Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

US newspaper ban plays into cleric's hands
By Nir Rosen

BAGHDAD - Thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites staged a demonstration in Baghdad's al-Hurriya square on Sunday to protest the closure of al-Hawza newspaper, the mouthpiece for radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada Sadr. They demanded an apology from the Americans for insulting the Shi'ite seminary, and all Iraqis.

Al-Hawza was published every Thursday and sold throughout Iraq. The text of Muqtada's sermon from the previous Friday was displayed on the front page. News of Muqtada's latest activities, such as an invitation to all his representatives in Iraq to meet him in Najaf, or his latest pronouncement, were also on the front page. Al-Hawza contained articles obliquely critical of moderate leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Typical headlines were "Kurdistan always belonged to Iraq", "America kills then apologizes" (with a picture of Americans abusing an old man), "America releases prisoners after the Hawza threatens them", "Iraqis of all religions and sects refuse to watch half naked women on television".

A very large headline in block letters was "Facing the arrests and assassinations from our common enemy: And do not let them tell you that we have many enemies, we only have one [implying the Americans]". Muqtada is quoted in headlines as saying "America benefited from the events in Karbala to make a war against me", "even if they establish a government I will not be a part of it", and "the American veto makes the Iraqi Governing Council unimportant, but if it removes its veto I will support it".

An article called "Pens serving the Zionists" was about a Kuwaiti journalist who criticized Muqtada. "The Iraqi Governing Council appoints American woman as Iraqi ambassador to US" says a disapproving article. Another one criticizes the Kurds for "killing the nation".

"We are still under the rule of Saddam [Hussein] but with an American face" began one article, explaining that "one of the successes of America's occupation here is the distribution of moral corruption by selling the pornographic movies and liquor and hashish that America brought with it to Iraq. They are showing pornographic movies in the cinemas and people are drinking alcohol in the streets and showing bad and immoral movies on the Hebrew media network [a reference to the American-established Iraqi media network] and Hura TV [a US government-produced television station] and even in children's movies in order to create a new generation that is far from the Islamic religion and has Western ideologies that do not oppose the Anglo-American Zionist ideology. We ask the Governing Council about these malicious operations against Islam and why they do not prevent them."

After many American threats to arrest Muqtada in the past, the American occupying forces accused al-Hawza of fomenting violence against them and closed its offices for 60 days, padlocking and chaining the doors, handing the editor a letter signed by US civilian administrator L Paul Bremer, explaining that the newspaper had violated a ban on fomenting violence. The letter cited several instances in which the paper had slandered the occupying forces, such as an article entitled "Bremer follows the steps of Saddam" and an article accusing American helicopters of firing rockets at an Iraqi police station. Buses brought protestors into the central Baghdad al-Hurriya circle, where they waved flags and shouted "No to America!" and "We don't want another Saddam!"

Though the Americans might be attempting to silence a vocal and vitriolic critic of their efforts in Iraq, the move plays directly into Muqtada's hands. Hamid Bayati, the spokesmen for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, confirmed that the move would only "provoke Muqtada Sadr's supporters", and confirm Iraqi suspicions that Americans are hypocritical and selective in their application of democracy. The occupying forces have already punished alJazeera and al-Arabiya, two Arabic satellite news networks, for broadcasting programs the Americans found distasteful.

In other articles in al-Hawza, it accused American soldiers of "killing policemen in Faluja, even though they knew they were police", and it urged the police to "stop protecting the occupation forces from the Iraqi armed resistance".

Interestingly, unlike other Shi'ite leaders and publications, the resistance was not referred to negatively with words such as "terrorist" or "criminal". Instead of the typical pejorative descriptions, al-Hawza chose the more positive "Iraqi armed resistance".

Another article warns that "America is untrustworthy and this is why [Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini called it the big devil because it came specifically to destroy Islam and to halt the export of the Islamic Revolution from Iran". Yet another article claims that "American forces have started throwing their dead into the sea, fearing public opinion [in America] and also fearing that people will vote against the young [George W] Bush in the next elections". The newspaper urged people to "watch the Iranian Sahar channel [which specializes in Islamic programming] because it shows the real aims of American politics and the hidden truth of the British and their goals ... After [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell failed in the United Nations he came to Iraq to represent the American leadership of the coalition forces and to visit the areas attacked with chemical weapons in order to harm the people. They want to show that America is the peacemaker of the world. America hates Islam and Muslims as proven by the American slogan the war against terror."

Another article called "Our enemies the Masons" describes Masons as "a secret movement joined with the Zionists and possessing millions of soldiers throughout the world of all nations and religions and it takes over the weak minds and weak spirits who have no religion. It is founded by Jews and it aims to destroy all other religions."

An editorial stated that "everyone knows that the West is a bitter enemy to Islam. No sane man can believe that America supports the interests of Muslims". The editorial speaks of "the many insults against religious figures ... statements denigrating the religion of Muslims ... the perversion of anything said by Muslims to make it sound like they support terrorism".

The editorial describes Bremer as "a Zionist Christian follower of US President George Bush. Because Bremer is as foolish as the man who sent him, he thought that it would be easy to erase Islam from the souls of 25 million people in Iraq and complete his and the West's desire to erase Islam from the earth ... does this third rate intelligence agent and terrorism expert think he can erase the religion of God? Bremer does not know more than the intelligence officers of the previous regime who tried to remove Islam from the hearts and minds of men and women whose faith was strengthened as a reaction. Bremer is foolish because he failed in the goal of trying to erase Islam from the lives of people who lived with and by Islam for many centuries. These people were only defeated when they strayed from Islam."

The author complains that "the great religious leaders kept silent". He quotes the Prophet Mohammed as saying that "He who witnesses a bad deed must change it with force. If he cannot he must try giving advice. If he cannot he must try to change it with his heart." The author states that the "religious leaders" (implying Sistani) cannot even do these things. Bremer is accused of being hostile to Islam and giving tacit approval to the looting of Iraq's cultural heritage and oil as well as the violence in Iraq.

The punishment of yet another media outlet can only confirm the worst views Iraqis have of Americans and draw parallels with the censorship imposed by the previous government. Shi'ites view themselves as an oppressed and persecuted sect. Muqtada Sadr himself often warns of his impending martyrdom. By closing down the newspaper the Americans are supporting these fears. and continuing to squander the goodwill they might have received from Shi'ites in the beginning of the occupation, when they had disposed of Saddam. Al-Hawza only had a circulation of a few tens of thousands. Muqtada reached his supporters through his sermons, CDs of which were then sold throughout the country, through statements posted on the walls of his local offices, and through the sermons of his local representatives. Closing al-Hawza will not prevent him from reaching his audience, it will only increase his supporters.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact [email protected] for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Mar 31, 2004

Method in Sistani's muscle flexing
(Mar 25, '04)

Lessons from a Sunni pulpit
(Mar 23, '04)

US dollars shape Iraq's media
(Jan 15, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong