IRAQ: Iraq, Iran, and Islam

February 8, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What role will Islam play in Iraq after the elections?

It’s unclear. The Shiite political coalition expected to win a majority of seats in the January 30 elections is dominated by religious parties who believe the new Iraqi state should respect and acknowledge sharia, the body of Islamic law. However, it is not clear what this will mean in practice. The Shiite coalition’s leaders have agreed to nominate a lay person, not a cleric, for the post of prime minister, and may forbid clerics from running government ministries, according toThe New York Times. On the other hand, some experts expect the coalition to push for the establishment of religious courts with authority over family law issues such as divorce and inheritance. Overall, the government is likely to be more moderate than the mullah-led theocracy in neighboring Iran, experts say. But even if clerics are formally excluded from the ministries, they could still wield considerable de facto authority by issuing rulings from the mosque on the legitimacy of the government’s actions.

What will determine the extent to which Islam is incorporated into legal and governmental agencies?

There are many open questions that make predicting the future role of Islam in Iraq difficult. They include:

  • The influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric and the organizer of the Shiite electoral coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.
  • The extent of power religious Shiites wield in the transitional National Assembly to be elected January 30.
  • Internal Shiite political and ideological divisions.
  • Iran’s influence on Iraqi elections and political parties.
  • Interpretation of Islamic law by leading Iraqi Shiites.

What is Ayatollah Sistani’s view?

Sistani, Iraq’s most influential political figure, has said no law in Iraq should conflict with Islamic principles, and that Islam should be recognized in law as the religion of the majority of Iraqis. He has also spoken in favor of elections, freedom of religion, and other civil liberties, and has not called for an official government role for clerics. On the other hand, Sistani may well back efforts to make Iraq’s personal status law--governing such things as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony--a matter for sharia courts. On such matters, "Sistani will want Shiites to be under Shiite religious law, Chaldean Catholics to be under Catholic canon law, and Sunnis to be under Sunnisharia or Islamic codes," writes Juan Cole, an expert on Iraqi Shiites at the University of Michigan, on his website.

What might such a system look like?

Religious courts, at which clerics would officiate, could be outside the formal government structure and run parallel to the regular civil law system. In such a situation, each individual could decide whether to bring an issue before a religious or a state-run secular court, says John O. Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. Another possibility is that broader conservative norms--such as the banning of alcohol or the enforcement of veiling--could be enforced by "volunteer religious police" separate from the state but powerful in some areas of Iraq, says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. This extra-legal enforcement is already occurring in wide areas of southern Iraq and in some insurgent-held parts of the Sunni triangle, where liquor stores have been forced to close and women intimidated into veiling. Any formal implementation ofsharia law would be frowned upon by Western governments seeking a more secular framework for Iraq, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, at a recent AEI forum. But if it occurs, shariaenforcement will most likely be more moderate than in neighboring Saudi Arabia or Iran, Rubin said.

How quickly might Shiites move to implement such a system?

Experts disagree. If the Shiite coalition wins a majority of seats in the transitional National Assembly, its first act might be to formalize a sharia-based family court system, says Noah Feldman, an associate professor of law at New York University who advised the U.S.-led occupation government in 2003 on the writing of the Iraqi interim constitution. Shiite Islamists passed such a law through the Iraqi Governing Council last year, but it was later overturned. Others say the new government will move slowly and focus its energies on the debate over the new constitution, which the assembly is charged with drafting by September 2005 to replace the interim constitution.

What does the interim constitution say about Islam?

The interim constitution, which will remain in place until a permanent constitution is ratified and new elections held, enshrines Islam as Iraq’s official religion but also guarantees the freedom to practice other faiths. In a March 2003 compromise between Shiite religious conservatives and more secular council members, sharia was defined as "a source" of legislation but not the primary source. Religious conservatives, including SCIRI and Dawa representatives, agreed to this clause after adding an additional sentence that says no legislation can infringe upon the "universally agreed upon tenets of Islam." This debate will likely be revisited in constitutional discussions, with the religious Shiites in a better negotiating position as a result of their expected electoral strength.

