujahideen, the answer was anyone who is "masked" (mulatham) and carries a weapon. In other words, the face hidden behind the mask may be that of a thug or a criminal, rather than someone seeking martyrdom. Apart from their so-called resistance activities, these mujahideen enforce the shari'a in the city, often by mockingly displaying the violators in the beds of open trucks and subjecting them to public flogging amidst public fanfare and celebration. The sale of liquor is strictly forbidden and the movie theaters have been closed down. Non-Islamic CDs and videos are often treated as lewd material, and destroyed. Summary executions are not uncommon if the victim is suspected of being a spy. The method of execution, by the bullet or by the sword, is determined by the cleric who issues the judgment. [8]

Backed by the religious establishment in the city, the mujahideen issue various orders that curb political and personal freedoms. In the so-called "Islamic Republic of Fallujah" political parties and political associations are forbidden, barbers have to cut their clients' hair according to Islamic norms and are prohibited from trimming their beards, beauty salons for women have been closed down, and playing card games or even dominoes in coffee shops is forbidden. Public flogging is common for violating any of these restrictions or prohibitions. [9] One observer pointed out that in Fallujah there is no distinction between religion and politics: "The former is an extension of the latter," he points out, "and the latter feeds the former." [10]

Basra - the Islamic State of Southern Iraq

Basra is the second largest city in Iraq, and in the past was the country's main port of entry. However, the Iran-Iraq war left the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway so clogged with sunken ships that the river is no longer navigable for ocean-faring vessels. Basra's population is predominantly Shi'ite, and many of them have familial relationships with Iranians across the river. But only recently has Basra become a bastion of Shi'ite extremism, mirroring cities in Iran. According to one recent visitor to her native Basra, women are no longer free to appear in public without a veil covering their faces. [11] Liquor stores have been burned and their Christian owners have been killed.

In Hilla, a city 228 miles south of Baghdad, elements of the Mahdi Army raided the homes and stores of those suspected of owning alcoholic beverages, destroyed any liquor found, and arrested 20 shopkeepers. According to Kadhem Al-Zubaidi, head of information in Al-Sadr's office, the raids were carried out to enforce the rules of the Shari'a, not state laws. [12]

In the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf,the resting place of Imam Ali, shortly after the Mahdi Army surrendered the Ali Shrine to the representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, police found a mass grave with 200 bodies of men, women, and even children, who were tortured and killed at the order of the Shari'a court established by Muqtada Al-Sadr during his control of Najaf for allegedly cooperating with the occupation forces or for refusing to obey the orders of the Mahdi Army. [13] Similar Shari'a courts established by Muqtada Al-Sadr operate in the Al-Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad.

The Veiling of Women

As early as the 1940s and 1950s, this author observed young women walking to their high school in the largely Shi'ite city of Basra without a veil. At most, women wore a black cloak as a sign of modesty. A well-known Arab writer has told the author that on visiting Baghdad in the 1980s she noticed the disappearance of the veil among Iraqi women. "It was uncommon," she said, "to see a student, an employee, or a housewife veiled."

These days, an unveiled woman on the streets of most Iraqi cities runs the risk of being harassed, if not worse. One unveiled student at the University of Basra, who is not Muslim, had her clothes torn off in public. [14] Any contact between male and female students is now taboo. Today, even young girls must go to school veiled. In Al-Sadr City religious vigilantes have not hesitated from hitting women with sticks if they appeared in public in immodest dress. [15]

The veiling of women is only one aspect of what an observer described as "the culture of religious prohibitions" (thaqafat al-tahreem). [16] Armed youth pounce on any manifestation they deem contrary to Shari'a. Examples abound. Stores that sell music that is deemed secular are first warned that they must sell the chanting of the Koran and religious sermons instead. Failure to comply results in the stores' being forcibly closed, or even burned down. Calling from the pulpits during their Friday sermons, many preachers restrict people from reading liberal newspapers, and they threaten to blow up restaurants that serve alcohol or allow the mixing of the sexes. At the universities, female students are forced to wear a veil, and those who do not risk being harassed or even assaulted. In government offices run by ministers from religious parties, female employees are required to adhere to the official veil or lose their jobs. Men are required to grow beards. [17]

Violence against Christians

Christians have now become the target of Islamist violence, forcing many of them to seek safe haven outside of Iraq. [18] The violence started with the burning of liquor stores and, sometimes, the murder of the stores' Christian owners. It escalated into the bombing of Christian churches. According to one estimate, half a million Iraqi Christians have left their country because of the violence in addition to other lesser forms of harassment and discrimination by Islamist groups. [19]

Factors Countering the Process of Islamicization

Against these disturbing developments that threaten to lead to Islamist cultural and political dominance, there are countervailing factors that may help arrest the process or even reverse it.

