TO BEAT THE ISLAMISTS ...
By AMIR TAHERI
February 25, 2004 -- AS the June deadline for the transfer of power to an Iraqi transition government approaches, expect a rising tempo of political posturing on all sides.
Those who have failed to find a popular constituency are likely to paint a grim picture, with emphasis on lack of security, to seek a prolongation of direct rule by the U.S.-led Coalition.
Others, however, want the Americans and their allies to leave as fast as they can. These are individuals and parties that have been able to fill part of the gap left by the collapse of the Ba'athist regime. They worry that a longer American presence may spread ideas and establish rules that would prevent them from imposing their brands of politics on the newly liberated nation.
The noisiest of these are the so-called Islamists, some of whom have just had a verbal spat with L. Paul Bremer, the Coalition's "Pasha" in Baghdad. It all started with a couple of obscure mullahs demanding that Islam be declared the "foundation" of the future constitution. The demand was echoed by one or two members of the Governing Council, presumably for want of better things to do.
Bremer, who normally thinks twice before he makes a move, was provoked into a hasty reaction, asserting that he would not sign such a constitution.
The spat looks like a scene from the theater of the absurd: The mullahs who made the initial noises represent no one except their own images in a mirror. Bremer, for his part, was unwise to brandish a veto that belongs to the people of Iraq.
Do the Iraqis want an Islamist regime?
At least five major public opinion polls conducted since the liberation show that support for such a regime hovers around 3 to 4 percent. In one poll, the question of whether an Iranian-style Islamic republic would be suitable for Iraq drew a positive response from only 1 percent of the respondents.
None of Iraq's dozen or so political parties - from the atheist leftists to religious Shi'ites - demands the creation of an Islamic state. Nor can one find a single prominent Iraqi intellectual who would wish to establish a religious regime.
Even the Shi'ite mullahs, starting with their primus inter pares, the Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, are not making such a demand. Anyone with some knowledge of Iraqi Shi'ism would know that the last thing that Iraq's Shi'ites want is a regime like that of the Khomeinists in Iran - which, after a quarter of a century of terror and war, is now in deep, possibly terminal, crisis.
This rejection of the Khomeinist model is based on the Shi'ite belief that creating "a perfect state" is possible only under the Hidden Imam, a Messiah-like figure who is supposed to return to prepare mankind for the end of the world. In the absence of the Hidden Imam, all governments are bound to be imperfect, and open to criticism. Mixing religion with politics could sully the former and derail the latter.
In 1979, one of Sistani's foremost masters, the late Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Mussawi Khoi, put it like this: "An Islamic state cannot be imposed by fiat; it can come into being only as the natural consequence of the Divine Will as expressed in the coming of the Mahdi [i.e. the Hidden Imam]."
Like the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists in Iran and elsewhere, Iraqi Shi'ites regard Khomeinism as an aberration, an innovation (bed'a) that violates the basic tenets of the duodecimal imamist faith.
Iraqi Shi'ites' opposition to a religious state, however, is not solely doctrinal. It is also dictated by practical politics.
Though Shi'ites account for some 60 percent of the Iraqis, they cannot be regarded as a monolithic bloc even on issues of faith. Like other Shi'ites, they are divided into dozens of ways (tariqats) and countless forms of allegiance (taqlid). As the Iranian experience has illustrated, it is impossible for Shi'ites to agree on a single political reading of Islam.
The Iraqi situation is more complex still, because 40 percent of the country's population are not Shi'ites and have no reason to accept any Shi'ite political reading of Islam. Any attempt at imposing an Iraqi version of Khomeinism would lead to civil war and the dismemberment of the country.
As the sole organizing principle of political life, religion is unworkable outside small communities that are ethnically and culturally uniform - which Iraq is not.
All this does not mean that Islam should be scripted out of the future Iraqi constitution. Some 95 percent of Iraqis, including those who describe themselves as "humanists," acknowledge Islam as a key element in their existential reality. Thus there is no harm in reflecting that fact in the new constitution, much like what the Afghans have done in theirs.
Even the thorny issue of the sharia (religious law) need not cause friction. No modern society can be policed with the sharia as its only legal framework. In not a single Muslim country (including Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia) is the sharia the only law.
Indeed, it cannot be, because all Muslim states are signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and hundreds of international treaties that are not of "Islamic" origin. (That most violate or ignore the declaration and the treaties in question is due to these governments' despotic nature, not their love of Islamic jurisprudence.)
There is no reason why the sharia should not be mentioned as one of the sources of law in Iraq. In practical terms, this means that where the sharia is in conformity with reason, modern ethics and international agreements, it will be applied. Where it is not, it will be set aside.
The only effective way to settle these matters is through free and fair elections. Nowhere has an Islamist party advocating the sharia come to power through the ballot box.
Even the most moderate Islamist parties, that (like the Justice and Development Party in Turkey) deny any religious identity, have never won a majority of votes anywhere in the Muslim world. (In Turkey's 2002 election, the Justice and Development Party collected almost 35 percent of the votes and formed the government. But let us not forget that 65 percent of the electorate voted against it.)
In Malaysia, the Islamists have polled 11 to 13 percent in local and general elections in the past four decades. In Jordan and Kuwait, the only Arab countries where elections of acceptable standards are held, the Islamists' share of the vote has varied from 15 to 22 percent.
Iraq needs free and fair elections to choose a transitional government that would write a draft constitution for submission to a referendum. It may be difficult to hold elections by the end of June, the deadline set by Washington. But there is no reason a new deadline can't be set.
Just as the light of day turns Nosferatu into dust, the most effective way of killing the Islamist "un-dead" is free elections.
Last year, the people of Iraq clamored for liberation. This year they are demanding elections, not to risk their newly won freedom but to make sure it is safe against all would-be despots, Ba'athist or Islamist.
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