Middle East

Bin Laden gives Iraq an unlikely unity
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - A widespread perception in the West is that the Salafi (Wahhabi) branch of Sunni Islam is the breeding ground of anti-West sentiment, while Sufi Islam, which is neither a sect nor a branch but a school of thought dealing with spiritual values, is an acceptable counterpoint to Salafi extremism.

However, this correspondent, after spending time in Iraq, has a different perspective: Osama bin Laden, the Salafi icon who theoretically should be branded an infidel by Sufis, is a living legend for the Sufis of Baghdad, and even further afield.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's pictures are everywhere in Iraq, in the mosques, shrines, squares and even as screen savers on computers at leading hotels. What impact these pictures have had - and still have - on the development of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is difficult to assess as the society is such a closed one.

What can be judged, though, is the influence that September 11, the Afghan war and the global war on terrorism, especially against bin Laden, has had. Ask any Iraqi about bin Laden and invariably the eyes will light up, and the response will be along the lines of, "Bin Laden is a Muslim, a faithful and a warrior of Islam."

This is the ground reality across Iraq, with the possible exception of the Shi'ites in the south of the country. Whether or not people like Saddam, they certainly don't like the United States, and all thanks to bin Laden. Officially, though, comment on bin Laden is strongly discouraged.

Baghdad is the heart of Sufi Islam. The three main Sufi schools, Suharwardy, Qadri and Naqshandi, emerged from the city and spread to other parts of the world. Although Sufis do not like to be bracketed with any particular sect, these three schools belong to the Sunni sect. Other schools principally follow Sunni Islam.

The Qadri school is the largest. According to Sheikh Bakar Samaray, who is the prayer leader at the mosque at the Sheikh Abdul Qadir shrine (Abdul Qadir was the founder of the Qadri school) 80 million disciples are affiliated to the Qadri school all over the world, of which 2 million are in Iraq.

Traditionally, the Qadri school and the Salafis have been bitter rivals. The Salafis oppose shrines and tombs. They believe that after death, interaction of the body and soul with the world ends. The entire philosophy of the Sufis, especially those of the Qadri school, rotates around spirits and souls, which interact with the world through shrines and tombs.

The Salafis believe in the struggle against infidels and tyrants, while the Sufis, especially the Qadris, believe in maximum tolerance against such people, and teach that only love can change hearts and souls, not swords. According to Salafi jurists, Sufis, especially Qadris, misinterpret and misrepresent the teachings of Islam with their personal ideals, while for the Qadris, the Salafis have lost the real essence of Islam with their extremist notions.

Syed Ahmed Gillani, a descendent of Sheikh Abudl Qadir Gillani and custodian of his shrine, is a former Iraqi ambassador to Pakistan. While reluctant to discuss bin Laden, he says that although he cannot condone civilian killings, as a Muslim he is sympathetic with bin Laden.

Riaz Al-Kilidar is the custodian of one of the most sacred Shi'ite sites of Imam Hadi and the tomb of Imam Hasan Askari, at Samara (about 40 kilometers north of Baghdad). He, too, believes that since September 11 there has been a revolution in thinking in the Islamic world, and that bin Laden is indeed a sincere Muslim and a warrior for the religion. Syed Sabah is a descendent of Imam Mosa Kazim and custodian of Kazim's shrine in Baghdad (he is also a member of parliament). He, too, says that bin Laden is a "warrior of Islam, we all give our well wishes for him and we always remember Osama in our prayers".

With a flourish, Syed Sabah pulls out a sword from a sheath at his side. "This sword belonged to my grandfather, Syed Ibrahim Al-Hussaini. He fought against British forces, along with his disciples and students. Once the US attacks Iraq, we will leave this shrine and mosque and will fight alongside my disciples and students against the US troops."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has linked the Pakistani militant group Ansarul Islam with al-Qaeda, and says that Iraq has forged ties with them (Ansarul Islam) in northern Iraq. But Iraqi presidential advisor Lieutenant-general Ameral Saadi describes this as a blatant lie, citing many examples of how Ansarul has targeted Iraqi interests in Baghdad and other places and claimed responsibility.

But times have changed and it is important to note that northern Iraq is the home of the Naqshandi school of Sufis. Local government official and spiritual leader Sheikh Mostafa bin Abdullah lives in Arbil, where Kurdish parties run a Western-protected enclave. Sheikh Mostafa commands great respect among all Kurds. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is also a devotee of Sheikh Mostafa. Maulana Khalid of the Naqshandi school resides in Baghdad, and he has good ties with Izzat Ibrahim, the deputy leader of Iraq, who is himself a Sufi of the Qadri and Rafahi schools.

What is evident is that the various schools of Sufi Islam permeate the Iraq regime, and that they are no longer mutually incompatible with the Salafi bin Laden and the militant Ansarul Islam.

Between them, they could band and put up stronger resistance than might otherwise have been expected should the US attempt to launch an attack from the north of Iraq on the oil-rich region of Mosel.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Feb 28, 2003

At the gates of heaven - or hell (Feb 26, '03)

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


Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.