The end of secularism in Iraq

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The marad al-ras pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala in 1959 was a pivotal moment in Iraqi history. As always, the religious establishment in Karbala awaited the arrival of the pilgrims and proceeded with its routine preparations. However, when the crowds appeared, the clerics looked at them in astonishment and horror: only a few hundred believers, the lowest numbers ever, bothered to make the trip. This stood in stark contrast to the millions who during the same period were joining trade unions, the Iraqi Communist Party and other radical organisations and who were bristling with revolutionary fervour. The religious establishment realised with bitter dissatisfaction to what extent its influence was waning throughout the country.

In response to the growing tide of secularisation in Iraq, the religious class in Najaf decided to take two initiatives: to advance an Islamic political doctrine to challenge and eventually supersede all leftist ideologies in Iraq, and to create a modern political organisation that would serve to implement this ideology in practice.

Also by Zaid Al-Ali in openDemocracy:

“Iraq – the lost generation” (November 2004)

“Iraq’s dangerous elections” (December 2004)

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This is the origin of the Da’wa party, whose long march to political victory is symbolised by the appointment of Ibrahim Ja’afari, one of its most prominent members, as prime minister. The current political and social context serves to reinforce its historic achievement: whereas the Iraqi Communist Party fared extremely poorly in the January 2005 elections, electing only two members to the national assembly, millions of pilgrims made their way to Karbala in 2003 and 2004 to mark the ‘Ashura’ festival.

The success of radical movements created the circumstances of the Da’wa party’s birth. The failure of their policies created the circumstances that it needed in order to flourish.

Iraqi nationalists and leftist radicals each reviled the monarchy established by Britain in the 1920s: the first group because of its political and military dependence on Britain, the second because of the abject poverty of Iraq’s workers that it imposed or sanctioned. The avowed aim of the revolutionaries who came to power in 1958 was to reverse these trends by adopting strongly social and redistributive policies. The economic situation for many of Iraq’s poor did indeed improve significantly over the next two decades, at least until the invasion of Iran in 1980. But three separate factors ensured the defeat of radical secular politics.

The first was the exclusion from government of large elements of society on the basis of race and religion. This contrasted with life under the monarchy, when the country’s religious and ethnic minorities were relatively well represented in public life (even though the poor were mostly neglected). The Ba’ath party that took power in 1968 had its roots in Iraq’s Sunni community, and at first it made few if any attempts to reach out to other groups. This changed somewhat in the late 1970s in reaction to increased dissatisfaction amongst the country’s large Shi’a population, but Shi’a representatives in government remained a small minority.

The second factor was the political repression and inhuman practices that successive Iraqi governments implemented. A number of atrocities had already taken place in the 1970s, but repression became more severe and systematic when Saddam Hussein consolidated his power in 1979. Iraqis as a whole suffered, but the Shi’a community in particular was made to bear the brunt of the war against Iran, and of the country’s economic meltdown in the 1990s.

The third factor in the retreat from secular politics was the fact that Saddam Hussein’s view of politics became more consistently totalitarian, leading even to the banning of the communist party with which the Ba’ath had shared power for a large part of the 1970s. Iraqis, refused an outlet for their disaffection, slowly began turning back to religion; the popularity of religion-based political organisations like the Da’wa party began to rise.

The invasion of 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was an opportunity for a new beginning for secular politics in Iraq. However, the occupation authorities, through a series of contradictory and counterproductive policies, merely succeeded in undermining secularism even further.

Before the war, the United States government allied itself with a number of different Iraqi factions which it then imposed on the rest of the country under the umbrella of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). The members of the IGC belonged to two categories. The first were representatives of religious political parties – including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and the Da’wa party – many of which had been supported (politically, financially and logistically) by Iran. The second were individuals – including Ahmad Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, and Adnan Pachachi – who had no popular backing whatsoever in Iraq, but whose secular tendencies made them the beneficiaries of US support. This category of IGC members was supposed to be the vanguard of secularism in the country.

The first mistake the US government made in the approach to war was the mere fact of choosing an ally like Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi is unquestionably gifted, but his involvement in financial scandals and close association with US plans for “regime change” should have made his unsuitability as leader of Iraqis obvious. Opinion polls in 2003-04 consistently found Chalabi to be the least popular politician in the country; sometimes he ranked even lower than Saddam Hussein.

In any event, US doubts about Chalabi in the post-invasion morass were fuelled by rumours that he was feeding information to the Iranians, and his erstwhile sponsors moved from harassing to discarding him. Chalabi has since reemerged as a leading member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the election-winning religious coalition, and he now frequently refers to the religious establishment as the source of his authority.

The record of Iyad Allawi, interim prime minister under the Americans, is only slightly better than Ahmad Chalabi’s. His party, Iraq’s only national secular party (apart from the communists) obtained only 14% of the vote in January’s elections. Allawi’s problems included the fact that during his tenure, he was led – whether by circumstance, conviction, or pressure from the occupation authorities – to support full-blown military assaults against important symbols of both the Shi’a (Najaf, August 2004) and Sunni (Fallujah, November 2004). The fact that Allawi took credit for these operations made him deeply unpopular and undermined the US administration’s efforts to make him an attractive candidate for Iraqi moderates.

Adnan Pachachi was the Americans’ lamest duck. His lack of any political constituency in Iraq was compounded by the election boycott of most Sunni voters. In the event, Pachachi’s party failed even to muster the approximately 30,000 votes needed to obtain a single seat in parliament. Utterly defeated, he has practically withdrawn from Iraqi affairs.

The American occupation authorities created a situation in which secular candidates were either pressed to convert to religious politics, were forced to associate themselves with unpopular policies, or fizzled out altogether. By contrast, the religious parties were allowed to function almost unhindered and remained unblemished by association with the occupation. Iraqis were left with a choice between the ethnically based and mainly tribal Kurdish parties and the religious orientation of the Shi’a political parties.

Iraq’s new ruling class has much to deal with – corruption, terrorism, economic breakdown (including one of the highest levels of public debt in the world), and foreign occupation. To add to its misfortune, the Iraqi people have high expectation of their new rulers. Indeed, many participated in the elections under the impression that their problems would be resolved if properly elected officials were to assume power. This may prove to be the undoing of the religious class, for not only are Iraq’s problems virtually irresolvable, but much of the country’s new political class is clueless as to what public office actually entails.

Thus, just as radical politics emerged in reaction to the social injustice of the monarchy, and as religious politics arose from the injustices committed in the name of radicalism, a new politics can be expected to develop from Iraq’s post-invasion trauma. In the meantime, though, secularism in Iraq has reached its end; for now and for the foreseeable future, but perhaps not – if modern Iraqi history, and the experience of marad al-ras is any guide – for all time.