Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Iraqi Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray
by Eric Davis

The emergence of a powerful Sunni Arab insurgency in north central Iraq may have shocked the Bush administration, but it has been the involvement of Sunni religious leaders in the insurgency that has taken many long-time observers of Iraqi politics by surprise. In contrast to Shiite mullahs and ayatollahs, whose political aspirations were a familiar feature of Iraqi politics, Sunni Arab clerics had always tended to be apolitical and subservient to the state.

Shortly after the American invasion, however, a strong Sunni political presence began to emerge. On April 23, 2003, both the New York Times and the Boston Globe reported on the re-establishment of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), an organization that was originally formed in 1960 but banned the following year by the country’s military rulers.

“We stand for human rights, for helping people, for rebuilding our country,” an IIP member told the Globe’s Elizabeth Neuffer. The party cooperated with U.S.-led governing bodies until last November’s siege of Fallujah, when it announced it was pulling out of the provisional Iraqi government and boycotting elections in protest.

Meanwhile, during the first, abortive siege of Fallujah last spring, the international media began reporting on the activities of a group of Sunni Arab clergy calling themselves the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS). The initial story was that insurgents had released a dozen hostages in apparent response to an edict from the AMS condemning hostage-taking.

In a May 10 report in U.S. News and World Report, correspondent Bay Fang, noting that the AMS had been founded a year earlier, quoted spokesman Mohammed Bashir al-Faydi to the effect that the organization was just a “religious advisory group,” not a political party. It had undertaken to serve as the voice of the political opposition because most Iraqi groups had joined the Iraqi Governing Council that had been organized by the United States’ Coalition Provisional Authority. “We have always said, if politicians do come out, when security is more stable, we are happy to go back to the mosques,” al-Faydi said.

Over the summer, the AMS appeared to become ever more strongly involved in the insurrection. On September 26, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published a piece by Borzou Daragahi that began: “For Sheikh Mohammad Ali Mohammad Ghereri, a Sunni Muslim cleric, the question is no longer whether to tell his followers to fight the Americans, but how to wage war properly. Identified as member of the AMS, Ghereri  declared that the “holy warriors should have a clerical leader with them to advise them on all points, such as how to properly treat the Americans they capture.”

Meanwhile, during the period when Fallujah was under insurgent control, the leader of the city’s governing body of clerics, tribal leaders, and former Baathists (known as the Majlis Shura li-l-Mujahideen, or Advisory Jihadist Council) was another Sunni cleric, 53-year-old Abdullah Janabi. “We still have our strength, our force and ammunition, and the battle is long, very long,” Janabi told the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid after the November assault on the city. “And we will turn Iraq into one big Fallujah.”

 As these stories indicate, Western journalists have over the past year regularly noted the political involvement of Sunni clerics. What has been missing is any concerted effort to determine who these clerics are and to explain their rise to political prominence following the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Doing so requires a glance at the history of religion and politics in the modern Iraqi state.

Shiite clergy actively opposed the British invasion of Iraq during World War I and were also active in the June-October 1920 revolt against British colonial rule. This activity, which marked the beginning of ongoing Shiite efforts to gain political power in Iraq, is evidence of the extent to which Shiites, historically lacking power and suspicious of state authority, had institutionalized communal leadership in their clerical elite.

By contrast, Sunni Arabs maintained their traditional privileged position in national political and economic life after the Iraqi state’s formation in 1921. Members of the Sunni clergy became state employees. Not surprisingly, most of them—under both the Hashimite monarchy, which ruled Iraq from 1921 to 1958, and subsequent republican regimes—did not actively involve themselves in politics, either ideologically or in terms of political organization.

They were content to enjoy the largesse of a state that, except during the brief rule of Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963), was dominated by Sunni Arabs. In return, they helped legitimate the state, especially in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, which tried to prohibit all mixing of religion and politics, the only expression of politics through a religious idiom came from elements of the Shiite clergy—and at their peril. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the al-Dawa (Islamic Call) Party, formed in the late 1950s, was harshly repressed. In April of 1980, Saddam executed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a leading Shiite intellectual and religious authority whose followers had founded a new Islamist political party.

In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. economic sanctions helped spur a “turn towards religion” in the Sunni Arab community. The sanctions—which caused great suffering among all sectors of Iraqi society aside from privileged parts of the Baathist elite—were especially difficult for members of the urban middle class, who were often forced to sell their possessions to survive. To offset rising political and social discontent, Saddam’s regime encouraged the religious turn.

 In fact, Saddam’s “Islamization” of Iraqi society began even before the Gulf War, when the slogan “God is Great” (Allahu Akbar) was added to the Iraqi flag. After the war, Saddam instituted “Islamic punishments” as part of Iraqi criminal law, including amputations for thievery and a ban on the sale of alcohol. He also devoted large amounts of money to building huge mosques in Baghdad (e.g. the “Mother of All Battles” Mosque), as well as to repairing a number of mosques and shrines in the Shiite shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala.