The most significant of these factors is the role of the Marja'iya (the Shi'ite supreme religious authority), which resides in the holy city of Najaf under the most senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Al-Sistani has proved to be a bulwark against extremist Shi'ite trends in Iraq. His achievements are enormous. He has defused the conflict with the Mahdi Army and has forced it and its leader to seek an outlet for their grievances through the political process. Al-Sadr is sounding less and less belligerent and more and more political. But perhaps Al-Sistani's largest contribution to the stabilization of Iraq is his refusal to issue a Fatwa calling for Jihad against the multinational forces.

Associates close to Al-Sistani maintain that he may seek to influence politics, as he did in his demand for the election of a representative government, but that the line separating between such activities and direct participation in politics is one that he has no intention of crossing. It is not surprising that Al-Sistani has repeatedly rejected Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of "the rule of the cleric" (wilayat al-faqih). [20]

Al-Sistani played a key role in negotiating a cease-fire agreement with Muqtada Al-Sadr in August of this year, which resulted in Al-Sadr surrendering control over the Imam Ali Shrine to Al-Sistani's people, the dismantling of the Shari'a court, and the lifting of the repressive restrictions imposed by Al-Mahdi Army upon the people of Najaf. It was a clear message of moderation and tolerance toward the Shi'ite community in southern Iraq. [21] The fact that Iraqi police and national guards, aided by the multinational forces, were able to combat the Al-Mahdi Army in the narrow streets of Najaf leading up to the Imam Ali Shrine with hardly a whimper from the Iraqi Shi'ites is a clear indication that their personal antennas are more receptive to Al-Sistani's mature judgment than to Al-Sadr's bombastic threats. This a good omen, indeed. [22]

Moreover, unlike the Ayatollahs of Iran who have blurred the distinction between politics and religion, the Iraqi Marja'iya has indicated that the role of the religious leaders is to advise the political authorities and not to replace them.

If the Shi'ites in the south can be calmed, as appears to be the case, it is possible that a coalition could conceivably emerge between the Shi'ites and the Kurds, both of whom were victims of Saddam and his Sunni minority. Such a coalition could help contain the conflict and reduce its scope to the relatively small Sunni triangle, which would then find itself boxed in from the north and the south by the two groups, both of whom have a long account to settle with the resistance leaders from among Saddam's supporters.

The multi-national forces, aided by the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, have mounted a campaign to inflict heavy losses on the pockets of resistance in the Sunni triangle. The oft-repeated statement by Dr. Allawi that his government will fight the terrorists "from house to house" is testimony to his awareness that victory in the Sunni triangle is indispensable if Iraq is to succeed in rebuilding itself and maintaining its territorial and political integrity.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] As part of his "faith campaign," Saddam Hussein announced that women should return from the work place to their homes under the pretext that women "spend on make-up and clothing more than they earn at work." Al-Hayat (London), September 13, 2003.

[2] Nimrod Raphaeli, "What Does Muqtada Al-Sadr Represent?" Middle East Quarterly (forthcoming).

[3] Al-Zaman (Iraq), January 27, 2004.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 30, 2004.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), September 10, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), November 10, 2003.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2004.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 6, 2004, and Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2004.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), April 19, 2004.

[11] Conversation with the author, July 12, 2004.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 20, 2004.

[13] Al-Zaman (Iraq), September 12, 2004.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 4, 2004.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), August 31, 2004.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), August 31, 2004.

[17] Al-Hayat (London), August 31, 2004.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2004.

[19] Al-Zaman (Iraq), September 14, 2004.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 19, 2004.

[21] Al-Sadr's supporters refer to him both as "Sayyid," which means a descendent from the house of Prophet Muhammad, as well as "Hujjatul-Islam." It should, however, be noted that the title "Hujjatul-Islam" is a relatively minor religious rank and of much lesser prestige than "Ayatollah." There is no evidence that Al-Sadr attended any of the religious seminaries in Najaf or that he has the credentials of a Muslim cleric. Ayatollah Al-Sistani has denied Al-Sadr's right to issue Fatwa s because he lacks such credentials.

[22] It is not surprising that a recent interview on Iraq at the New York Times was titled: "Praying for Sistani's Good Health." New York Times, August 22, 2004.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.