Mixed messages characterise Iraqi ulama’s response to their greatest challenge

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 04, 1424 2003-09-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13, Rajab, 1424)

ZAFAR BANGASH , director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), discusses the challenges facing Iraqi ulama under American occupation and their responses to those challenges.

"History," said the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, "is relentless. It spares and favours no one." What verdict history will pass on the ulama of Iraq – both Shia and Sunni – will depend on the role they play vis-a-vis the US occupation.

So far their role has been ambivalent; most are keeping their heads down, leading their flocks in prayer and mourning at the shrines of Imams Ali and Husain (ra). Is this really all that is required of them? What would the two illustrious Imams have done in similar circumstances? Was not their entire struggle devoted to fighting injustice, tyranny and oppression? Otherwise there was no need for Imam Husain to leave Medina and go to a strange land – Karbala – with his family and friends, and sacrifice their lives there, if there had been no higher purpose to be served.

In a hadith, the noble Messenger (saw) has said that the ulama are the inheritors of the Prophetic mantle. But how should one view those ulama who content themselves only with the rites and rituals of Islam: its body but not its life? In present-day Iraq, if they remain silent, they will be considered accomplices in the crimes being perpetrated by the occupiers. According to the Daily Telegraph (August 19), the Iraqi civilian death toll is now about 45 a day, all killed by American soldiers. What the Daily Telegraph failed to mention was that Americans are also breaking down doors in the middle of the night and insulting women and girls, in a society where such behaviour is considered worse than murder. It is such behaviour that has led Iraq’s people to resist the occupiers more and more boldly. No propaganda that the attacks against the occupation are carried out by Saddam loyalists can hide the fact that the Iraqis are fed up with American high-handedness, and increasingly willing to take huge risks to fight back.

Even the New York Times (August 14) heaped scorn on a White House report released last month that boasted of "broad international support" in Iraq, when in fact "Washington still scrambles to line up countries willing to contribute peacekeeping troops without expanded United Nations authority." The Times editorial went on: "In Iraq today, American soldiers die, electricity shortages lead to rioting, and the threat of terrorism against civilians must be taken increasingly seriously." Despite the paper’s ludicrous claim that there is a "threat of terrorism against civilians," the fact that official American claims are now being challenged even by the Americans’ own media confirms that things are going horribly wrong for the US.

None of this is at all unexpected. Those familiar with the Iraqi situation, including Crescent International, predicted long before the aggression that there would be resistance. Its scale, however, has surprised observers and caused panic in Washington. The attack on the UN compound in Baghdad on August 19 that killed 24 people, including UN representative de Mello, has led to intense debate in Washington. American military planners were doubtful about the adventure even before it was launched, but they were overruled by civilian hawks such as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, vice president Dick Cheney, and the superhawks Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Now there is even greater doubt about the wisdom of the Iraqi operation, and efforts are under way to hand the mess to the UN so that the US can pull out. Other countries are being pressed to send troops to fight America’s war for it.

It is, however, the role and responsibility of the ulama that concern us. When American helicopters tore down a flag from a tower near a mosque in Sadr City, a northeastern neighbourhood of Baghdad, on August 13, the people’s reaction was instant. Not only did thousands pour onto the streets, but angry sermons were delivered the next Friday against such vandalism. While such reactions are natural, it must be asked whether America’s occupation of Iraq and the murder of scores of civilians daily are any less worthy of attention.

Why have these ulama – Shia and Sunni alike – not issued a fatwa declaring jihad against the occupiers? There appears to be an odd lack of understanding of issues: it should be clear that Saddam’s loss is not the Islamic movement’s gain; America did not overthrow the Iraqi tyrant to hand over the government to genuine representatives of Iraq’s people. American officials have made no secret of their desire to install a "US-friendly" regime in Iraq; stripped of rhetoric, this means a puppet government.

The Iraqi Governing Council was endorsed by a UN security council resolution on August 14. The killing of Vieira de Mello five days later was the Iraqis’ response to the UN’s meddling in their affairs. De Mello had been instrumental in the formation of the Governing Council. The US has pointedly kept the UN out of any decision-making role in Iraq, yet is not averse to using it to advance its own agenda. Some Iraqis seem to have seen through this pretence and struck back, exposing the UN for what it is: an instrument of US policy.

There are other failings also of the Iraqi ulama; the two Shia centres of learning – Najaf and Karbala – appear to be competing for influence among Shias worldwide, in competition with Qum in Iran. Furthermore, they are trying to outbid each other. Even within each city there are rivalries among ulama; some are for the occupation, others against. This is a recipe for disaster. Such divisions enable outsiders to meddle in the Muslims’ internal affairs. At a time when Muslims are looking for leadership, the Iraqi ulama are absent from the scene. They should know that if they do not fill the power vacuum then other, less savoury, characters, will emerge to do so. For decades the ulama of Iraq have complained about Saddam’s brutality, and suffered greatly as a consequence. Now that an opportunity is here for them to lead their people, they are failing to rise to the occasion.

