Posted by lex, on December 23, 2007
Saddam Hussein permitted no secular alternative to his Ba’ath Party, but could not completely eliminate the power of the mosque, which became the nexus of domestic opposition to his tyranny. Much to the dismay of political secularists, power – especially in the Shi’ite south – coalesced around the only alternative pole remaining after Saddam’s overthrow: The religious hierarchy known collectively as the marjaiya.
Religious parties built sectarian coalitions, almost guaranteeing that political tensions would run along the most sensitive of all possible fault lines. Shocking violence and score settling was not perhaps inevitable, but it was pretty damned likely, especially once the old Iraqi Army – an institution of domestic repression which Saddam had used to keep the lid on simmering tensions – was disbanded.Some of us who watched the resulting governing coalition stumble from corruption to incompetence held out lingering hope that the country was going through a transitional phase. After all, the only prayer for a more or less stable federal Iraq absent the re-imposition of some kind of harsh, winner-take-all absolutism would have to be found in a continuation of the democratic process. While some explored the limits of the Iraqi taste for sectarian bloodshed, others could build the missing institutions of a democracy; a free press, an independent judiciary, security forces bound by the rule of law and alternative social organizations to help create the capital of a participatory social system.
There had been at least one peaceful transition of power from the government of the US-installed interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to the democratically elected coalition of Nouri al-Maliki – the transitions must continue.
Two years after helping to bring to power a government led by Shiite religious parties, Iraq’s paramount Shiite clerics find their influence diminished as their followers criticize them for backing a political alliance that has failed to pass crucial legislation, improve basic services or boost the economy.
“Now the street is blaming what’s happening on the top clerics and the government,” said Ali al-Najafi, the son of Bashir al-Najafi, one of four leading clerics collectively called the marjaiya. Speaking for his father, the white-turbaned Najafi said he wished that the government, all but paralyzed by factionalism and rival visions, was more in touch with ordinary Iraqis…
(People) such as Najaf merchant Abu Mustafa are disillusioned. On a recent night near the Imam Ali shrine, as dozens of soldiers lined Prophet Street frisking the faithful and the curious, he was looking to the future.
“If I am not happy, will I believe in you?” asked Abu Mustafa, who gave only his nickname. “If you split politics from religion, it will succeed,” he added.
“We need to push Iraq toward this,” agreed his friend Muhammad Munim al-Saar.
“Next time, I will not participate in the elections,” Abu Mustafa said. “My belief has been reduced. Why would I go? If I do vote, it will be for the secular parties.”
Iraqi law and culture will continue to revolve around the country’s Islamic identity of course, although it is worthy of remarking in passing that direct involvement in government is antithetical to the Shi’a tradition. Power will still grow out of the barrel of a gun for at least a time, and Moqtada Sadr – more powerful because of his family name really, than any reputation he might have earned as a cleric – can still play a spoiling role, especially in Baghdad. But it seems that at least some among the Iraqi people have realized that dividing their parliament along sectarian lines offers no one any hope of a better life. The next time there is an election we will know if they are sufficient to create a majority.
Which statement, when you think about it in the context of the region, is something of a miracle all by itself.