Middle East

The Saddam branch of Islam
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

BAGHDAD - Surprisingly, despite all the war talk, the past few years (and months) have seen a boom in the construction industry in Baghdad. So much so that the industry has, in fact, served as a significant source of earnings for poor Iraqis. Most interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that the construction of new mosques all over Baghdad has been the largest chunk of this industry.

Over the past two years, in every part of Iraq, one can witness newly constructed mosques and many more under construction. When this writer tried to find out how many, he was told (on condition of anonymity by an Iraqi official) that the phrase "how many" is prohibited in Iraq except on those occasions when you're buying something in a shop. But even then you are only permitted to ask the shopkeeper a simple variant: "How much?" A simple visual inspection of the city, however, results in an estimation that within the past year or so, about 30 new mosques have been built in every corner of Baghdad, with at least 10 more under construction.

The anonymous official admitted that Saddam Hussein had started building mosques after 1991 as part of a new posture in which he tried to add "spiritual color" to the national fabric. This was the need of the hour, when Saddam realized that the Cold War was over and that his nation needed a new uniting ideology. What it got was the new Islamic crusader Saddam. There were new television programs about Koranic recitations that began broadcasting day and night. At Baghdad's large Saddam Hussein University, courses in Islamic sciences were added. Saddam's newest portraits (which permeate civic life here) now include "Saddam at prayer".

The Islam preached in Iraq today is certainly not the radical, political or fundamentalist sort of the al-Qaeda variety. It is merely a new "addiction" to lull the Iraqi people to sleep. In truth, like other Arab rulers, Saddam also feels threatened by al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (the Muslim Brotherhood). All publications written by al-Ikhwan are banned, and its leaders are still discouraged from staying in Baghdad despite the fact that they supported Iraq in 1991 and still support Iraq against the US.

Still, the Muslim Brotherhood does exist in Iraq, although its presence is not strong or overt. Because of the threat it poses to the ruling regime, on Saddam's special instructions mosques remain always closed except for one hour before and one hour after each prayer time. This is in recognition that mosques have historically served as the strongest breeding ground and platform of Islamic fundamentalism.

These observations apart, Iraq has a centuries-old tradition of moderate Islam and Islamic figures. It is the only land in the Arab world in which the Muslim Brotherhood could not form an organizational structure. Syed Ahmed Gillani is the descendant of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gillani, the founder of the Qadri order of Sufi Islam (the order with the largest following among Sufis, with about 80 million disciples all over the world).

A clean-shaven man attired in a three-piece Western suit, Gillani welcomed this correspondent at his office in Baghdad recently. Gillani termed al-Qaeda wrongdoers to the extent that they attack civilians. But he also insisted that their stance against America is laudable simply because of US aggressive designs in the Middle East.

Sufi Islam is divergent of the Salafi branch of Islam (the more radical branch that includes Wahhabism). After September 11, the two branches developed sympathies with each other, but they still have not abandoned their ancient rivalries. "We are sympathetic with Osama [bin Laden] because he is Muslim, but we do not agree with what he did in Tanzania, or other places," Gillani said, referring to the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Africa.

When this reporter discussed the role of Salafis and al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in the Arab world, Gillani said, "They only preach extremism, and they have only slogans to raise - not any serious program." But he added that "it is only because of the suppression by the Egyptian government that sympathy has been allowed to grow among Egyptians for the Muslim Brotherhood".

Similarly, Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab (founder of Wahhabism) was a sincere Muslim, but he was strict and extremist in his teachings. He refused even the taking of photographs of Islamic shrines, said Gillani. "However, I do not say that Sheikh Wahhab preached something that was un-Islamic; I only say that he was too harsh in his manners and teachings."

Syed Gillani is an ardent believer in Saddam, calling him a real hero of Islam. "We do not want organizations such as al-Ikhwan in Iraq because our leader Saddam has fully implemented Islamic rules in letter and spirit."

Unlike some versions of Salafism, the Saddam interpretation of Islam entails a strict separation of church and state. It allows simple prayers within mosques only during prayer times and promotes the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), etc, but it leaves decisions regarding economics and politics to the will of the rulers. It is quite contrary to the teachings of Salafis, al-Ikhwan and al-Qaeda, which designate the mosque as the center of the congregation and maintain a defiant posture on the superiority of Sharia over man-made laws regarding social justice, economics and politics.

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Feb 8, 2003

Iraq waits blissfully for the bombs to drop (Feb 7, '03)

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Riyadh: Linchpin to a new religious order (Jan 4, '03)


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