With the creation of a new Sunni theological seminary called Saddam University, the Baathist regime effectively legitimized religious discourse on a wide range of issues. But far from increasing support for the Baathist regime, this encouraged Sunni Islamists to express religious sentiments that related to the public sphere, not merely to the more private domains of mosque and family. Even though they avoided overt discussion of political issues, the potential for political action on their part was noted by Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad in a prescient article entitled “A Third Force Awaits U.S. in Iraq” in the March 1, 2003 Asia Times Online.

After the American invasion in April 2003, the Sunni Arab community found itself in the new and uncomfortable position of no longer possessing privileged political access to the state, whether by way of the government bureaucracy, the armed forces, the police, or the intelligence services. Stigmatized by association with the ancien regime, it felt it had little to look forward to in the new Iraq.

This was especially true of the lower middle classes in the river towns of the “Sunni Triangle” north and west of Baghdad, whose populace had looked to government largesse to offset an economic decline that began even before the area’s traditional trade relations with the Levant were disrupted by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that the United States established to administer post-Saddam Iraq, and the composition of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC), did little to assuage their fears.

Not wanting to alienate the majority Shiites or the pro-American Kurds in the north, the CPA made little effort to assure Sunni Arabs that they would have a significant political role in the new Iraq. Those who were appointed to the IGC, such as the highly respected lawyer, Adnan Pachachi, were largely expatriates and not part of the Sunni Arab mainstream.

As post-Baathist politics began to take shape, the ideological options available to the Sunni Arab community were limited. Baathism—secular, and Arab nationalist in orientation—was now thoroughly discredited, even though many ex-Baathists remained visible throughout the Sunni Triangle. Although the Iraqi Communist Party, which had always included Sunni Arabs, was able to reorganize quickly after Saddam’s collapse, communism as such held little appeal, and in any event was associated in the minds of many Sunni Arabs with Shiites, Kurds, and other minority groups. As for Western liberalism, it was identified with the United States and its expatriate allies such as Ahmad Chalabi, and thus also viewed as suspect.

As a result, the postwar power vacuum favored the emergence of Islamist organizations that had remained underground during Baathist rule. This was especially true in light of the success of the Mahdi Army led by the 30-year-old Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr (nephew of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and son of another popular cleric, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr) in challenging United States authority in Iraq.

The most important of the Sunni Arab Islamist organizations to emerge after the defeat of Saddam was the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which had briefly existed half a century earlier as the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. A moderate Sunni Islamic party created in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood was the most prestigious of the Arab world’s first Islamist organizations and was able to establish branches throughout the Arab world, especially after its participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. However, it never acquired significant power in Iraq’s Sunni Arab community.

The head of the IIP is Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, a Kurd born in 1937 in Kirkuk and a widely published author on matters relating to the Qur’an. Abd al-Hamid completed his doctorate in 1972 at Cairo University, where he no doubt came in contact with Egypt’s Islamist movement, which grew in strength after Gamal Nasser’s death in September 1970.

Given a place on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) by the CPA, the IIP was in fact the only organization seen as legitimately representing the Sunni Arab community. Yet its role was considered more as window dressing than anything else, and it maintained very ambivalent feelings towards the American occupation. Following the U.S. invasion of Fallujah in November, it withdrew from participation in the Interim Iraqi Government.

Less ambivalent in its opposition to the occupation has been the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS). Its leader is the 68-year-old cleric Shaykh Ahmad al-Kubaysi. After Saddam’s fall, Al-Kubaysi returned from a five-year exile in Dubai, supposedly with financial support from Arab governments, and perhaps even initially from the United States, all in the interest of creating a religious counterweight to Shiite political power—according to reports in the London Daily Telegraph, the Washington Post, and the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat.

Said to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Kubaysi has been highly critical of the American administration in Iraq, and has not been shy about expressing his views in his newspaper, al-Sa’ah”(The Watch). In the June 9, 2004 edition, al-Kubaysi was quoted as saying: “Iraq is infected with several dangerous ailments, first of which is the occupation that wants to steal our land, funds, culture, and existence. The occupation also wants to steal our honor, as you heard from the scandal about what happened in its jails.”  He is known, as well, for his popular talk shows and lectures on several Pan-Arab-oriented television stations. Head of a political party known as the Unified National Movement, he pledged in August of 2003 to work with the ICG but did not, and remained critical of it and the occupation generally.

Last September, the interim Iraqi government banned al-Kubaysi from returning to Iraq, reportedly because of his ties to Sunni militants. It was claimed that he gave $50 million to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to fund the latter’s militant activities in 2003—a charge both al-Kubaysi and al-Sadr denied.

Despite the reports of foreign support, the AMS has emphasized its opposition to foreigners who have entered Iraq to fight American forces, alongside its strong rejection of the U.S. occupation. Indeed, the organization is far from monolithic.

