The Shi’a Movement.

There has been a tendency on the side of the mainstream media to describe this movement as a monolithic entity, and interested in adopting the model of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, the Shi’a movement in Iraq is more complex, having responded almost exclusively to specific indigenous socio-economic Iraqi mechanisms.

While, one of the biggest effects of the U.S. led war has been a full rapprochement between Baghdad and Tehran, should the Islamic republic ever be replaced in the Iranian capital, it would have little effect on the sectarian nature of Iraqi society and politics. Indeed, the politicization of Iraqi Shiites represented a reactionary response to secular policies pursued by the secular parties that dominated Iraqi politics throughout the 1960’s and 70’s: the Ba’athists and the Communist opposition.

Reaction to Secularism

From the mid 60’s to the period immediately preceding the American occupation, Iraq’s policies were distinctly secular. The process of secularization had been from the very outset one that targeted education in a special way. Even as early as the 1950’s, the traditional madrasas and their students saw their funding decline considerably.Consequently, the Shiite clerics, the Ulama, lost their traditional monopoly on the shaping of public opinion, as secular institutions based on ‘Western’ models exercised ever-increasing influence, reaching a peak under al-Bakr and Saddam.

This transformation of society presented the Ulama with what may be expressed as three problems. The number of clerics and religious scholars declined; those who were left had fewer funds and income and lower status and their traditional role in society eroded to the point where the future became uncertain. As Shi’a clerics had typically received little, if any, financial support from the State, their income was almost entirely dependent on their degree of public influence. The higher the community’s perception of a cleric’s status, the higher the income he might receive from public donations. To understand the dramatic nature of the social shift that took place, note that Ulama had traditionally commanded authority in such areas of public concern as justice, education and welfare. Secularism clearly undermined their socio-economic position.

The lower ranks of the clergy and religious students were the most marginalized ones, as they depended on endowments from the high ranking clerics, the ‘mujtahids’, who in turn had fewer donations to dispense. The Shi’a establishment were especially concerned about the Ba’ath party and its Arab Nationalism. While General Qasim, whom Saddam Hussein tried to murder in 1959, was in power, the Communist party also wielded influence. The Ulama were effectively locked in by these two, secular, entities, which advocated policies that were almost entirely antagonistic to their social status.
As rural-migrants increasingly moved to urban centers settling in the shantytowns of the main urban centers (Baghdad, Mosul, Basra) seeped in squalor and poverty they became especially receptive to the egalitarian message of the Communists.
Moreover, just as the Shi’a of Lebanon experienced, the State neglected agriculture prompting many Shi’a peasants to abandon the land and migrate to the cities exacerbating the displacement phenomenon, giving the Communists an ever wider base of potential support.

Rural-Urban Displacement

It is not that the Shi’a rural migrants – peasants – lacked faith; rather, they were not deeply committed to Shi’ism as a political ideology. Most Shi’a expressed their faith in a way that bordered on superstition. They participated in the annual festival of ‘Ashura (recent occurrences of which in the holy City of Karbala have been marred by terror), recited prayers and went about their affairs, without considering that their faith could be used as a political tool. By comparison, similar processes in Iran (with the Shah playing the secularizing role of the Ba’ath Party and the Communist ‘Tudeh’ Party as the opposition), the commitment to Shi’ism was deeper as the Clergy there had enjoyed a far higher status under the Qajar Dynasty. The Sunni Ottomans in Iraq, on the other hand, had been very reluctant to empower Iraq’s Shiite establishment. Therefore, even prior to the secularist policies of the post war period, the proportion of mullahs to population was relatively low and there were very few that could be sent to rural areas, many villages did not even have a mullah.
This meant that a large number of the Shiite migrants to the cities had neither political nor the religious indoctrination to hamper the recruitment efforts of the communists.

Shiite indoctrination, at a more political level, occurred largely among the higher ranks of the higher level of the Shiite Ulama, such as the scholarly establishments of the large and historically important urban centres such as Baghdad, and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. This was where opposition to secular policies and ideology was coming from. This was the social group, which had most to lose from the secular policies of the Qasim and, later, the Ba’ath governments. General Qasim initiated a program of land reforms in 1958 that hurt many landlords-the traditional financial backers of the Shi’a clergy. Further reforms, such as the provision of equal inheritance rights for women and the abolition of polygamy countered the clergy’s ideological positions. Ironically, the party inspired by Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim, Al-Dawa Al-Islamiya, appealed to more educated and prosperous strata of the Shiite community, including some professionals. (A.B.)


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