What if a Shi'ite Group Wins Elections in Iraq?
The Possible Role of Clerics, and the Issues It Raises

By SHAHRIAR HAFIZI

Tuesday, May. 27, 2003

Today's Iraq debate is focused on how the Coalition should address the diverse ethnic and religious character of postwar Iraq. But there is another crucial question: How will Iraqis themselves now address their own diverse ethnic and religious character?

This question is the more consequential of the two, as it will determine the long term condition of Iraq and the entire region. If Iraqis have the opportunity for free elections, it is very likely that a Shi'ite group will win. If so, Shi'ite clerics will likely take a prominent role in government. And already, they are deeply involved in negotiating the religious and ethnic differences that divide the Iraqi people.

The U.S. has been ambivalent, however, about the idea of a government in Iraq where clerics win elections.

On December 4, 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice assured Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights that "living the Islamic faith and striving for democracy and human rights are not only fully compatible, they are mutually reinforcing."

Yet on April 25 of this year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that the U.S. would not allow an Islamic regime, or at least one modeled on Iran's, to take control in postwar Iraq, even as a result of democratic elections: "A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so," Rumsfeld said. "We will not allow the Iraqi people's democratic transition to be hijacked for -- by those who might wish to install another form of dictatorship."

This position - of opposition to clerical hierarchy - may make it difficult for the United States to host intra-religious dialogue between high ranking religious and community leaders. But in fact, such dialogue is just what is needed in Iraq now. Indeed, it is crucial in order to ensure that the religious and ethnic abuses of one authoritarian regime will not now be substituted for the religious retributions, sectarian violence and religious persecution of another.

Saddam's Oppression of Shi'ites

As is widely known, the Saddam Hussein regime was brutally oppressive toward Shi'ites. Since 1998, the United States has listed Iraq as one of eight "countries of particular concern" based on the suppressions of the Shi'ite Muslim religious majority in the South.

The majority of Ba'ath party appointments were given to Sunni Muslims, and this exclusion of Shi'ites was coupled with persecution. After the Gulf War, thousands of Shi'ite clerics were driven into exile. Saddam had his henchmen murder (and thus martyr) two prominent clerics, Imams Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr and Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. (The Shi'ite quarter of Baghdad was subsequently renamed the Sadr quarter.)

For years, Saddam's regime prevented Shi'ites from making a pilgrimage of deep religious importance to them. Not until April 23, 2003, were hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims able to make that pilgrimage - gathering in Karbala to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein (in the ceremony of Ashura). (For Shi'ites, the centrality of the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf cannot be overstated. One of the holiest times of the Muslim calendar is commemorated at these cities when pilgrims circumambulate, genuflect and perform flagellation there.)

Meanwhile, some Christians say they enjoyed many rights and freedoms under Saddam. A Christian, Tariq Aziz, was made an influential deputy prime minister As reported on April 21 in the Christian Science Monitor, the Iraqi Christian leader Armenian Archbishop Avak Asadourian has said that, under Saddam, "We enjoyed total religious freedom and there was no religious discrimination against Christians."

The Power Struggle Among Shiites

In Iraqi religious cities such as Karbala and Najaf, and other areas as well, there currently appears to be a power struggle among several Shi'ite groups.

In Najaf, Karbala, and the Sadr quarter of Baghdad, for instance, clerical leaders are respected for their theological authority, their responses to civil crises and for their populist commitments.

Meanwhile, the Sadr Movement and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) militias are also influential in Najaf and Karbala - and also in Baquba, Kufa, Kut (to some extent), and in the slums of east Baghdad. Since these towns and cities have a combined population of several million, they are not insignificant, but they do not constitute a majority of the Shi'ites, either.

The Issue of Clerics' Involvement In Public Affairs

Should a new Shi'ite-dominated government be secular, or should clerics be involved in government? This issue divides Shi'ites.

Some clerics have defended the general principle of clerical rule (wilayah), under which clergymen are involved in public affairs. For example, according to Mohamed Hasni of Middle East Online, Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30 year-old son of the martyred cleric, believes in the theory of wilayah, along the lines of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

By contrast, Ayatollah Sistani, the most senior ayatollah in Najaf, has made statements against theocratic rule in Iraq. "Men of religion must not get involved in administrative affairs ... Their role must be confined to guidance," Sistani has said, in answer to a question regarding the limits of the role of religious leaders.

Saaed Haidar, who runs a religious library near Iman Ali's tomb, suggests this reflects the view of all the ayatollahs of Najaf: "Unlike Imam Khomeini and imams of the Sadr family, the current ayatollahs of Najaf never supported velayat-e-fiqh, or rule by Islamic jurisprudence."

And Nasiriyah Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Ayad Jamal al-Din has expressed a similar view: His position is that the future Iraqi society will require a "system of government that separates belief from politics."

