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Exiled Iraqi Writer on the History and Future of Iraqi Shiites

Iraqi Shiites’ Role in a Post-Saddam Hussein Iraq

Iraqi Shiites visit the shrine of Imam Hussein
Iraqi women visit the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala (Photo: AFP).

For months now, the Americans have been making no secret of their determination to remove Saddam Hussein from power. This project conceals a major uncertainty for the future of Iraq: Who will take Hussein’s place, if in fact he is “removed?” In this discussion the central issue, the role of Iraq’s Shiites is much too infrequently considered. It is true that people complain, rightly, of the Shiite clergy’s aversion to secular democratic ideals, but even so, the beginnings of a move toward democratization within Iraq’s religious parties deserves support.

Many Iraqi intellectuals of Shiite origin are striving for a peaceful transition from religiously motivated organizations to a democratic collective of modern Islamic parties, similar to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. These are people with a Shiite background, but who do not feel committed to any sect. Their hope is to see a visible shift in the opinions of the current clerical leadership, in view of their interest in political power after thousands of years of political abstinence.

Originally, the term Shiite, which now has theological and political connotations, described a group within Islamic society. They were people who clung fervently to a belief that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was the only legitimate successor to the Prophet. Their loyalty was exclusively to those descended from Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Before this group acquired dogmatic and ideological traits, it was known simply as “Ali’s party.” It not until a hundred years after Ali was killed in 661 that they got the nickname “the Imamites,” used to distinguish them from other newly formed groups which also were centered around Ali as a spiritual leader. All of these groups were united by the idea that the three successors to Muhammad—called caliphs by the Sunni community—were usurpers who had seized power unilaterally for themselves, thus robbing the legitimate successor, Muhammad’s son-in-law, of his rights.

An important historical event for Shiites is the violent death of Ali’s son, Hussein, in the battle of Karbala. His Islamic opponents virtually wiped out the descendants of the Prophet in this battle. The Shiites’ political consciousness was enormously energized by this event: It provided them with the strength they needed to resist injustice. This absolute will to resist makes the Shiite ready to sacrifice everything, including his life. The search for the ideas and theological justifications needed as the foundation for this new and dynamic belief led Shiites to the writings of the Imamites.

The so-called “Four Books,” composed of roughly 400 tractates, are the theoretical basis for Shiite belief [in addition to the Quran and the Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad]. They are, however, familiar only to people within limited religious circles. Shia, as it is widely practiced, has always been a popular faith, and it continues to be so today—a tradition full of martyrs and heroic deeds. Despite this, the members of this almost mystical tradition, with its chiliastic teachings of the return of the hidden Imam, have been on the enemies lists of the Umayyads in Damascus, the Abbasids of Baghdad, and the Ottomans of the Sublime Porte [the building housing the main administrative branches of the Ottoman Empire]. What saved them from extermination was their ability to lay a veil of silence over their beliefs and their real goals.

The Shiites first began to recover some lost ground when Ismail I, the shah of Persia, established Shia as the state religion in 1501. He did so to provide religious legitimacy for his struggle with the Sunni Ottoman empire. For centuries after this, Iraq became the setting for bitter fighting between the Shiite Safavid Empire and the Ottomans.

For a long time the quietist strain within Shia was dominant, for reasons of power politics. Even so, Shiites did involve themselves in government affairs now and again, and occasionally exhibited a flair for missionary work. This interest, and the emotional depiction of the tragedy of Karbala, as told by nomadic preachers and reciters, helped them to gain considerable influence in Iraq.

The residence of the highest Shiite religious authority, the Margi, or final court of appeal theologically, providing the faithful with guidance, has been, with few exceptions, in Iraq. One of the measures taken by this body has been the historically and symbolically important fatwa, a judicial ban from the top of Shia. In 1890 Hasan as-Shirazi issued a fatwa when a British company was granted an monopoly on the sale of tobacco. As-Shirazi forbade the smoking of tobacco. He thereby forced the shah at the time to rescind the tobacco agreement. And the Shiite clergy’s active role in the fight against British occupation during the Iraqi revolution of 1920 also gave them a patriotic aura.