This is both the result of historical inertia, especially among traditional Shia ulama, who shun worldly authority in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, and of a lack of experience. While the late Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad overcame the Shias’ historical aversion to playing a role in worldly affairs, there appears to be a significant number of ulama who still cling to untenable theological positions. These must be tested in the crucible of history; if they have failed to produce the desired results, they must be modified or abandoned. This leap in ijtihad appears not to have been made by most ulama in Iraq.

We must also take into account the determined effort that is under way to target the Islamic Revolution, and present it as a failed experiment, so that other Muslims will not aspire to emulate it. While there is no doubt that officials in Islamic Iran have made many mistakes, and continue to do so, the fact remains that Islamic Iran is the only truly independent country in the world today.

Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution (February 1979), efforts have been under way to undermine and destroy it. Internal sabotage, a full-scale invasion from Iraq, economic sanctions, a vicious propaganda-campaign, and recently another attempt at internal sabotage, have all been attempted against the Islamic state. To the mistakes made by Iranian officials must be added the disruptions caused by US-led intrigue and sabotage, yet Iran’s Islamic system has survived so far, thanks to Allah and then its people. But the Revolution’s continued survival cannot be taken for granted, and the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and (effectively) Pakistan as well, is all meant to surround, besiege and undermine Islamic Iran.

In the two theatres where US forces are directly involved – Afghanistan and Iraq – the US has been less than successful. Iraq has been an even bigger shock for the Americans than Afghanistan. It has all the makings of Lebanon of the eighties, when zionist tanks rolled into the country and went all the way to Beirut, installing a puppet government led by a Phalangist warlord, Bashir Jumayyil. He was killed in a bomb-explosion before he could assume the presidency, but was replaced by his older brother, Amin. The Lebanese people, especially the Shias in the South, at first welcomed the Israelis as "liberators" but then turned against them. In Lebanon, however, the ulama took their responsibilities seriously; they did not take refuge behind the traditional Shia quietism. Inspired by the leadership of Imam Khomeini (ra), they took on the mightiest army in the Middle East and inflicted heavy blows, forcing it to retreat in disgrace in May 2000. The emergence of Hizbullah and its ability to take on the zionists, and their protectors, was made possible only because of the role played by the ulama in Lebanon.

The ulama in Iraq do not have the luxury of waiting for 18 years before they drive the Americans out. Because the US is finding it heavy going, it is leaning heavily on other countries to send troops to hold Iraq on its behalf. Already there are 21,000 troops from 18 countries involved in various duties in addition to the 146,000 American soldiers. While the US and its puppets continue to wreak havoc in Iraq, Muslims from around the world who show any sympathy for the Iraqi people are branded as "terrorists"; a slightly less offensive term is "jihadis." Both epithets are meant to discredit the genuine help committed Muslims wish to extend to their brethren in Iraq, who have already suffered 13 years of sanctions imposed by the same US and Britain that now pretend to be their liberators. An estimated 1.5 million Iraqis perished as a result of sanctions; many are still dying. Their misery is now compounded by the cavalier attitude of American troops.

Within the US a growing body of public opinion is turning against the war, which most now view as a war of aggression. There is much unease among the families of American soldiers in Iraq. The soldiers themselves have become thoroughly demoralized, and complain bitterly about being stuck in a hell-hole. Because George Bush and his associates lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, more and more Americans are beginning to see that the war was launched to serve the personal interests of a small clique. They might have got away with it if the war and occupation had gone well, but that is not happening. The Bush administration is also feeling the heat; in recent days such decorated former military officers as general Anthony Zinni, who has been critical of the war, have been branded as "traitors." This is surely a sign of the US government’s growing desperation.

For the ulama of Iraq this is an opportune moment. They have already demonstrated their leadership skills in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, when chaos and mayhem gripped the country; the people responded to their appeals for calm. The Iraqis have now risen up without anyone’s prompting; the misery and horrors to which they are subjected have left them no choice. The ulama can leadership by speaking out against the injustices of the occupiers, and articulating their people’s grievances. They must also demand the immediate withdrawal of all occupation forces.

If they fail to do so, others will take over leadership who might well turn out to be even more ruthless than Saddam was. The ulama will then have to fight that battle virtually alone, as their people will not be likely to sympathise much with them if the ulama have played a less than noble role during the occupation. So Iraq’s ulama can lead the fight for liberation now, or fight for survival later.

Whatever they decide, they must bear in mind that history will judge them in accordance with their deeds. It is better to live for a day with dignity and go down fighting for truth and justice, than to live for a thousand years in humiliation and disgrace.

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