Liberation from terror will bring democracy, the White House promises. Yet power could go, not to the people, but to the clerics
April 27, 2003
By Jason Burke in Kirkuk
Acrid smoke was still curling from the old Baath Party headquarters, gunfire rattled regularly in the narrow streets of the Arab neighbourhoods and corpses still lay in the dirt by the side of the road. Kirkuk, the key northern Iraqi city, had fallen less than 48 hours earlier but already its people were making their hopes known.
Across walls all over the city hastily scrawled political statements were appearing. Near Kirkuk's main square, where a felled statue of Saddam still lay like a chopped tree, a wall was covered in Arabic letters in green paint: 'Islam is the solution.'
The slogan dates from 1928 when, in Egypt, a schoolteacher called Mohammed al-Banaa established the Muslim Brotherhood. Its aims were clear: through the strict application of Islamic principles to contemporary life the imperialist rule of Western powers could be thrown off and a just and prosperous society achieved.
There should be no surprise that such slogans have resurfaced in Iraq. Since the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime, Iraqi administrative systems have collapsed. Although the Americans are working hard to restore a semblance of civic order, they have made little progress so far and society is in chaos. The result is that in much of the country the only functioning social system is that of the mosques and the only leaders with any credibility are the prayer leaders.
In the northern city of Mosul last week it was local clerics, such as Sheikh Ibrahim al-Namaa, who were the only effective authority. Although several hundred American soldiers have moved into the city, they are nowhere near enough to control a metropolis of more than a million people that is riven with ethnic tensions.
On the day Mosul fell Sheikh al-Namaa sent young men with guns to guard hospitals and homes. A few days later he successfully ordered looters to return stolen property to mosques. Elsewhere, particularly in the Shia-dominated south-west, local clerics took the lead in establishing order, organising law enforcement, the protection of property, even healthcare. And, swiftly, their moral authority assumed political dimensions.
Last week al-Namaa and several other prayer leaders formed a political party in Mosul. '[Saddam Hussein's] end was a good thing,' al-Namaa said, 'but the British and American invasion of Iraq was in the interest of Israel.' The right programme for the reconstruction of Iraq was, to al-Namaa, obvious. 'In Islam, there is the answer to every social problem.'
Some observers, notably Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, dismissed the clerics as a noisy minority who had no broad support. Others watched warily, scared that a tidal wave of Islamic sentiment was sweeping Iraq. In one sense Rumsfeld is right: the Iraqis, Shia or Sunni or Kurd, are among the most secular people in the Middle East. But he is wrong to underestimate the depth of feeling on the part of many millions of people.
Rumsfeld would do well to read some history books. The emerging politicised religious movement in Iraq has roots that go back further than the recent days of anarchy. In the Fifties and Sixties popular political debate in the Middle East was dominated by the secular, nationalist ideologies of the autocratic new rulers who had taken power in the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Western colonialist powers. Yet such ideas, and the men who espoused them, were in much of the region discredited by successive military defeats by Israel and by the failure to deal with massive economic problems.
The populations of the Middle Eastern states, made more aware than ever of the grim realities of their lives compared to the West by modern education systems and communications, looked for alternatives. Through the Seventies the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical offshoots went from strength to strength.
In Iraq, however, Saddam and the Baath Party regime managed, through co-opting the middle classes and by vicious repression, to exclude religion from politics and from power. The old statist, nationalist, secular ideology was perpetuated through terror. As a result the shift in popular support to political Islamic ideology seen elsewhere never happened. With the removal of the Baath Party the lid has come off. In Iraq the shift is happening now, a generation late.
So what happens next? In Algeria a moderate political Islamist movement was suppressed by the government. With the moderates in prison, radical militants ran amok. Even today, after 12 years and more than 100,000 dead, civil war continues.
In Egypt massive repression, and significant concessions too, have restricted, but not ended, a violent insurgency launched by radical groups which moved to the fore when the more moderate elements were suppressed.
The lessons appear clear: engage the moderates or the consequences could be dire. If secular nationalism fails, and moderate political Islam is made to fail, then democracy is unlikely to be the ideology sought out by angry, humiliated, hungry people.
A year ago Adam Ayub Ahmed was a 17-year-old schoolboy with a head full of dreams. Last week he sat in a rank prison cell in the northern Iraq city of Sulaymaniyah, with his hands cuffed behind him. On the first day of the war Adam joined Ansar ul-Islam, the militant group linked to al-Qaeda, that sprang up in the eastern part of the Kurdish-run enclave in northern Iraq in late 2001. He was captured when Ansar ul- Islam was destroyed by US airstrikes and assaults by Kurdish troops backed by US Special Forces.
Adam, who came from a typically moderate Kurdish religious background, was impressed by his Arabic and Islamic studies teacher at the local school. The teacher was a member of Ansar ul-Islam and was able to convince the young man of the need to struggle against 'the Zionist-Crusader alliance'.
'It all made sense to me,' Adam said. 'It explained all our problems. I felt I understood everything.' There was only one truth, Adam said, that of the radicals, that of men like Osama bin Laden.
Saudi-born bin Laden's fate is now more closely entwined with that of Iraq than it has ever been. All over the Muslim world the attack on Iraq has been seen as an attack on Islam. The primary objective of the terrorist actions that bin Laden has sponsored has not been to hurt the economies or the society of the West through physical damage. Instead they have been designed to rally the world's 1.2 billion Muslims to bin Laden's banner. By radicalising the Middle East, the war in Iraq has played straight into bin Laden's hands.
For a substantial number of people in Iraq, Islam is indeed 'the solution'. The question is 'whose Islam?' - that of the extremists or the moderates?