Jewish World Review April 22, 2003 / 20 Nisan, 5763

David Warren

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The test | The Iraq that is emerging in the post-war will be an extremely confusing place for some time to come. Yesterday, Jay Garner, the American who heads the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, landed in Baghdad among the first of many hundred ORHA officials. Asked what his greatest challenge would be, he said: "Everything is the challenge."

A remarkably calm, folksy, understated man, Lt. Gen. Garner (Ret.) would not have been kidding. Repairing infrastructure (including the large south Baghdad electrical plant that was more effectively sabotaged than first reports indicated -- U.S. and Iraqi engineers have been working on it day and night) will be the least of his problems. The central task of Iraqi reconstruction is political -- to create a viable civil order in the face of decades of savage tyranny, and the kind of pent-up social forces that were exposed in e.g. former Yugoslavia when Communism fell.

On the plus side, the Bush administration has learned much by studying what went wrong in places like former Yugoslavia. On the minus side, the challenge of Shia Islamism may make Balkan troubles seem like flies at a picnic.

For today, and tomorrow, a massive pilgrimage has gathered at Karbala, one of Iraq's two Shia holy cities. The masses of the devout, who have been arriving mostly on foot from every Shia district in the country, and could number much more than a million, have come, beating their chests in the drumroll of "lutm", to commemorate the climax, the 40th and final day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussein, the 7th-century grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died fighting to wrest the Islamic succession from the Umayyad caliphs. (His head was carried away on a pike.)

This is the ancestral factional split between Shia and Sunni Islam. The Shia persisted in allegiance to the family of the Prophet, through Imam Ali, the father of Hussein, who had married Fatima, daughter of Muhammad by the first of his many wives. Hussein and his brother fell at that battle of Karbala in our year 680; Imam Ali is buried at Najaf. And these two crumbling cities, Karbala and Najaf, are the two most holy places of Shia Islam -- more holy than Qom, the centre of Shia learning in Iran. Najaf contains the Hawza -- the world centre of Shia scholarship and doctrinal discussion, founded 13 centuries ago but much reduced by Saddam. It was where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian revolutionist, was educated -- in Sharia law and Aristotelian logic, as well as in theology.

The distinction in principle between church and state, between religion and politics, that has always existed in some form in Christianity and therefore in the West, has never existed in Islam. Religious manifestations in Islam are in their nature also political manifestations. Westerners struggle to grasp, or else entirely overlook, a worldview that is fundamentally different from our own. It is a vision of society in which such concepts as the nation, its state, an independent judiciary, "civil society", and the aloofness from politics of religious leaders, are inconceivable -- except as unIslamic imports from the formerly Christian West. These are the concepts now at issue in Iraq.

For Karbala and Najaf were also the twin epicentres of the extraordinary uprising against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991. It was, typically, both a religious and political uprising -- against both religious and political oppression.

President Bush the Elder, who could only imagine the secular issue of Saddam 's tyranny, called for that uprising, without being prepared to support it. His government then watched, as Saddam used the helicopters and other military equipment that the U.S. and U.N. had failed to refuse him, to massacre perhaps 100,000 of the Shia in the course of putting down the uprising. President Bush the Younger inherits the resentment against the U.S. that comes from his father's catastrophic moral failure to put his money where his mouth was. To this day, it gives the Shia reason to doubt any American promise.

It is only as a result of the liberation of Iraq by U.S. and allied troops that the pilgrimage to Karbala has resumed this year, on an immense scale. Saddam was prepared to use brute force to keep most of the pilgrims away, year after year -- from his very fear of the political consequences of such a mass Islamic gathering. The main Shia mosques and shrines were demolished by Saddam's Republican Guard in 1991, in the course of suppressing the uprising, then quickly rebuilt after. Uncooperative Shia imams were systematically exterminated.

But Saddam understood the religious dimension of the conflict. Descent from the Prophet was one among the more improbable claims Saddam made, filling even the rebuilt mosques with portraits of himself, in defiance of Muslim injunctions against the portrayal of any living figure in religious art. He attempted, chiefly by using oil money to co-opt tribal leaders against the traditional Shia leadership in the towns, to control Iraq's Shia Islam from within. He appointed secret police officers as Muslim clerics, filled their retinues with informers, and reached accommodations with all those remaining outside his Ba'athist Party who also wished to remain alive. Outward expressions of traditional Shia faith were ruthlessly suppressed, on a scale beyond even what had been attempted before 1991, and replaced by a superficially Shia-decorated Saddam worship. Thus sincere believers were driven underground. Thus the great hunger for the outward observances, that they are finally enjoying today.

