When Hussein Al-Sadr, the director of the London-based Islamic Institute and a prominent Shi'a leader was asked by an Arab newspaper this week to define democracy he said: "it is to give the Iraqi people the right to express their true opinions about the US presence in their country." On Tuesday, Iraq's Shi'a population -- estimated at 15 million -- demonstrated this when hundreds of thousands flocked to the city of Karbala to commemorate the battle of Karbala, in which the Prophet Mohamed's grandson, Imam Hussein, was martyred in the year 680. To Iraq's Shi'a, this public show of force marked the end of almost 25 years of systematic targeting of Shi'a institutions, leaders and rituals. According to observers of the Iraqi scene, such a massive mobilisation of Shi'a influence and power is also a political display. This was visible in many a banner during the two day demonstration of faith, which carried strong anti- American slogans. "The message is simple; the Shi'a of Iraq will not accept that Saddam be replaced by another force which denies them their basic rights and shows disrespect for their political aspirations," one Iraqi analyst told Al-Ahram Weekly on Monday.
As Iraq's different secular forces begin to re-group, organise their rank and file and promote their political activities for the first time publicly, the religious establishment emerged as the most organised structure to channel overwhelmingly anti-US public sentiment and reflect the free will of ordinary Iraqis. Indeed, fears continue to grow in Washington that the religious establishment might step in to fill the power vacuum and thus undermine the US's presence in the country. But in its attempt to curb the influence of religious leaders, the US is risking the creation of more enemies.
While this week's events further exposed the difficulties which face the US occupying forces in dealing with new political realities in Iraq, it has also put to the test the way those forces will handle the emerging power of the religious establishment. On Friday, Iraq's two Islamic sects closed ranks and thousands of worshippers responded to calls for an anti-US march after the prayers. United behind the common agenda of "an Islamic state" and against the common enemy of "US occupation", Friday's protests were eyed nervously by the Americans. On Monday, tension was evident when word spread that US forces arrested five prominent Shi'a religious leaders, among them Sheikh Mohamed Al- Fartousi, the head of the Baghdad chapter of the Najaf-based Al-Hawaza religious seminary. Angered by this move, thousands of Iraqis, both Shi'a and Sunni, took to the streets in protest against the arrests and the US presence in Iraq.
The incident highlighted the build-up of tension between the occupying forces and the Iraqi religious establishment. During the two week-long occupation, many of Iraq's prominent religious leaders have upped the ante against the US presence. Shi'a and Sunni leaders were united in their rhetoric to establish a political order which, "secures independence, freedom and justice for all Iraqis under the banner of Islam", in the words of Said Mohamed Bakr Al- Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Al-Hakim urged Iraqis to flock to Karbala "to demonstrate their rejection of any foreign control."
Additionally, Western press reports spoke of an emerging role for the pre- eminent religious seminary in Najaf, led by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The seminary, Al-Hawaza Al-Deeniya, was established some 1300 years ago and is one of the most prestigious centres of Islamic learning and Shi'a teaching. Recent events have raised questions about whether or not Al-Hawaza will claim a role in the shaping of the future political make-up of Iraq. According to one prominent Shi'a leader, the seminary has always played an essential and important role in the shaping of political events in Iraq over the years. Even under the Ba'th, the seminary was a springboard of opposition against the regime, and its leaders were systematically targeted by Saddam's men. "Al-Hawaza maintains the right to engage in any activities that will serve the interests of the Iraqi people," Mohamed Al-Assadi, a spokesperson at the SCIRI told the Weekly from Tehran. "It will not, however, support a particular party or political grouping," he added. Al-Assadi dismissed suggestions that there were already clear cut plans for the seminary to engage in political activities. Thus, the debate over what role Al-Hawaza will play in Iraq's future is far from settled. "There is not yet a clear vision as to whether or not or how the religious authorities of Al-Hawaza will engage in political acts but again there is not a particular political platform or programme over how it will exercise influence over matters political," Al-Assadi said.
