Middle East

Shi'ite shrines as a counter-force
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

PRAGUE - Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converged this week on the Karbala shrine in southern Iraq to pay homage to one of the most revered heroes of the Shi'ite Muslim faith.

The march marked the end of the 40-day mourning period commemorating the death of Imam Abu Abdallah al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed in Karbala in the year 680 in a fight with troops commanded by the Caliph of Damascus.

For Iraq's approximately 12 million Shi'ite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, the event was first and foremost an opportunity to show their religious fervor after decades of repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. But some influential religious clerics also tried to turn the Karbala pilgrimage into a show of protest against the presence of US and British troops on Iraqi soil.

With the collapse of Saddam's regime and the dissolution of the ruling Ba'ath Party, Shi'ite mujtahids (those who infer expert legal rulings) and ayatollahs have re-emerged as key sources of social and political power in the south. About 100 kilometers from Baghdad, Karbala belongs to the Atabat, or "thresholds", as Iraq's holy cities of Shi'itism are sometimes referred to.

Besides Karbala, the Atabat also includes the southern shrine of al-Najaf and the cities of al-Kazimiyah and Samarra farther north. In addition to their religious character, these cities - especially Karbala and al-Najaf - have traditionally been centers of counter-power in Iraq's recent history.

Subhi Toma is an Iraqi-born sociologist who has lived in France for more than 30 years. He says the political character of Iraq's Shi'ite shrines stems from the fact that they have always had a much better-developed school network than the rest of former Ottoman-ruled Mesopotamia.

In addition, Toma says, Iraq's holy cities enjoyed a number of privileges that helped foster resistance to the Sunni-dominated governments that exerted power in Baghdad after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. "In fact the opposition [of these cities] to central authorities was the result of privileges they had been enjoying under Ottoman occupation - [notably] the fact that they were not required to provide soldiers" for the Ottoman army, Toma said. "These cities were exempted from military conscription and, with the emergence of a centralized state that wanted to draft every [single male citizen], that became an important factor."

After the end of World War I, the newly created League of Nations entrusted London with the task of administering the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, which were to form modern Iraq. The foreign mandate formally ended in 1932 when Iraq acceded to independence under the Hashemite monarchy.

In the south, opposition immediately began to form against the emerging Sunni-dominated Iraqi state and its British protectors. Protests and uprisings led by Shi'ite religious clerics regularly broke out throughout the 1920s and were crushed by either the fledgling British-trained Iraqi army or the Royal Air Force.

Gareth Stanfield is a research fellow at the British-based University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He draws a parallel between the early years of modern Iraqi history and recent protests that have erupted in Karbala and other southern cities demanding the immediate withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces.

"I think it does tie in quite strongly with the fact that the government of Iraq, in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, was dominated by Sunni elites, British imperialism and ... the Sherifians [Hashemites], which did effectively disfranchise the Shi'ite component of society," Stanfield said. "In that sort of time, I think, the Shi'ite religious establishment was very traditionally minded and they opposed British imperialism, I suppose in a quite similar manner as what is happening now, insofar as this is an external involvement and a non-Muslim involvement into the affairs of the community, which is a Muslim community. So really the similarities are quite striking with that in mind."

Confronted with the mujtahids' growing influence, Iraq's secular authorities in the 1920s and 1930s moved to erode their power base by co-opting Shi'ite tribal leaders, granting them parliamentary seats and tax exemptions. Iraqi sociologist Toma said, "Indeed, [Iraq's shrines] had a role of counter-power. These cities and people originating from the Shi'ite community, from the south, were instrumental in the resistance to British occupation and, later on, in the resistance to [Iraqi] central authorities [in Baghdad]. The monarchy had to give them a share of power to guard against any opposition [the Shi'ites] could generate."

With the emergence of prominent lay political figures from within the Shi'ite community - some of whom became cabinet ministers - the influence of the mujtahids further diminished. Many jurists trained in Sharia Islamic law chose to return to the world of jurisprudence and the focus of Shi'ite protests progressively shifted toward combating underrepresentation in state structures.