Now Saddam is gone, and power resides temporarily with the U.S. and allies occupying the country -- "Christians" in a word; aliens. And the Shia vividly realize they make up three-fifths of Iraq's population.

"Democracy" to many of them means "Islamic democracy" -- i.e. rule by the tribe or other group that through its numbers or its access to weapons is in a position to control the others. For the mullahs now taking control of towns and villages, from Baghdad to Basra -- many carrying the psychological scars of their collaboration with Saddam -- are not likely to be contemplating any sort of power sharing with the displaced Sunni Arabs whose symbol was Saddam; nor with Kurdish, nor Turkomen, nor Assyrian Christian "infidels". They were ruled by a minority and now they intend to rule the minorities.

The rhetoric of the demagogues arriving from the Iranian-sponsored SCIRI -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- is deliciously attractive to them. The alternative of Western-style, constitutional democracy, with strict separation of mosque and state, must seem a joke -- something designed for some other culture.

The Shia underground is resurfacing, and in many places joining forces with SCIRI agents leaching into the country -- who were, after all, exiled Iraqis, not Persians. (The SCIRI leaders tend, as the Iranian fanatics of 1978-79, to be physical cowards. They send their minions first to stir up the crowds, as the Khomeinists did from France and elsewhere, but will not enter the country themselves until they think it is safe to do so. Whereas the "pro-Western-style democracy" leadership of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress has been on the ground in Iraq for weeks, and has already lost one of its own Shia leaders to assassination.)

While SCIRI ardently promised the allies that they would participate fully in the American-led reconstruction effort, and accept power-sharing under the umbrella of Mr. Chalabi's INC, they lied. First they refused to participate in the initial U.S.-organized meeting of diverse Iraqi interests in Nasiriyah last week. Now it is clear they were plotting from the beginning to foment another Shia uprising, not before but after the Americans had taken out Saddam. Their intention is to test U.S. resolve, and if it fails, to achieve a theocratic state, on the Iranian model. They are going about it in precisely the way Ayatollah Khomeini went about it.

Within Shia Islam in Iraq, we have a tale of two clerics. Sayyid Muqtada Sadr, age 30, is the survivor of the leading pre-Saddam Shia clerical family in Najaf, the man wearing the black turban to signify his descent from the Prophet through Imam Ali, who has spent most of his short life in books. He is politically confused and na´ve, but extremely visible owing to his pre-eminent claim of legitimacy, and local Shia leaders across Iraq will be looking to him for guidance.

The more effective leader is, however, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf' s Hawza -- a man who is the opposite of politically na´ve, who made his own accommodations with Saddam for personal survival. He instructed the masses neither to help nor hinder the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but to wait until later. Notwithstanding, the U.S. troops were greeted with fairly wild enthusiasm, and given a great deal of help, along the corridor from Kuwait to Baghdad. Ayatollah Sistani is now making incendiary proclamations against the U.S. occupation. Today and tomorrow in Karbala he and his people will be preaching "Jihad".

President Bush has stated that the U.S. is determined to change the course of history in the Middle East, by creating a real democracy in Iraq. It follows that he will do what is necessary to prevent the country becoming another Islamist theocratic madhouse. This is his first big test.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

04/16/02: By way of Syria
04/14/02: The future is now
04/10/02: The new day
04/08/02: Bagpipes in Baghdad
03/31/02: Behind
03/28/02: The triple war
03/26/02: Shields & lances
03/24/02: Shock & awe
03/21/02: To Baghdad!
03/19/02: Hostage crisis
03/17/02: Bush, the "UN's cowboy," is really the "un cowboy" --- a softie
03/17/02: United? Nations?
03/12/02: Blair goes wobbly
03/10/02: Ready aye ready
03/06/02: Logic of war
02/10/02: Play up, play up
01/30/02: No ambiguity
12/05/02: A farce
11/13/02: A game of chess
10/30/02: Material breach
10/21/02: Armed & dangerous
09/11/02: The enemy within
08/21/02: Bush v. world
08/06/02: Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'?
07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

© 2002, Ottawa Citizen