August 23, 2005


As most Iraq-watchers know, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post consistently puts out some of the best Iraq stories around—including this one the other day about Kurdish and Shiite militias controlling the country. No surprise, then, that his new book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, is truly outstanding. In particular, this bit of historical context seems important for understanding Sunni dynamics:
[M]ore often than not, the Sunni clergy, or ulema, have served as an instrument of government power, legitimizing the status quo even in times of despotism, and currying favor with rulers for financial gain or otherwise. Their subservience has diminished their credibility. In contemporary Egypt, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to the present, the Sunni ulema are notorious for their creative ability to bestow blessings on policies dear to the government: peace with Israel, for instance, or the paying of interest on loans, which was thought expressly forbidden by Islam. They did the same in Iraq under Saddam, lionizing a man who never treated religion as more than a vehicle for his own self-enshrinement or as a path to secure elusive legitimacy. That relationship hurt the reputation of the Sunni clerics: at worst, they were regarded by their people as lackeys; at best, they were seen as impotent functionaries in times to dire for weakness.

Among the most reverent in much of the modern Arab world, this invited a backlash against the Sunni clergy. In response, in recent decades, new generations of devout Sunni Muslims had risen to interpret the Quran for themselves. Although the older clergy was still respected by some, a younger, far more militant, activist contingent was gaining force, with its own reading of religion. And whereas Shiite Islam had a rigid hierarchy and preordained protocol for advancement, Sunni Islam did not; so the new contingent could emerge more assertively and did so brazenly in the 1960s and 1970s. Joining these new militants were laymen—youths who resembled Fahdawi [i.e., an insurgent radicalized by the occupation and killed by American forces] and his colleagues in their ardor—who had taken it upon themselves to define Islam, its message, and its meaning within their own context. They had already made their mark in places like Egypt, where in 1981 Mohammed Abdel-Salam al-Farag, an Egyptian electrician of humble origins, wrote a pamphlet that laid the philosophical justification for the assassination of Anwar Sadat. His argument: Islam, as a religion of revolution, impels its followers to sedition against illegitimate and unfaithful rulers... Now Fahdawi and his men, inspired by the American occupation, were also linking their struggle with the militant aspirations of the larger Arab world.

Like many religious movements in Muslim countries, political Islam was elastic in Iraq, in Khaldiya, and in the homes of Fahdawi and his men. They adopted it to local circumstances, molded it to their own context, but drew from it the symbolism and meaning they desired. For Fahdawi and his colleagues, faith was tailored for resistance against foreign occupation and, through religion, they justified their deaths.
It seems that every two months in Iraq, various members of the clergy offer a plan for entering politics and coming to terms with the rest of the country, and it never seems to go anywhere. I don't expect any different with the latest offer. Shadid's point, if I understand it correctly, explains a lot of this: Clerical groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars may be influential among some older section of the Sunni population, but among many of the younger and more radical Islamists, they may well garner very little respect. And they will likely lose even more of that respect if the olive branch towards the Americans gets extended too far. (Also, as with many other Muslim countries, there is probably the equivalent of a salafiyya movement in Iraq—a group of fundamentalists trying to reform the clergy who nevertheless aren't actually militants.) At times, the oft-chanted mantra that the Sunnis "need to be drawn into the political process" seems almost futile—there may be very few, if any, Sunni leaders, even religious leaders, who can command the allegiance of a somewhat significant part of the population.

Shadid also makes an underappreciated point about the insurgency: the various strands aren't just linked by nationalism and resistance to the occupation, but very crucially by Islam as well: "In the Sunni arc of Iraq, in the vacuum left by Saddam's fall, Islam served to unify and motivate a disparate variety of factions and currents. The result was a hybrid of religion and nationalism. We were witnessing a fusion of two distinct but mutually reinforcing ideologies, sometimes as critical of Saddam as they were of the Americans."

What this all portends, I don't know. Many Sunnis became increasingly radicalized during the latter half of the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein launched his "Enhancement of Islamic Faith" campaign in the region. That process seems to have accelerated during the US occupation, and this younger generation seems to include the folks giving Zarqawi so much native support. There are also a good number of somewhat secular insurgents out there, especially Saddam's former military officers who seem to be causing a great deal of trouble—teaching the rest new military tactics and directing the sabotage—which is why setting up an amnesty for those folks sounds like a good idea.

But even after that's over and done with, there will still remain a broad swath of extremist Sunnis, who are fiercely anti-occupation, sure, but also don't seem too keen on being ruled by Shiites and Kurds and a pliant and aging Sunni clergy. Some Iraqi scholars think that parts of the Sunni region may be just as separatist as the Kurds—despite the fact that they have no oil wealth. These folks probably aren't very well represented by the constitution-writers in Baghdad right now. So I wonder how effective this much-heralded "political solution" can be (which, at any rate, isn't going very well), just as I wonder how much the insurgency will really be "demotivated" by a US withdrawal—perhaps this particular genie can't be stuffed back in the bottle. (That's not an argument against withdrawal, just trying to figure it out...)
-- Brad Plumer 11:50 AM || ||