It has condemned suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings by Iraqi militants, and as the Sunni Arab insurgency increased in intensity it became increasingly vocal about the loss of Iraqi lives. At the same time, however, some AMS members have issued statements supporting the violent actions of insurgents against American and IIG forces.

For example, the group’s deputy spokesman, Abd al-Sattar Abd al-Jabbar, condoned the killing of 12 Nepalese hostages in August by saying that anyone who works with the occupation should be considered part of the occupation. Asked by Al-Jazeera television to comment on the standoff between multinational forces and militants loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Abd al-Jabbar responded by saying that U.S. troops and the Iraqi government did not want a solution, but rather wanted “to destroy Iraq.”

Hostile as it is towards the United States, the AMS may represent a force for positive change in the current Iraqi political equation. It has enabled Sunni Arabs to acquire a sense of political empowerment by giving them a vehicle through which they can express their discontent.  At the same time, it has helped offset sectarianism by calling for cooperation between the Sunni and Shiites Arab communities.

Then there are the more radical political organizations—often referred to as jihadists or Wahhabis—that profess a religious ideology within the Sunni Arab community. These include Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna (The Army of the Followers of the Sunna), which claimed responsibility for the deadly bombing of a U.S. army base in Mosul December 21, as well as al-Jaysh al-Islami (the Islamic Army), al-Jaysh al-Sirri (the Secret Army), Munazzamat al-Alam al-Aswad (the Black Banners Organization), Kata ib Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (the Abu Bakr as-Siddiq Brigades), Usud an-Nahrayn (the Lions of the Two Rivers), and Lua’at al-Fallujah (the Fallujah Brigades).1 It is not clear how much support, if any, these organizations have within the Sunni Arab community. Indeed, the Iraqi Prospect Organization, a pro-democracy group, argued in a November 19, 2004 report that the Sunni insurgency was almost entirely run by ex-Baathists rather than jihadists, as had been thought by many.

Also unclear is the degree of Sunni Arab support for foreign fighters belonging to the al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Unity and Holy War) organization of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has received so much attention from the Bush administration and the news media. Even as the numbers and influence of foreign fighters remain uncertain, there have been tensions between them and tribal and urban notables in cities like Fallujah where the foreigners have set up bases of operations.

In Fallujah, the usurping of political power by insurgents, such as via the establishment of a Mujahideen Advisory Council and renaming the city the “Amirate of Fallujah,” created consternation among the city’s populace and notables, who often found their business interests disrupted. Before the American marines occupied the city in November, there were reports—for example, in the June 20, 2004 New York Times—characterizing it as a new “Taliban” political entity in which Islamist radicals were meting out justice according to their version of Islamic law.

Given the new prominence of Islam, what will the future role of religion be in the politics of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community? Some observers fear the spread of a militant Wahhabi variant of Islam among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, imported into Iraq by radical Islamists from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Yet the efforts that Sunni as well as Shiite  Arab clerics have exerted since the fall of Saddam to urge calm among their followers, even in the face of bombings and assassinations clearly designed to stir up sectarian feelings, should give pause to those who see large numbers of Sunni Arabs developing political loyalties to extremist versions of Islam.

The fact that radical Sunni Arab Islamist organizations are, like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, comprised almost exclusively of unemployed Iraqis between the ages of 16 and 30, suggests that Sunni Islamist radicalism would decline if the Iraqi economy improved. It would also help if the United States became more actively involved in the intensive micro-politics necessary to convince Sunni Arabs that they will not suffer from their minority status in post-Baathist Iraq. American efforts to organize extensive contacts with urban notables, clerics, and tribal leaders in the Sunni Arab community designed to elicit, rather than dictate, their views on the community’s future role in the politics could help depoliticize religion, or at least limit its support for the current insurgency.

While the fluidity of the relationship between Islam and politics in Iraq’s Sunni Arab community makes prediction difficult, it is most likely that the newly prominent religious organizations are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Whether they throw their support behind violence and radicalism or provide Sunni Arabs with institutional outlets to express their political, social and economic demands peacefully, will depend on the extent to which Sunni Arabs can be made to feel that they have a meaningful stake in Iraq’s future.

1It is important to recognize that a large number of the insurgent organizations whose names have been bandied are not bona fide political movements. There have been many examples of gangs kidnapping prominent Iraqis, both inside and outside government, as well as foreigners, and then “selling” them to political organizations for large sums of money; some of these gangs have attempted to enhance their image by adopting a political appellation. This freelance gangsterism should not be allowed to create an image of greater strength on the part of the Sunni Arab insurgency than is warranted. Useful guides to this murky territory can be found in the English translation of the Iraqi newspaper al-Zawra’s September 19, 2004 article, “An Inventory of Iraqi Resistance Groups,” and in “The Armed Organizations in Iraq,” published by al-Hayat on July 11, 2004.




Hit Counter