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US Failure Helps Revive the Old Pan-Islamic Project

Iraq: all together against the occupation

JUAN COLE / Le Monde diplomatique (France) 10may04

Washington never predicted, even never seemed to consider that the most successful way to revive Iraqi nationalism, and beyond that Arab nationalism, was to occupy the country and treat it contemptuously and rapaciously: this has created unexpected alliances between enemies. by Juan Cole

THE Iraqi rebellion in April signals the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism and perhaps even of Arab nationalism, as an important factor in the post-Ba’ath period. The discredited Ba’ath party had trumpeted a nationalism that was both local and regional: it glorified Iraq’s civilisation through history and claimed the heritage of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. Baghdad under Saddam also attempted to displace Cairo as the main champion of the interests of the Arab world. But because the Ba’ath was so odious, many Iraqis reacted against these glib expressions of nationalism.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein the Palestinians, whom Saddam had sheltered in Iraq as symbols of Arab unity, became objects of suspicion and resentment. Pan-Arabism fell from favour and pan-Arab media like al-Jazeera were criticised by Iraqi politicians for being soft on Saddam. Iraqis condemned the Sunni-dominated Arab League for its expressions of concern about the rising power of the Shia and Kurds in Iraq.

Radical religious movements among the Shia seemed to owe more in their ideology to Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini than to any Iraqi thinker. The preeminent Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is himself Iranian. Sunni Arabs were open to Arab nationalist currents and fundamentalist movements coming from Jordan. But this spring’s uprisings in Falluja, a Sunni stronghold, and throughout the Shia south show how the United States-led occupation may be encouraging the re-emergence of a nationalism that transcends sectarian divisions. The rebellion in Falluja appears to have been sparked by the Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, on 22 March. In retaliation a local Islamist group named after Yassin killed four private security guards, who had once been US Navy Seals, and townspeople desecrated their bodies. The US Marines retaliated by surrounding and besieging the city, using heavy firepower and causing many civilian deaths. Al-Jazeera and al- Arabiya television correspondents provided images of the siege of Falluja that provoked indignation throughout Iraq and the Muslim world.

The Salafi revival in Falluja happened because the trucking trade from Jordan passed through the city on the way to Baghdad. A form of literalist Sunni political Islam had become popular in the small cities of Jordan, such as Maan and Zarqa (home of the famed terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), and this spread to western Iraq. Towards the end the Ba’ath party had removed some restrictions from these religious movements, now seen as potential allies against the US.

At the same time, the US decided to go after the young Shia radical, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose newspaper, Al Hawzah, had also been stirring up anti-Israel and anti-US feeling after Sheikh Yassin’s assassination. They closed the newspaper and on 3 April issued 28 arrest warrants for his associates. Convinced that the US was coming for him, al-Sadr launched an insurrection in Kufa, Najaf, East Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Kut and Basra, where his followers formed militias.

Moqtada al-Sadr, though he seeks an Iran-style Islamic republic, also invokes Iraqi patriotism. He has complained bitterly about Iranian dominance insisting that Iraq’s Shia must be led by an Iraqi. His stance directly contradicts the claims of Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, to be the highest legal and spiritual authority for Shia everywhere. Moqtada’s movement was begun by his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whom the Ba’ath party had assassinated in 1999. Sadiq al-Sadr had promoted the holding of Friday prayers - which Saddam had forbidden to the Shia - in slums that the Ba’ath could not penetrate easily.

Al-Sadr Sr had preached against Israel and the US and reached out to rural Shia with a tribal background, attempting to get them to forsake tribal custom for scriptural Shi’ism. His movement was puritanical and theocratic: he aspired to a Khomeinist Islamic republic in Iraq. His constituency was Iraq’s very poor, especially the young. His chief rival for religious authority among the Shia was Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani: though Sistani kept quiet under Saddam and believed that clerics should stay out of governmental affairs.

Although Salafi Sunnis and Sadrist Shia normally have little time for one another, a solidarity based on Iraqi nationalism and pan-Islam surfaced as both confronted coalition forces. The Shia neighbourhood of Kazimiyah in Baghdad had an old rivalry with its neighbour, the relatively upscale Sunni Azamiyah quarter. But they put their enmity aside to raise a convoy of 60 trucks of relief supplies and headed for Falluja on 8 April. Accompanying crowds waved posters of Sheikh Yassin and Moqtada al-Sadr. Hapless US Marines had to let them through.

The Board of Muslim Clergy, a hardline Sunni group headed by Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, gained some prestige from stepping in to negotiate between Falluja and the Americans. It also issued a communiqué on 17 April announcing its support for Moqtada al-Sadr and calling on all Iraqis "to expel the occupation". Mohammed Ayyash al-Kubaisi, the board’s representative outside Iraq, told al-Arabiya that all Iraqis who oppose the forces of occupation, including Moqtada, are working for the same goal and would not allow themselves to be divided.

These examples suggest that, despite being open to political and religious currents from neighbouring countries, the Iraqis have forged a profound national identity in the past century. Sectarian groupings in the country do not see their religious identities as superseding their national ones.