What has Sistani’s role been in the elections?

He has issued a fatwa, or religious order, instructing all Iraqis to vote. A six-man committee organized by Sistani put together the unified Shiite slate, uniting 23 fractious political parties in a single coalition. Sistani has not explicitly endorsed the Shiite list, but in recent statements to the Arabic press, he has said that he "blesses" it. His visage adorns the slate’s campaign posters, and some of its candidates are telling voters that voting for them is a religious necessity. "Sistani is going further in the direction of explicit endorsement of a particular slate than I would have expected from him," Cole writes.

How do Sistani’s views differ from religious practice in Iran?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, was the innovator of a Shiite political theory called veliyat-i-faqih, or rule by Islamic jurist. This theory backed the idea that governments with authority over Shiites should be run by clerics in accordance with Islamic law. A longer-established Shiite position--often called quietism--holds that clerics shouldn’t get involved in day-to-day political affairs and instead should serve as an authority independent from the state. Sistani, though Iranian-born, has long favored the quietist, or moderate, tradition. This is why he does not support a formal role in the government for clerics.

Has Sistani acted as a quietist since the fall of Saddam Hussein?

No, many experts say. Sistani has been deeply involved in politics since Saddam Hussein’s ouster, even though he has not held any government positions. He may well continue to exercise a de facto veto over the future government by virtue of his religious authority, experts say. "It’s not an accurate analysis to say he stays out of politics. If that were true, he would have stayed completely out of forming a candidates list," says Katzman. "If anything, he’s been more involved in politics than anyone in Iraq right now," he says.

Will Sistani exert control over all the Shiite Islamists after the election?

Experts are unsure. The major Shiite parties were barely able to cobble together their unified political coalition under Sistani’s guidance. Some experts say this unity could collapse in postelection bickering.

How are the elections organized?

The rules of the January vote to elect a 275-member transitional National Assembly require that all Iraqis choose from a single national ballot, instead of voting for legislators to represent particular local districts as in the U.S. voting system. The ballot will contain approximately 100 slates, or lists of candidates. Each voter will choose one slate, and each slate will receive National Assembly seats according to the percentage of the nationwide vote it wins. Candidates will be seated according to their position on the list, with those at the top seated first.

Who are the most important figures on the Shiite slate?

  • Abdul Aziz al-Hakim: The top candidate on the list is Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a well-organized Islamic party with extensive Iranian ties. Hakim ran SCIRI’s armed wing, the Iran-trained Badr Brigades, until the assassination of his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, in August 2003. The Hakims are a prominent Shiite clerical family. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is considered likely to decide to remain as a legislator in the assembly. "I think his preference may be to rule from behind the throne," Katzman says.
  • Adil Abdul Mahdi: The current finance minister is considered a religious moderate despite his membership in SCIRI. He has a secular background and was educated in France, and is a possible choice for prime minister.
  • Ibrahim al-Jaafari: Jaafari, second on the Shiite slate, is the leader of the Dawa Islamiyah, or Islamic Call Party, a once-secretive Iraqi Islamist movement that resisted Saddam Hussein’s rule and was brutally repressed. Jaafari is a physician from Mosul and a vice president of the interim Iraqi government. He is another possible candidate for president or prime minister.
  • Hussein Shahrastani: Shahrastani, seventh on the unified slate, is a moderate Shiite who was U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s first choice for prime minister of the Iraqi interim government. A former nuclear scientist who was jailed by Saddam Hussein in 1979, Shahrastani was educated in Canada and is married to a Canadian. He is close to Sistani and another possible candidate for prime minister, experts say.
  • Ahmad Chalabi: A former favorite of the Pentagon, the 58-year-old Chalabi fell out of favor with Washington last year over claims he had inflated prewar intelligence and passed U.S. secrets to Iran. A secular Shiite who spent many years in exile in the Middle East and the United States, Chalabi is tenth on the slate.

What is SCIRI’s position on religious rule in Iraq?

