Sunday, January 16, 2005

Overcoming Shiaphobia

In an opinion piece for the December 17th Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius sounded the following warning about the Iraqi elections:

If you had asked an intelligence analyst two years ago to describe the worst possible political outcome following an American invasion of Iraq, he might well have answered that it would be a regime dominated by conservative Shiite Muslim clerics with links to neighboring Iran. But just such a regime now seems likely to emerge after Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.

Iran is about to hit the jackpot in Iraq, wagering the blood and treasure of the United States. Last week an alliance of Iraqi Shiite leaders announced that its list of candidates will be headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the clerical leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. This Shiite list, backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is likely to be the favorite of Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority and win the largest share of votes next month

Mr. Ignatius is a columnist whose work I greatly respect, and his views on this issue by all accounts are widely held within the media and the foreign policy bureaucracy. With the Shia already forming a majority of the electorate, and turnout in the Sunni Arab regions expected to be depressed, the notion that the Iraqi elections will ultimately produce a Shia theocracy beholden to Tehran has fast become conventional wisdom. But what is the actual basis for this belief?

For one thing, Ignatius and others point to the existence of the electoral list backed by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. According to the critics, the Shia will vote in lockstep for this list. However, as Amir Taheri pointed out in a December 21st column for the New York Post, the Shia "do not constitute a monolithic bloc." There are in fact several major lists led by Shia candidates, each representing diverse constituencies.

Let's assume, however, that the Shia will behave politically as a single monolithic bloc. Won't they have a substantial majority of seats in the provisional assembly, and thus be able to enforce their will on the rest of Iraq? Actually, no. Each of the Shia lists includes candidates from the Sunni, Kurdish, and other communities. Thus, to quote Taheri once again:

Treating the three main Shiite lists as one and assuming that, together, they win all the Shiite votes, the planned National Assembly of 275 seats would end up with no more than 122 Shiite members. This is because at least 30 of those likely to be elected on the Shiite lists are Arab Sunnis or Kurds. In other words, the three main Shiite lists would not have a majority without their Sunni and Kurdish members.

Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Shia will be able to use the newly elected assembly to impose their communal will upon the entire country. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that they find a way. Does Shia majority rule in Iraq, with its clerical influence, foretell the coming of Islamic Republic: Part II?

Once again this is unlikely. Reuel Marc Gerecht is one of the foremost experts on Iraq's Shia. As he has written about at length, Ayatollah al-Sistani and the rest of the Shia clerical establishment oppose the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy, regarding it as a deviation from true Shia Islam. In Gerecht's opinion, Sistani is genuinely committed to democratic pluralism. Stephen Schwartz makes a similar point. "Iraqi Shias" he argues, "never accepted Khomeini's conception of clerical governance, which had no basis in Islamic doctrine, and was actually a heresy. There is no serious evidence that, if a Shia majority is brought to power in Iraq, a Khomeinist regime would be established."

Since the fall of Saddam, the Shia clerical establishment has displayed enormous moderation and responsibility in the face of the barbarous assault from the Baaathist/Wahhabist terror alliance. Erick Eckholm, writing in today's New York Times, takes note of this:

Certainly, there is already evidence of moderation and magnanimity from Shiite leaders like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered cleric who is godfather of the frontrunning United Iraqi Alliance, and Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who is No. 1 on that slate and leads Sciri, its largest member party.

Since the Shiite Islamists returned to Iraq on the coattails of the coalition invasion, they have arguably showed great patience in the face of provocations. They endured the assassination of the revered founder of Sciri, Mr. Hakim's brother, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, in August 2003. And today, Ayatollah Sistani, Mr. Hakim and his followers are stoically holding back their armed supporters despite frequent murders of Shiite clerics. These, they assume, are the work of Sunni militants trying to foment sectarian war.

Anthony Shadid wrote a remarkable article in the December 20th Washington Post, in which he compared the atmosphere at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad to that of a Shia mosque in the same city. The contrast was startling: While the Sunni mosque was a cesspool of murderous Wahhabist fanaticism, the Shia preached the benefits of democracy:

In Um al-Qura, built by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the insurgency is celebrated as an act of resistance against a faithless and deceitful American occupier. In no less strident rhetoric, at the venerated Baratha mosque, that same insurgency is condemned as wicked and senseless violence waged by loyalists of Hussein and foreigners. Elections are subjugation at the Sunni sermon, liberation at the Shiite one. And at each, the community's patience, the preachers insist, is wearing dangerously thin after yet another provocation or slight.

It is important to avoid romanticizing the Shia. They do have their extremist elements, such as the Sadr movement. Iraq's Shia are certainly not immune to the conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and other political pathologies of the Middle East, and they bear the added burden of the psychological toll taken by over two decades of totalitarian oppression. Many of the views expounded by Sistani and other clerics on issues such as womens rights are decidedly reactionary. All things considered, however, the level of restraint and political maturity displayed by the majority of Iraqi Shia has been incredible. While all too many Sunnis have responded to their community's loss of political power by fleeing into the fevered swamps of Wahhabism, most Shia have followed the guidance of Sistani and patiently sought to achieve their empowerment through the ballot box.

In light of all this, what then explains the prevalence of the view held by Ignatius. Unfortunately, much of the foreign policy establishment harbors a set of beliefs that can only be described as "Shiaphobic" in nature. Thomas Donnelly explains:

There's more than simple fear of freedom at work here. For a long time conventional wisdom about Iraq has insisted upon conflating the differences among Iraqi and Iranian Shia. This Shia-fear stems not only from the American experience of the Iranian Revolution but from many decades of propagandizing by the region's Sunni autocrats and monarchs. But a clear reading of Iraq today reveals not a lumpen Shiatariat but a pluralistic political community ranging from Abdel Aziz al-Hakim to Ahmed Chalabi. What brings them together, after generations of "estrangement" from Iraqi politics, is the chance at a decent life, a taste of liberty, and the pursuit of some happiness.

It was attitudes such as these that led the Bush 41 Administration to stand back and allow Saddam to massacre tens of thousands of Shia after the First Gulf War in 1991, all in the name of "stability". While America was giving itself a collective high-five after the success of Desert Storm, the very same people whom George H.W. Bush encouraged to rise up and overthrow Saddam were being slaughtered. And we wonder why many Iraqi Shia are suspicious of the US?

No Iraq's Shia are not Jeffersonians, but neither are they Iranian stooges bent on theocracy. The evidence is clear that most Iraqi Shia want democracy and pluralism, and are willing to work with their Kurdish and Sunni Arab neighbors in order to achieve it. Far from constituting a second Hezbollah, the Shia community provides the best hope for bringing about a pluralist, democratic Iraq. They deserve our full support in this difficult endeavor.


Post a Comment

<< Home