Converted Iraqi Politician Knows Religious Divide

Maha al Douri is a Shiite lawmaker who once was a Sunni. She says she was first attracted to Shiite Islam as a college student and converted because Shiite Islam seemed more peaceful than the Sunni strand. When Douri converted, her Sunni family disowned her. When she married a Shiite man, her relatives threatened to kill her.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Iraq now, violence continues to push the country towards civil war, and the divide between Sunni and Shiite Arabs is so deep that the once friendly groups barely speak now. So consider the life of the person we're going to meet next. In Iraq's Parliament you can find Maha al Douri, one of the lawmakers. She is a Shiite who was once a Sunni.

From Baghdad, NPR's Jamie Tarabay has al Douri's story.

JAMIE TARABAY: Tall and willowy, cloaked in layers of black, Maha al Douri moves as quickly as she talks, all the while adjusting and readjusting the black crocheted veil over her abaya, the piece of fabric that's pulled across her chin marks her as a Shiite. Sunni women wear headscarf that don't cover their chins. Maha al Douri adopted the Shiite veil many years ago.

Ms. MAHA AL DOURI (Member, Iraq's Parliament; Shiite): (Through translator) I remember that when I first decided to cover my chin, this raised people's suspicions. No one expected that I would covert to Shiism because the mere idea was really weird.

TARABAY: Maha says she was first attracted to Shiite Islam as a college student by the teachings of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, father of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The elder Sadr was tremendously popular and influential among the oppressed Shiite majority during Saddam's rule. He was murdered in 1999, reportedly on Saddam's orders. Maha says she mourned the Ayatollah's death more than that of her own father.

Ms. AL DOURI: (Through translator) I remember it was raining that day. In the holy Quran, there's a verse that says when good people die, the sky cries for their death. I felt an endless emptiness inside me.

TARABAY: When Maha converted, her Sunni family disowned her. When she married a Shiite man her relatives threatened to kill her. She says one of her reasons for converting was that Shiite Islam seemed more peaceful than the Sunni strand. She says Shiite saints preach no one has the right to shed the blood of another human being. Sunni Islam, she says, preaches intolerance.

Ms. AL DOURI: (Through translator) You wouldn't follow an organization like al-Qaida that orders you to kill and dubs people infidels if they're not Sunni, or because you disagree with them. Is this the Islam the Prophet Mohammed called for? Islam can never be so.

TARABAY: Maha now lives in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad. Her protectors are militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. These same men are accused of killing and kidnapping Sunnis and evicting them from their homes. But Maha insists Sadr's militia preserves the dignity of the Shiites.

Ms. AL DOURI: (Through translator) They are simply people from all over Iraq driven by their gallantry to carry arms in the face of the occupier.

TARABAY: Maha al Douri blames all of Iraq's problems on the U.S. occupation. She alleges American forces were behind the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine last year that set off Iraq's roiling sectarian war. Echoing Sadr's rhetoric, Maha said Shiite militias are not killing Iraqis but fighting the American occupiers. As long as America stays, she says the security crisis will endure.

Ms. AL DOURI: (Through translator) Iraq is for Iraqis, so why should America stay? We have an elected government. America never gave us our sovereignty and is violating human rights on a daily basis.

TARABAY: Maha sums up her legislative agenda in a single phrase. She wants parliament to implement Sharia, strict Islamic law. She says that's the only thing that will save Iraq.

Ms. AL DOURI: (Through translator) The deteriorating situation in Iraq is because people drifted from Sharia and from their real religion and principles.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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