It’s unclear, though it has a history of backing clerical rule. The party was founded in Iran by Iraqi exiles in 1982, and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim was a proponent of the Khomeinist concept of veliat-i-faqih, experts say. However, in the months before his death, Ayatollah Hakim moderated his descriptions of Iraq’s future government. "We don’t want an extremist brand of Islam," he told thousands of supporters in an open-air stadium in Basra on May 10, 2003. "We want an Islam that is compatible with independence, justice, and freedom."

What has Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said about his political views?

Relatively little. He largely chooses to remain out of the spotlight and does not have a post in the interim government. At his brother’s funeral, he announced that he opposes the occupation and blamed coalition forces for failing to prevent his brother’s death. Hakim has also recently offered to supply some 100,000 armed men loyal to SCIRI to help secure the election. (The Badr Brigade entered Iraq with some 10,000 fighters in March 2003, and subsequently changed its name to the Badr Organization for Development and Reconstruction. It pledged to disarm in June 2004, but press reports indicate at least some members have retained their weapons).

When he discusses his religious views, Hakim strikes a moderate tone. "As regards the government that we want, we don’t want an Islamic government. We want a constitutional government that preserves the rights of everybody and a government that believes in the public rights; a government that works for the interest of the Iraqi people, and believes that the people are the source to derive all the important decisions that concern the future," he said through an interpreter in a December 2003 interview with PBS’s "Frontline". Some experts, however, say that SCIRI is more stridently religious than its public statements indicate. "Their rhetoric has been moderate--they don’t want to alarm anyone. But their whole outlook is very much inspired by Khomeini and the Islamic revolution," Katzman says.

What is Dawa’s view of the future role of religion in Iraq?

It’s also unclear. While Dawa received Iranian support in the Saddam Hussein era, it, unlike SCIRI, has never advocated direct clerical control of the government. Instead, it supported a more nuanced form of control in which clerics would oversee legislation and ensure that it conformed to Islamic norms, experts say. Dawa has split into several groups, making its current position even more difficult to decipher. But while some branches of Dawa appear close to the Iranians, some experts consider Jaafari a centrist. "He has been somewhat more moderate; he’s not going to take orders from Iran," Katzman says.

How strong is Iranian influence on Iraqi Shiites?

There are extensive connections between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, experts say. Many persecuted Shiites became exiles in Iran during the era of Saddam Hussein, and, while there, built families and friendships. Iraqi and Iranian clerics have often studied with the same scholars and in the same schools. "A skein of relationships was built up in this way that you cannot just erase," says Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history and expert on Iran at George Mason University. "The idea that Iran can be excluded from Iraq is very unrealistic. The ties are extensive and of a subtle kind."

What factors limit Iran’s influence?

Iraqi Shiites have a distinct sense of their Arab heritage, an important difference between them and the ethnically Persian Iranians, experts say. Shiites in Iraq fought with Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and resented wartime accusations that they were secretly allied with Tehran. In addition, Iraqi Shiites are unlikely to take orders from Iran or any other nation, Bakhash says. Some experts predict, in fact, the Shiite slate may be hurt politically by the perception that it is too close to Iran. "It’s one thing to accept help from the Iranians, and it’s another thing entirely to accept a very big role for the Iranians once you can run things in your own country. I don’t think that [Iranian control of Iraqi Shiite affairs] is a foregone conclusion," says Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Have Iraqi parties received funding from Iran?

Though the details are unclear, many Shiite religious parties, including SCIRI, Dawa, and the organization of Muqtada al-Sadr--the radical cleric whose followers battled U.S. forces in April and August of 2004--are believed to receive Iranian funds, experts say. The money is largely channeled through religious networks of schools, soup kitchens, and other forms of public assistance to Iraqi Shiites. "They [the Iranians] use their money cleverly, so it makes their aid more effective," Bakhash says. Even larger amounts of money raised worldwide, however, likely go to thehawza, the centralized network of schools and institutions run by Sistani, generally considered the globe’s highest-ranking Shiite cleric. All Muslims are required to donate a share of their income to charities and religious institutions.

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