The Relevance of Shi'ite Law, Whether or Not Clerics Rule

Juan Cole, University of Michigan Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History, has cogently explained the difference between the views of Shi'ites in Iran and Iraq. "Iraqi Shi'ites are not where Iranian ones are. Iraqi Shi'ites have had decades of authoritarian secular nationalist rule by a Sunni elite, followed by a Western occupation. A lot of them, certainly a plurality, are responding to all this by demanding an Islamic government. It may not be clerically. But they want Shi'ite law to be the law of the land."

The Shi'ite method of interpreting the law is not that there is a single authoritative interpretation. Rather, there are individuals who are qualified and competent in Islamic religious theory and practice who provide interpretation. Democratically elected leaders in Iraq may very well have the popular support of a majority of Iraqis by virtue of their background and prowess in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).

Meanwhile, Shi'ite clerics are already involved in civic roles, in addition to their primary duties of studying Islamic law and transmitting it to believers. In Iraq, the legislative assembly (shura) is not inherently secular; rather, it means simply that the executive head of the government and the members of the assembly should be elected by free and independent choice of the people. Hence, in the Shi'ite jurisprudence there are theoretical discussion about the necessity of following one of the living mujtahids (theologian-cum-jurist).

Friday sermons have long been used by religious leaders as occasions to intervene in politics. On April 24, in line with his family's tradition, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr's son, Muqtada, issued a statement calling for a meeting of all Shi'ite currents to agree on rules that would govern such sermons.

This all may mean, in the end, that clerics have a powerful influence. As an April 22 Middle East Online article commented, "The people who have implemented Shariah, or Islamic canon law, as their project know very well that power goes in such a system to the interpreters of the law. And those will be Muslim clerics. Shi'ite law in Iraq will put the judiciary in the hands of the ayatollahs. Sunni and Shi'ite Islamists are at the moment united in calling for Islamic law."

The Importance of Ensuring Religious Freedom, and Not Only For Muslims

It is highly unlikely that a democratically-elected Shi'ite regime would lead to Shi'ite/Sunni sectarian violence. The differences between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam are not ones that are exclusionary. As William Graham, Professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard University remarked on April 23, "A Shi'ite Muslim would feel perfectly at home in a Sunni mosque. In fact, the call to prayer is identical from Sunni Mosque to Shi'ite mosques, with exception of one added line"

But it is possible that oppression of Christians may occur. Christians have been concerned with recent chants, 'No Saddam, No Bush, Yes to an Islamic State.' Muqtada Sadr has told thousands of faithful that the "banning of alcohol and the wearing of the veil should be spread to all and not only to Muslims," because "[a]lcohol and the display of a woman's body are forbidden for us Muslims, as they are for Christians, upon whom I call to give up these banned things." According to Middle East Online, he has also "call[ed] upon Christians not to be the corrupt of the world."

Whether or not violence occurs, religious freedom will plainly be a major - if not the main - issue in Iraqi reconstruction. Preserving such freedom will entail multi-party elections, and accommodation for women and individuals and groups of each religious or ethnic group within the government. It will also entail the creation of an independent judiciary, with courts of law in which individuals and groups alike can seek recourse.

The status of women is of particular concern. Juridical deliberations in the exclusively male-oriented traditional centers of Islamic learning, the madrasas, have disregarded female voices in the emerging discourse connected with women's issues and human rights. The redefinition of the status of a Muslim woman in modern society is one of the major issues that confront Muslim jurists' claims to be authoritative on legal-ethical sources of Islam.

Democracy, Equal Protection, and Islam Can All Co-Exist

It is unlikely that a politician can emerge who can compete on the basis of a political program alone. However, it remains possible, in Iraq, to create the conditions in which the Islamic tradition and norms can coexist with other normative practices.

Two core principles of U.S. constitutional theory - the rule of law, and equal protection of the law, regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion - are viable strategies for the protection of religious liberties in postwar Iraq. Unless these principle are respected, the result may be violence between ethnic groups, and local rivalries for the control of shrine cities - both of which we have already seen, and should make ever effort to prevent.

After all, inherent in Islam is the principle of democracy, and religious expression is a primary concern of Iraqis. For these reasons, U.S. policy in Iraq should acknowledge two realities: Clerics must be involved in the process of setting up a new government. Yet clerics, in their new role, must redefine women's role in society, and must ensure the protection of religious liberties and the accommodation of ethnic groups in every level of public life.

In sum, there is the strong possibility that democracy can succeed Iraq. But to succeed, it must draws upon systems of democracy and equity within Islam. If Iraqi democracy is seen mainly as an American project, it will inevitably fail, with potentially disastrous consequences.


Shahriar Hafizi earned his Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School in 2000. There, his subject of study was religious theory and practice in the Middle East and South Asia. His interests in religion and cross-cultural normative theory have developed into an interest in constitutional theory and global human rights, especially religious freedoms. He is currently involved in the Harvard Afghanistan Redevelopment Study.

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