US Helps Revive the Old Pan-Islamic Project In Iraq
My article, “US Failure Helps Revive the Old Pan-Islamic Project,” is now available in English at the
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 Palestin ians, 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.