Of course, Iraqi Shia political parties, such as al-Dawa, were much persecuted under Saddam, and many members fled to Iran or Britain. In the 1980s and 1990s the Tehran branch of al-Dawa was split between nationalist Iraqis who wanted to maintain the independence of the party and clerics who wanted to subordinate it to Ayatollah Khomeini.

On the whole, the nationalists won. In the 1990s the Dawa party cooperated with Ahmad Chalabi in his attempts to put together an alliance of expatriate Iraqi parties. But it broke with his Iraqi National Congress over the issue of semi-autonomy for the Kurds. Al-Dawa wants a strong, centralised national government that encompasses Sunnis and Shia, Arabs and Kurds.

Its leader, Ibrahim Jaafari, played an important role in April, when he went to Tehran to seek the involvement of the Khatami government in attempting to mediate a settlement between Moqtada al-Sadr and the US. The effort failed, but Jaafari gained stature.

Observers who saw Iraqis as having a weak sense of national unity and as naturally divided into the Shia Arab south, the Sunni Arab centre and the Kurdish north, missed numerous signs of a strong sense of continued national identity.

The London-based Saudi daily, Al Hayat, published an interview with Mohammed Rida Sistani, the son of the Grand Ayatollah, on 18 April 2003. He said his father rejected "any foreign power that would rule Iraq" and he called for unity among all Muslims, Sunni and Shia, and among all Iraqis. He said he read his father accounts of Shia attacking Sunni mosques in mixed neighbourhoods. Grand Ayatollah Sistani denounced such acts as sinful and said they should be seen against his own framework of love for the Sunnis and donations for the building or rebuilding of their mosques. The Grand Ayatollah further said: "Iraq is for the Iraqis. They must administer Iraq, and it is not for them to do so under any foreign power." He added that it had been the custom of the clerics to go to battle against the British occupation beside their children, invoking the memory of the Great Rebellion of 1920, the first national uprising in modern Iraqi history that, though led by Shia notables and clerics, was joined by other sections of the population.

Sistani’s desire for stability caused him to speak less militantly, but he continued to chafe under foreign rule and seek national unity. In February 2004 a visitor wrote of his views: "He believed the difference between the Shia and Sunnis was far less significant than the danger facing the Iraqi nation at present. The most important thing at this time is unity. ’Division of the people is treason,’ he said: ’Give my regards to your tribes and to the Sunni clergy and tell them that Sistani kisses their hands and begs them to unite with all Iraqis, Shia, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen. You just unite, and count on me to stand up to the Americans’."

Though Sistani is a Shia leader, he meets Kurdish and Sunni Arab politicians and sees himself as promoting the welfare of the entire country. He has not intervened much in political affairs but has won the fights he has picked with the US. He insisted any permanent Iraqi constitution had to be drafted by delegates elected by popular vote and that any legitimate government must be elected on a one-person one-vote basis, derailing the US plan for a stage-managed election this spring.

The competition between the different groups throughout the country can serve as a political glue. The northern oil city of Kirkuk is a place where ethnic politics continually boil. Its million inhabitants are evenly divided among Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. Turkmen were the traditional majority in Kirkuk, and are divided between Shia and Sunnis. The Kurds arrived in search of jobs generated by oil. Saddam expelled many of them, replacing them with Arabs brought from the centre and the south, including Shia.

In August 2003, when factional fighting broke out near Kirkuk between Shia Turkmen and Sunni Kurds over control of a village shrine, the Arab Shia of Najaf, including Moqtada al-Sadr, sent representatives up to Kirkuk to support the Shia Turkmen. Moqtada said he "condemned any attempt to isolate the north from the rest of the country" and complained about ethnic cleansing (Kurds streaming back into Kirkuk to reclaim their homes from Arab squatters). Moqtada was playing on factional Shia allegiances, but he was also using the presence of Shia throughout Iraq, across ethnicities, to broaden his stage to the nation.

In December 2004 and January 2004 ethnic tensions rose in Kirkuk over Kurdish plans to incorporate it into a semi-autonomous Kurdish canton. In response, Moqtada al-Sadr fielded 2,000 men of his militia, the Army of the Mahdi, for a demonstration in Kirkuk in support of 300,000 Turkmen residents who had gone on strike. The level of support Moqtada had won among the Turkmen of northern Iraq surprised observers.

Nationalism is made not only by unity but by conflict, by struggles and compromises. Post-Ba’ath Iraqi nationalism is characterised by pan-Islamic themes because of the powerful role of religious parties now. Sunni radicals such as the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (already a martyr to his followers) and Shia radicals like Moqtada al-Sadr (who may well may become a martyr) are now, in the eyes of many Iraqis, symbols of opposition to the occupation of Arab land by foreign troops, Israeli, British or US.

The US envisaged its presence in Iraq as a grand nation-building exercise. How ironic that so many Iraqis are coming together with the goal of expelling the US. In the 19th century the Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid II, and the reformer, Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, launched the pan-Islamic project - the unity of Sunnis and Shia against European imperialism - but it always failed. The US hyperpower seems finally to be nudging the movement from a dream into political reality.

* Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and author of ’Sacred Space and Holy War’ (I B Tauris, London/New York, 2002)

source: http://MondeDiplo.com/2004/05/03iraqinationalism 10may04

 

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