Later on, however, the revival of Islamic organizations rekindled the influence of senior mujtahids opposed to the more-or-less-open socialist orientations of the various regimes that succeeded the monarchy after 1958.

After the institution of the Ba'ath regime in the late 1960s, Baghdad's conflicting relations with Tehran provided ground for increasing repression against the Shi'ite community. The Iraqi government expelled thousands of Shi'ites across the border with Iran. Schools and universities were closed down, religious endowments were confiscated and religious processions were outlawed.

Running parallel to this coercion, authorities in Baghdad continued to undermine Shi'ite solidarity by dragging selected Shi'ite clerics and tribal leaders into their network of patronage - a trend that culminated after Saddam became president in 1979. During the 1980-88 war with Iran, the secular Ba'ath regime succeeded in bringing the Shi'ite clergy under stricter control, appointing some favored religious leaders to positions of authority and making Shi'ite clerics salaried civil servants.

British scholar Stanfield believes the deposed Iraqi leader succeeded to a degree in subduing the influence of Shi'ite mujtahids: "[Saddam] was actually relatively successful because what he managed to do was firstly to associate those religious clerics that were opposed to him. He [also] managed to tar them with the brush of being associated with Iran, and Shi'ites in Iraq [consider themselves] primarily as Iraqis. I think the notion of Iraqi nationalism [during the war] tended to outweigh Shi'ite brotherhood with Iran. [Saddam] also managed to ensure that he got at least the tacit support of the Iraqi ayatollahs. He did it through patronage and extreme coercion, but I think there [was] an acceptance that there [was] a niche within the political system in which they could operate as long as they played by the rules. The rules obviously were extremely rigidly enforced, but I think [Saddam] was successful in calming Shi'ite tendencies down."

As Stanfield points out, this policy culminated with the crackdown of the 1991 uprising when divisions among the Shi'ite community weakened the protest movement, thus facilitating the ruthless repression by Saddam's Republican Guard.

The downfall of the Ba'ath regime has cleared the way for the return of a number of Iraqi Shi'ite clerics who have been living in exile in neighboring Iran. The most prominent of them is probably Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim, the leader of the Tehran-sponsored Supreme Assembly for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI).

Hakim, who is reportedly considering returning to his home country after more than 20 years, has long called for the institution of an Iranian-style Islamic republic in southern Iraq. Whether the influence of either the SAIRI or its rival al-Dawa (Islamic Call) organization - whose members have also been forced into exile by Saddam - will outweigh that of domestic clerics in Iraq's Shi'ite communities remains an open question. Signs of rifts between the two groups have recently emerged, with some local leaders questioning the legitimacy of the returnees.

All the same, sociologist Toma says no future Iraqi government will be in a position to ignore the re-emergence of Shi'ite clerics as a secular political force.

"It is a factor that will have to be taken into account," Toma said. "I believe that whatever the power mechanisms that will emerge in Iraq, it will be impossible to ignore these movements, particularly the movement that has existed inside the country. For the past 10 days or so we have been witnessing a kind of repetition of what happened [during the civil war] in south Lebanon when domestic ayatollahs took control over schools and hospitals. Of course some would object that Iraq is going through a temporary crisis. But in other countries, temporary crises have led [ayatollahs] to fulfill social functions and subsequently remain an indispensable political force."

On April 10, Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Sayyed Abdelmajid Khoei was murdered in Najaf's central shrine, the tomb of Imam Ali, just hours after returning to Iraq after many years in exile. A few days later, an angry crowd laid siege to the home of Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani in Najaf, demanding that he leave the country. Order was restored only after armed Shi'ite tribesmen entered the city and dispersed the crowd.

Toma believes that vying for influence over Iraq's Shi'ite community will continue to pit domestic and exiled clerics against each other until a new government - which the United States has said should represent all components of Iraqi society - emerges from the ruins of Saddam's regime. "This mobilization will take spectacular forms," said Toma, "as each group will attempt to prove that it is more representative than the other."

(©2003 RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.)
Apr 26, 2003

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