This revolution marked a turning point for modern Shiite history in Iraq. The population of southern Iraq and Shiite spiritual leaders were definitely active in the revolution and the naming of an Arab king, but they were then expressly shut out of political power. The British looked upon them with mistrust from the beginning. From the time the Iraqi state came into existence in 1921 until the end of the monarchy in 1958, there were 30 prime ministers; 25 of them were Sunni. Shiites were allowed to lead the government only when it needed to carry out some unpleasant and unpopular task—the notorious 1948 Treaty of Portsmouth, for example [an Anglo-Iraqi pact that proved so unpopular in the streets of Baghdad that the Iraqi authorities were forced to abrogate the agreement only seven days after its signing—WPR]. At the same time, every census and population estimate showed that the Shiites made up between 55 and 65 percent of the Iraqi population as a whole—and as much as 98 percent of the population in the South. A constant campaign of defamation has been waged against the Shiites from the time of the Iraqi Revolution in 1920, right up to the present day, based on the principle of “divide and conquer.” During the time Britain was the colonial power, it helped with this campaign, which has always sought to divide the Shiites from the Arab world and label them as part of the Persian “national project.”

The general line of Baathist ideology [That is, the ideology of Iraq’s ruling socialist Baath Party] has always been that “the Shiites are all Persians,” which represents a popular prejudice. This is a completely nationalistic ploy, and does not refer to the “real Persians” at all, since they may be Sunnis or even Christians. Iraqi Kurds, if they are Shiites, often look to Iran. For decades, the propaganda machinery of the Iraqi state has worked at top volume and ignored any objectivity. For a long time, it has used the term Shiite to tar all those who ran afoul of the regime. In reality, being a Shiite has become more a matter of cultural identity over time. Of course this distorted picture of Iraqi reality has been employed as an effective political weapon to not just harass the majority of the Iraqi population, to persecute, and starve them, but also to destroy their culture, their environment, and their holy places.

General silence about this fact has made it possible for Saddam’s regime to carry out a genocidal campaign against the majority of the Iraqi population. In the Western media one reads again and again that Iraq would fall to pieces if Saddam’s regime were to fall. But the reality is otherwise. Iraq has already fallen apart. When new borders are drawn, concessions will be made, voluntarily or not, to its neighbors.

It is true that Shiite religious issued many decrees that expressly forbid Shiites from taking any government positions, because they would then be serving a foreign occupying power. But this position has changed since the dissolution of the monarchy in 1958. The military-dictatorial power apparatus in Iraq has always moved to prevent any such voices being raised as part of a social-cultural movement. When necessary, it has also brutally attacked the Shiite leadership. Saddam Hussein, for instance, had 17 relatives of the late Muhsin al-Hakim, the Margi of the Shiite community, killed.

All of those who continue to provide leadership to the faithful are subject to reprisals. One of the most recent victims was Mohammed Sadiq as-Sadr, who was named by Saddam’s own government as the head of the community. But when he gained influence, he was murdered. His successor, Ali as-Sistani, who is tolerated by the regime, was recently called in by the security forces in the city of Najaf and interrogated for an entire day—because he had used his own financial resources to buy power generators to illuminate the Shrine of Ali.

The armed branch of the Shiite opposition, which has support from Iran’s spiritual leader Khamenei and his associates, has about 30,000 guerrillas. They are more or less well armed, and tested in battle—and, above all, highly motivated. They have been given the same promises repeatedly: Saddam’s regime will soon fall, and you will be there in its place. Both the United States and Great Britain and their allies in the Arab world have taken this into account and have consulted the Shiite leadership about the future of the country.

A first step, from the civil and secular point of view, was the last meeting of the “Islamic Council,” held some time back in Tehran. Its final communiqué announced that the task of political changes could be carried out only in agreement with the other forces in the Iraqi population—without exception. The principle of “equality of opportunities” was mentioned in relation to a takeover of political power, which, the council decided, should be carried out through free elections. All sides involved in Iraq’s international treaties must be respected, and all existing borders recognized.

Hussein Al-Mozany was born in 1954 in Amarah, in southern Iraq, and grew up in Baghdad. He is now a journalist and translator in Cologne, Germany.