Shia confusion

Is Islamic fundamentalism taking over Iraq?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Is Iraq becoming the new Iran? As protesters in Baghdad say ‘No to America, no to Saddam, yes to Islam’, while Shia clerics in southern Iraq demand hardcore Sharia law, some in the coalition are worried that Iraq is going the way of its neighbouring state – towards Islamic rule.

A reported one million Shia Muslims have descended on the holy city of Karbala in the south, to take part in a religious ceremony that had been restricted under Saddam Hussein’s secular rule. According to one report, this million-Muslim march was a case of Shias ‘vot[ing] with their feet for Islamic rule’ (1). The Times of London says that such scenes are causing ‘growing concern in Western capitals’ (2).

Is postwar Iraq really on the verge of an Islamic uprising? There certainly seems to be some religious fervour among sections of the majority Shia Muslim population, who were repressed for so long by Saddam’s regime. Shias had an especially hard time in the post-Gulf War 1990s, when they were encouraged by allied forces to rise up against Saddam before being abandoned to their fate. If any Iraqis are likely to get excited about Saddam’s downfall, it will be the Shias.

Yet today’s Shia rumblings look less like a mass movement for an Islamic government, than a consequence of a war that destroyed Iraq’s system of government without replacing it with a legitimate alternative. The war laid to waste the bodies that ruled Iraq for the past 30 years, leaving mosques as pretty much the only institutions with any semblance of authority. Shia clerics appear to be in the ascendant more by default than as a result of a burgeoning Islamic revolution.

The widespread sense among politicians and commentators that Iraq is veering towards intolerant Islamism is a projection of Western fears about Iraq – not only about the postwar mess, but about the war itself and its consequences. Coalition leaders’ Islamo-worries reveal a deeper insecurity about their action in Iraq.

For all the headlines about Iraq’s Islamic timebomb, there are clashing interpretations of recent events. A British official says ‘there is real concern’ about Iraq going off the rails: ‘There was a feeling that the Shia were more secular than those in Iran. Now we are not so sure.’ (3) Yet according to some Washington officials, the Shia demonstrations are merely an ‘expression of post-Saddam fervour, rather than evidence of an overwhelming political force for theocracy’ (4).

Others claim that Iraq’s clerics are being encouraged by Iranian forces, rather than speaking for a homegrown mass movement for Islamic rule – and that the Islamic fervour may die down as the Iranian influence lessens. According to one report: ‘Ties between the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the more hardline groups, and Iran will loosen as Iraq’s new government emerges, reducing the influence of Tehran’s conservatives on Iraqi politics.’ (5) And for all the talk of the spectre of Iran haunting Iraq, even Iran is not the hotbed of intolerant Islamism it once was. Islamic fundamentalism is largely past its peak as a powerful force for social change in Iran, and across the Muslim world.

There are claims of ‘huge numbers’ in Iraq demanding Islamic rule. Yet there were about 2000 protesters on the Baghdad march that said no to America and yes to Islam, compared with up to one million on the pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala. While the Baghdad protest was organised and political, the pilgrimage to Karbala was…well, a pilgrimage.

It is Western commentators who have interpreted the Islamic rumblings, including pilgrimages, as a new political movement. When one million Shias visited Karbala, one newspaper described it as ‘a profoundly political occasion’, where ‘hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims expressed their newfound political power on the streets of Iraq’ (6). Another report argued that ‘no party conference or statement of policy could spell out more clearly the wishes of these people: for an Islamic democracy…’ (7). But there is no party conference or statement of policy – rather there are disparate Shia groups asserting some authority in a destroyed, vacuous state.

The recent events in Iraq are a knock-on effect of the coalition’s invasion. Shia clerics and leaders are moving into the vacuum left by the war. Amid the rubble of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party regime, the mosques are the only remaining institutions with any kind of connection to, or legitimacy among, ordinary Iraqis. It is largely in the absence of anything else that Shias are rising to the fore. Who else was going to do it? Ahmed Chalabi, America’s Washington-educated goon, who left Iraq 45 years ago and returned last week to boos and death threats?

Iraq 2003 is not Iran 1979. Rather, the concern among British and American officials that Iraq is heading towards an Islamic nightmare reveals their own fear and loathing over Iraq. Having destroyed Saddam’s regime, the coalition now frets about the consequences of its actions.

Some of the concerns about postwar Iraq reflect textbook Western fears about the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism. Amid scenes of men cutting their faces with swords and children beating their chests, one report described the pilgrimage to Karbala as ‘an extraordinary spectacle, medieval in scale’. Another said that any Shia threats of violence should be taken seriously, as ‘martyrdom is an integral part of Shia culture…In the 1980s Shia militants used suicide bombings’ (8). Many seem to see in postwar Iraq a lethal concoction of ancient weirdness and modern terror – their own fears projected on to the unfolding events.

But what did coalition leaders expect to happen in postwar Iraq? White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has reprimanded the more outspoken Shia clerics, arguing that the new Iraqi state ‘has to be in accordance with…principles of democratic freedom and tolerance’ (9). In short, postwar Iraq was supposed to turn out more like the leafy political suburbs of north-east USA than the feverish Islamic deserts of southern Iraq – more Third Way than Shia way. What could possibly have gone wrong…?

The coalition’s views of postwar Iraq as a dangerous, unpredictable and alien state are becoming more widespread. Currently, the Pentagon and the State Department are at loggerheads over who is to blame for the postwar mess. One State Department official says that America is ‘ill-equipped to figure out how this is going to shake out. I don’t think anyone took a step backward and asked, “What are we looking for?”.’ (10) Washington officials now profess to being ‘unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government’ (11).

It isn’t only Shia Muslims visiting Karbala who are partaking in a bit of self-flagellation. Having launched a war to ‘liberate’ the people of Iraq, coalition leaders now throw their hands up in despair at the result of their actions. Before long, insecure coalition officials may even end up missing the old Ba’ath Party crowd.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) One million Shias vote with their feet for Islamic rule, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 22 April 2003

(2) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(3) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(4) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(5) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(6) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(7) One million Shias vote with their feet for Islamic rule, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 22 April 2003

(8) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(9) Show of Shia power unnerves the allies, Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times (London), 23 April 2003

(10) US ‘ill-prepared’ to cope with rising Shi’ite power, Scotsman, 24 April 2003

(11) US planners surprised by strength of Iraqi Shi’ites, Glenn Kessler and Dana Priest, Washington Post, 23 April 2003

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