BAGHDAD — Religious clerics are beginning to play an increasingly powerful role in Iraq. Many Iraqis now fear that they are endangering human rights and religious freedom in the once largely secular country.
Clerics began to play a major role since the U.S.-led occupation began in April 2003. Despite the promises of U.S. President George W. Bush to turn Iraq into a secular and free country, clerics have become the real leaders, and are beginning to control most political matters.
“It is the Iraqis’ misfortune that the international coalition has brought clerics to power,” Dr. Shakir Hamdan, an expert on Islamic issues told IPS in Baghdad. “They will only lead the country into sectarian wars and take the whole country into the dark ages where one man rules and freedom is lost.”
Hamdam cited a recent meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the powerful Shia Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, where matters of state were discussed.
“One can clearly see that already the powerful influence of clerics is apparent,” Hamdan said. “The parliament and government cannot take any step without first consulting the clerics.”
Iraq was largely secular under the rule of Saddam Hussein, given Saddam’s fear that religious movements and their leaders may undermine his power.
The invasion and occupation destroyed the Iraqi state and its institutions, leaving a power vacuum which was filled by religious leaders who offered basic services the state could no longer provide.
“Our country has turned from a secular into a purely religious country,” Munthir Sulayman, social reform activist in Baghdad told IPS. “We were dreaming of a huge development in social affairs to become more modern and free, where individuals can play their natural role in developing the country through participation in politics, economy and all aspects of life. What has happened is the opposite, and the country has become completely under control of clerics.”
Several academics and community leaders say they have lost their role in trying to improve the political and social structure.
The major Sunni group of clerics, The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), denies that imams are trying to upstage the government. “The country needs to be led by those who have experience and knowledge of the ways of reform and construction,” Dr. Abdul-Salam al-Kubayssi, assistant secretary general of the AMS told IPS in Baghdad.
“Our role is to support any national government that leads the country to safety and prosperity without playing any role of supervision or interference in its functioning. Ruling Iraq is too complicated to be led by a group of imams.”
But the U.S. occupation forces and their leadership have depended on clerics since the early days of occupation. The Iraqi Governing Council included clerics like Ayatollah Bahrul-Uloom and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, together with leaders of other Islamic parties like al-Dawa and the Iraqi Islamic Party.
The elections in January 2005 were almost completely controlled by religious groups and their political parties.
Shia parties, especially The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, led by Hakim, cited Sistani asking “believers” to vote for the political list that included the Shia coalition. That list continues to play a powerful role in government today.
U.S. forces and their appointed election supervisors did little to stop such sectarianism.
“It was the American theory to cooperate with clerics in order to control the situation in Iraq right from the beginning of occupation,” Fadhil Yasseen, a lawyer in Baghdad, told IPS. “That was obvious from the gestures that (former Coalition Provisional Authority head) Paul Bremer made to Sistani, and the full support he gave to the Shia coalition to take full control of Iraq.”
Yasseen added: “Now Iraqis and Americans are paying the cost with their blood and fortunes.”
Shia imams are now themselves divided. This is evident in their failure to agree on a coherent policy to take Iraq forward. Rival Shia groups are fighting each other to grab power in the Shia dominated areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq.
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)