Indeed, a debate is currently raging within the Shi'a leadership in Najaf about the role which Al-Hawaza will assume. According to sources at the Al- Da'wa Party, another important Shi'a movement, there are two views dominating the discussions; one which wants to keep Al-Hawaza's traditional advisory role as a learning centre and another more ambitious group led by the 30-year-old Muqtada Al-Sadr, the son of prominent Shi'a ayatollah, Mohamed Sadeq Al-Sadr, which seeks to translate the powerful status of Al- Hawaza into a political force to be reckoned with. In a statement issued earlier this week, Ayatollah Ali Al- Sistani called on all Iraqis to "reject any foreign rule in Iraq." Nonetheless, he was quick to stress that "[we] do not want to engage in a power grab in Iraq and do not seek any authority." This statement was seen as a move by Najaf's religious establishment to distance themselves from any claim to power in Iraq's future political order.
But in the view of many observers, the statement was itself a political act given the issues it touched upon. "The supreme [leadership] of Al-Najaf rejects any foreign rule over Iraq. Al- Sistani will not interfere or exercise influence over the national administration which the Iraqis choose." The statement reserved harsh words for the occupation forces which it blamed outright for acts of looting and the plundering of Iraq's heritage. There was also an implicit reference to the role the seminary would take in resisting the occupation forces. "The history of the Shi'a ulama since the beginning of the century clearly shows that it was the sole force that could rally the public against foreign occupation." The statement also referred to Iraq as "a Muslim country" and emphasised that its Islamic values should be honoured. Observers say that the demands by Iraqi protesters -- both Sunni and Shi'a -- for an Islamic order will pose a challenge to US efforts to set up a pro-American regime. While Iraqis do not envisage the establishment of an Islamic state similar to that of Iran, many still insist that Iraq's Islamic identity should be respected. In response to those public sentiments, Baghdad's self-appointed mayor said this week that the country's new constitution would be based on Islamic law. But Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of Iraqi National Congress and a pro- American figure, said he did not envisage an Islamic theocracy in Iraq. Chalabi added that he would rather see a role for Islamic religious parties which, he admits, would have some support but would not force a theocracy on the Iraqi people.
The Iraqi Shi'a want their political aspirations to be respected but does this mean that a state will be established where the majority rules? "No," says Muwafaq Al-Rube'ie, an Iraqi political analyst and signatory to a lengthy study entitled: "The declaration of the Shi'a of Iraq", published in June 2002. "Any policy which calls for the division of power on the basis of overt sectarianism -- such as is the case in Lebanon -- cannot work within the Iraqi context. The division of the spoils according to demographic formulae will result in communal sectarianism turning into a social and political reality. Iraq has always suffered from a sectarian system and not from communal sectarianism per se," Al-Rube'ie told the Weekly.
The study, which was jointly authored by a group of Iraqi intellectuals, organisations and professional groups, deals at length with "the Shi'a question in Iraq", and although it appeared way before the US invasion of Iraq, it nonetheless warns against "the connivance of the foreign controlling power in the establishment of sectarian bases of political power to set the stage for the evolution of a sectarian system". The study draws from Iraq's historical experience when, in its attempt to rule Iraq, Britain succeeded in dividing communities when it proposed the formation of an Iraqi government. This was the model that was subsequently followed.
"Western press reports don't understand the situation in its totality. Sectarian differences do not constitute a social, intellectual or political issue in the Iraqi context ... the Iraqi Shi'a have a strong sense of belonging to the Arab nation. They feel themselves [to be] Arabs before they are Shi'a. The attempt to initiate communal sectarianism is unthinkable because of the interconnectedness between the two sects [Sunni and Shi'a] along social, financial and familial lines," says Al- Rube'ie.
So what do the Iraqi Shi'a want? "The Shi'a are not seeking to establish a unique political entity," says Al- Rube'ie. "They aspire to set up democratic rule, respect for the civil rights of Iraq's different groups and the insistence on Iraq's national unity as a clear starting principle." In this they echo the concerns and aspirations of not only Iraq's majority but its minorities as well. Whether or not such mighty goals will be achieved under the heavy hand of the occupation, and how Washington will react to such aspirations remains to be seen.