January 25, 2005

Secular Face


The Los Angeles Times reports today that this weekend's Iraq election is looking up for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Allawi has taken advantage of his incumbency and name recognition, his image as a strongman and his Shiite ethnicity, presenting his slate as a secular alternative to the religious Shiite parties.

The competing Shiite parties have taken notice of Allawi's secular appeal. The New York Times reported yesterday:

With the Shiites on the brink of capturing power here for the first time, their political leaders say they have decided to put a secular face on the new Iraqi government they plan to form, relegating Islam to a supporting role.

The senior leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of mostly Shiite groups that is poised to capture the most votes in the election next Sunday, have agreed that the Iraqi whom they nominate to be the country's next prime minister would be a lay person, not an Islamic cleric. ...

"There will be no turbans in the government," said Adnan Ali, a senior leader of the Dawa Party, one of the largest Shiite parties. "Everyone agrees on that."

This should be great news -- after all, we certainly don't want to replace Saddam's regime with a theocracy. But the article goes on to indicate that the new "secular face" of the Shiite parties may be more political expediency than political enlightenment.

Shiite leaders say their decision to move away from an Islamist government was largely shaped by the presumption that the Iraqi people would reject such a model. But they concede that it also reflects certain political realities -- American officials, who wield vast influence here, would be troubled by an overtly Islamist government. So would the Kurds, who Iraqi and American officials worry might be tempted to break with the Iraqi state.

Can these parties be trusted to truly reject theocracy? Just how Islamist were they before yesterday? Besides the Dawa Party, the United Iraqi Alliance also includes the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Iraq's main Shia political party. This report from The Telegraph raises suspicion about SCIRI's new secular position:

For a party that was set up in Iran in the 1980s to promulgate Islamic revolution in Iraq but now says it upholds secular values, dealing with the changing winds of fortune have become part of a careful political act.

"We want to appeal to the broadest number of Iraqis. We need to build a consensus between parties to rule this country," said Mr Imarah, a 42-year-old educated in Iran. "Only that way will be able to get elected."

Not only does the list containing SCIRI have the largest Shia parties, it also has the approval of the most revered Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Mr Imarah insists that the involvement of Ayatollah Sistani in the election does not undermine the secular platform on which SCIRI and other Shia parties are standing. "We represent a very broad front," he insisted.

However, many outside the Shia south believe SCIRI is only playing with secularism. Once in power the mask will fall away and the party will return to its core set of Islamic beliefs, they say. Many fear that Ayatollah Sistani will be supplanted in the organisation by clerics with closer ties to Iran.

Still other reports indicate that concern about the Shiite parties "playing with secularism" is justified. From a Boston Globe report on campaign posters in Iraq:

...[O]n the streets of Baghdad, politics and religion freely mix in glossy posters and tattered fliers.

"Your support for this list is support for the faithful, national Islamic march," read one poster for the Islamic Dawa Movement. The movement "declares its appreciation of the role of the clerics and the great religious authorities," read another statement.

A poster for the United Iraqi Alliance, the group that has the tacit support of al-Sistani, bears the image of Islam's cubic Kaaba shrine in Mecca, along with that of the Shiite cleric and an Iraqi flag.

"Not participating in the elections means your candidates won't be able to defend your religious and worldly affairs," it read.

But another report in The Boston Globe is even more damning. According to the story, SCIRI and Dawa have worked together before -- to rule the town of Basra after the U.S.-led invasion. The resulting political environment is, to say the least, less than secular.

More than any other city in Iraq, Basra is a living test lab of Islamic rule in Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, two Islamic parties have controlled the provincial government: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party. Both are traditional Islamist parties that fought the Baathist regime from bases in Iran.

When the Baathist ruling class fled Basra after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Islamic parties quickly came to power on a popular wave of belief that religious parties would be less corrupt and power-hungry than secular political parties.

The provincial governor is a veteran of the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who spent years in exile in Iran.

Traditional Islamic values have reshaped the dynamics in Basra, which a decade ago hosted a decadent array of bars, casinos and brothels that attracted visitors from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, where drinking, gambling and prostitution are major crimes.

On the streets now almost no women are visible. Those who venture out are covered head to toe in black.

Basra's liquor stores all closed down last summer when vigilantes began firebombing them.

Openly, the fiercest power struggle is between two kinds of Islamists -- the established exiles in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa versus the young followers of the firebrand cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who are thought to be responsible for the liquor store attacks. [Emphasis added]

President Bush left the door open for the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in Iraq rather than impose a free government. In his inaugural address, Bush reiterated his stance: "Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way." One of those voices is that of terrorist Moktada al-Sadr, the same al-Sadr whose thugs are thought to have firebombed liquor stores in Basra. The same al-Sadr who referred to 9/11 as "miracle from God" and whose militia killed American soldiers in Najaf. The same al-Sadr who has 14 followers running as candidates in the United Iraqi Alliance.

But there are other voices in Iraq. From the above report:

"Don't listen to what people tell you -- look at what they do on the ground," said Anwar Muhammad Ridha al-Jabor, 40, director of Al Nahrain Radio in Basra.

She believes, based on her call-in radio show and polling conducted by her station, that people in the southern provinces are fed up with authoritarian rulers and are not impressed with a year and a half of Islamist rule.

"People just got rid of Saddam," she said. "Now they want to be free, and not be threatened by anyone, including the Islamic groups."

We can only hope that the attitude above wins election day.

Posted by Forkum at January 25, 2005 11:49 PM