Islamism versus Secularism in Iraq: A Debate
I saw this debate on al-Jazeera (Doha) on Sunday in Arabic at 17:15 GMT, on 22 May 05. It was some of the best television discussion of Iraq I’ve ever seen, and the BBC World Monitoring has translated it now (May 24, 2005). The al-Jazeera anchor was quite fair, and at one point intervened to ask Tariq al-Hashimi if he really thought all the sectarian violence could be blamed on the Americans.
It is introduced as follows:
“Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel Television at 1715 gmt on 22 May carries a new 45-minute edition of its weekly programme “The Iraqi scene”, moderated by Abd-al-Azim Muhammad in the Doha studio. Guests of the programme via satellite from Baghdad are Dr Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party; Sa’d Jawad Qandil, member of the Political Bureau of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI] and Dr Ghassan al-Atiyah, director of the Iraqi Institute for Democracy and Development. The main topic of discussion is the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’is in Iraq following the recent abductions and assassinations.”
Here, I’ll just give one particularly characteristic and important statement from each of the three.
The moderator asks Ghassan al-Atiyah about “sectarian tension” in Iraq and its reasons. He replies:
“We have been dismembered. The parties, which came to rescue us from the hegemony of a dictatorship and the tyranny of the ugliest dictatorship in the region, have turned into a tool to destroy what was left of the Iraqi entity. I do not exempt anyone from this. I am one of the political people who sought change. Let us be frank. Theoretical and complimentary remarks are made on television while in practice killing and slaughtering by the two sides are taking place on the ground. All justify the killing of the other side in the name of religion. The major tragedy is that the US occupation of Iraq and the policies adopted after occupation contributed to consecrating sectarian and ethnic division in our country instead of uniting the Iraqis. The democratic, liberal, leftist, and nationalist forces have been marginalized. The Sunnis were not the only ones who were marginalized but all these forces.”
Al-Atiyah called for the establishment of effective liberal and socialist parties in Iraq that could appeal on a secular basis across sectarian lines. (The World Monitor translation drops this crucial point out). Later he said, ‘ “There is no freedom or democracy in any country where Islam has been politicized. How will the situation then be in a country that is divided on sectarian bases?” He blames the Shi’i parties for refusing to postpone the January elections and the Sunnis for boycotting them. ‘
Tariq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party (Sunni):
‘ He denies that the Islamic political parties are responsible for what is taking place in the country. He defends his party and says the Iraqi Islamic Party’s programme has no sectarian or ethnic tendencies. He then agrees with Dr Al-Atiyah that the current crisis in Iraq began with the “implementation of the political quota system in the Governing Council.” He hopes the next general elections at the end of the year will end this quota system “for which the occupation is responsible in part and parcel.” Continuing, he says: “I think the Iraqis are victims rather than initiators of the crisis. The country is still in the hands of the occupier. Sovereignty is incomplete and this must be admitted. Therefore, the occupation is primarily responsible for what is taking place on the ground.” He adds that “the security file is still in the hands of the occupier and this is an extremely serious impasse.” He then blames the government security services for “failing to uncover the perpetrators of crimes.” ‘ . . . Later he says that
‘ Incitement campaigns by Al-Iraqiyah television and other suspect channels and news media with the aim of planting the seeds of an abominable sectarianism must immediately stop.” He adds that Al-Iraqiyah television “disseminated false claims by persons who claimed to have been involved in killings.” ‘
I presume he is implying that the religious Shiite parties have gotten control of the state media and are using it to blame Sunnis for all the violence.
Saad Jawad Qandil of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI):
‘Asked what the Iraqi Government can do to solve the crisis, Qandil says: “I join Dr Tariq al-Hashimi in saying that the solution lies in defusing any sectarian sedition through national unity and the participation of all sectors of the Iraqi society in one national plan with the aim of upholding the supremacy of the law and isolating all sectarian tendencies among the Iraqi people. I also call for preventing and isolating and even suing all those who incite sectarian sedition. The false accusations we heard in the news media last week incite sectarian sedition. This does not help national unity or defuse sectarian strife. We need unity.” ‘
Qandil was complaining about the Sunnis blaming the Badr Corps (the paramilitary of SCIRI) for the killing of Sunni clerics and worshipper recently. Qandil earlier said that the Badr Organization was now an independent service organization not connected to SCIRI. He said he did not view Muqtada al-Sadr as an honest broker between the Association of Muslims Scholars and Badr, because Muqtada had already supported the position of Hareth al-Dhari.
The debate was honest and al-Atiyah pulled no punches. But you knew as you watched that the future lies with Qandil and Hashimi, who came across as defensive and much less open about their real goals.