NPR logo Will Iraqis Stick With Religious Leadership?


Will Iraqis Stick With Religious Leadership?

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari speaks to the press on Aug. 24 as he announces a new coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, for January's election. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari speaks to the press on Aug. 24 as he announces a new coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, for January's election.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In Iraq, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, religious Shiite parties still dominate the political scene.

But with local politics in flux, Iraqis are beginning to question how far they want to follow these religious Shiite leaders, who are flexing their muscles after decades of being repressed by Saddam Hussein's largely Sunni regime. Liberal voices, though still in the minority, say Iraqis' preference for a relatively secular society may yet come to the fore.

The most urgent question in Iraqi politics is where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will wind up in January: as a member of the National Iraqi Alliance, the large, pro-Iranian Shiite bloc; as an independent heading his State of Law Party; or leading a new coalition that may combine Sunni, Shiite and independent elements.

The new religious Shiite alliance is refusing to guarantee Maliki a return to the prime minister's post if it wins a majority in the coming elections. Meanwhile, Sunni factions are talking about joining forces with Maliki. The most notable of these is Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha's Awakening Conference — Sunni militants who turned against al-Qaida.

Such an alliance would pose two major political questions in Iraq: First, will Iraqi nationalism prove stronger than the historical ties between Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority and neighboring Iran? And second, will Iraq, long seen as a relatively secular Arab society, join the movement toward greater Islamic influence over politics that is being felt across the Middle East?

A Lawmaker's View

Sheik Mohammed al-Hamidawi, a lawmaker from the Shiite Fadhila Party — part of the National Iraqi Alliance — says Iraq is a place where secular and religious elements coexist. But after decades of oppression by Saddam's Baath Party, Islamist parties are finally free to prove they can lead Iraq down the proper path, he says. He believes the Shiite leaders of Najaf, such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have done just that.

"Believe me, without the leadership of Najaf, without its preaching for people to coexist and to deal with others in a brotherly way, without this you would have seen Iraq today sinking into sectarian warfare," he says. "It would have been worse than Lebanon, worse than Somalia."

Hamidawi says despite the setbacks of ongoing violence and sectarian enmity, Iraq's religious parties are just beginning to spread their wings.

"I believe that history is going to write with pride that the Islamists in Iraq managed to restore the Iraqi state after it was turned by the American invasion into merely desert," he says. "It's the Islamists who built up the Iraqi state, who restored the respect of law. This is what was produced by the Islamists. Show me what the others produced!"

Mixed Reaction

Such sentiments are understandable coming from long-repressed Shiite politicians. But on the streets of Baghdad, they evoke a decidedly mixed reaction.

At a central Baghdad auto shop, 50-year-old car mechanic Salah Abdul Kareem blames most of Iraq's problems on the occupying Americans. So he says he will stick with the religious parties for now — in his case, the Shiites.

"Of course, the religious ones. I'm committed to my religion till I die: follow religion, follow the Quran, that's my path," he says.

But the views of Sunni Mahmoud al-Sa'eg were more typical in this unscientific sampling. He says if he had to choose, he would vote for secular parties, because religious politicians, in his view, are hypocrites using Islam as a cover.

"They are sheiks and holy men, but everyone has got a gang working for himself," he says. "Don't tell me that this party or that sect is religious, everyone is in it to grab for themselves."

Safia al-Suheil, a liberal independent member of parliament and a leading women's rights activist, is confident that if given a chance, Iraqis will reassert their preference for a secular government, especially if it's dedicated to improving their living standards.

"The message given by our people for the last six years (is) ... no more acceptance to those religious politicians who are really putting more pressure on day-to-day life — and our society will never accept to have an Islamic state in Iraq," she says.

On the other hand, analysts say many Iraqi Shiites feel that their leaders haven't been given a fair chance to govern yet, and they will be watching closely for signs that Iraqis are ready to throw off their sectarian ties when they step into the voting booth in January.