Poll: Muqtada Second Most Popular Politician in Iraq
Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times reports the results of a poll of 1600 Iraqis from all major ethnic groups.
The results confirm that radical young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is holed up in Najaf as his militiamen fight the Americans, has emerged as among the more popular politicians in Iraq, already suggested by a poll done in late March and reported in the Washington Post.
“Respondents saw Mr Sadr as the second most influential figure in Iraq, next only to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most senior Shia cleric. Some 32 per cent of respondents said they strongly supported Mr Sadr and another 36 per cent said they somewhat supported him. Ibrahim Jaafari, the head of the Shia Islamist Daawa party and a member of the governing council, came next on the list.”
Nearly 90 percent of Iraqis surveyed saw the US troops as occupiers, not liberators. This is up from 20 percent in October of 2003 and 47 percent in January, 2004. Not a good curve for the US. Over half want US troops out now. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll done in late March had found that 56 percent of Iraqis wanted the US troops to depart immediately.
This poll was done before the Abu Ghuraib prison torture scandal broke, so I suspect the negative numbers for the US have increased.
Mickey Kaus at Slate.com contrasts my views on Muqtada al-Sadr to those of Amir Taheri, says that one or the other of us is dead wrong, and complains that is is hard for non-experts to know which it is.
In blogging Shiism in Iraq, I am trying to convey very complex social and intellectual realities from another society as I read them, to a wider audience. It is really tough material to get across. Journalism is quite rightly about trying to boil complex things down to something relatively simple and digestible. Academics are about understanding complex things in all their complexity. I confess to favoring the second, even as I realize that some simplification is necessary to communicate information.
I say this because I don’t see a stark contradiction between what I have been saying and what Taheri wrote. The reason Mr. Kaus thinks there is a contradiction is that he is seeing religious authority as a zero-sum game. This is a game where there is one pie, and two or more pieces, such that if one person gets a bigger piece, the other person’s piece must shrink. If Sistani has more authority, he reasons, Muqtada must have less. Thus, Taheri is saying Sistani has more; I am saying Muqtada is gaining more; and therefore one of us must be wrong or the pie comes out to 150 percent.
But religious authority in Shiism is not a zero-sum game. It is overlapping and nested. Shiites can follow both Sistani and Muqtada. They overlap. The poll cited above proves my point. Sistani gets approval ratings in the 70s or 80s, and Muqtada gets them in the 60s. This result is impossible in a zero sum game. But it is possible if we have an altogether different sort of game, where you throw different-sized blankets on top of a bed to see which covers it best. No blanket covers 100 percent of the bed, but some blankets can cover 66 percent and others can cover 80 percent without either detracting from the size of the other.
I don’t contest Taheri’s estimation of Sistani’s enormous moral authority. What I do insist on is that Muqtada al-Sadr is very widely admired; that he is very strongly supported by about a third of Iraqis (I have been saying this for a year), and that he has fanatical followers and cadres in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The polling, the military and popular movements, all of the primary sources I read in Arabic, confirm these points over and over again.
When I say Muqtada has won politically, I mean that he has stood up to the US for a month and a half, has survived, is continuing to defy it, and his forces still occasionally show an ability to surprise the coalition (as when they briefly tossed the Italians off their base near Nasiriyah earlier this week). I mean that he has enhanced his popularity nationally. I mean that he has made the US look like an oppressive tyrant. Paul Wolfowitz kept crowing last summer about how the US saved the Marsh Arabs from Saddam, but now that many of them have joined the Sadrists in Kut and Amara, Wolfowitz is having the Marsh Arabs killed just as Saddam did, and for the same reasons. Muqtada may well be doomed, but his movement is not going to go away, and his doom will just make him a national martyr and cause all sorts of new problems for the US. If Sistani comes out strongly against Muqtada, that will make the game more like a zero-sum one, but a lot of Shiites will try to avoid choosing sides, even as the strong partisans of each come into starker conflict.
If Taheri underestimates Muqtada, he is not alone. Most Western observers do, including George W. Bush. But what he says about Sistani can be true even if I am right.