March 2003--Dr. Faleh Abdul-Jabar, an Iraqi dissident and exile, is a sociologist at Birkbeck College in London. The editor of "Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologies: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq" and "Post-Marxism and the Middle East," he has written extensively on Iraq's religious politics and on Shia Islam in particular.

Would you briefly describe the current religious landscape in Iraq?

94% of Iraqis are Muslim, 5% Christians, 1% other religions. Islam is divided into Sunni Islam and Shiia Islam. The Shiias are the majority and Sunnis are the minority. But all Muslims are divided along ethnic and cultural lines, like linguistic groups. We have all sorts of Muslims: Arabs, Kurds, and others.

Saddam has been regarded as a secular dictator who made this divergent society work as a nation. Does that still hold? Has Saddam--a Sunni--become more religious?

He's not religious. He's secular. He uses religion to his own end. Iraq is a renowned secular society, a secular oasis in the Middle East compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran. This secularism is now greatly under threat. One threat is coming from Saddam himself. Due to his war with Iran during the Khomeini era, Saddam had to use religious symbols extensively. He manufactured a family tree for himself, linking himself to the noble family of the Prophet Muhammad. This is a very symbolic asset in Mideast politics. He also used Shia religious symbols. Two of his long-range missiles were dubbed Husayn and Abbas. And Husayn and Abbas are two Muslim holy men buried in the Iraqi city of Karbala? Yes. They're buried in the shrine city of Karbala. They're sacred imams for the Shias, who are the majority in Iraq. It's like naming a cruise missile St. George's or St. Peter's missile. It's harnessing religion for political ends. Has Saddam encouraged religion in other ways? After the war, the state grew weaker as a provider of law, order, justice, and social services. Religious charities of all sorts emerged and thrived. People started to go to mosques to get porridge, comfort, medical care, or other material support. But some of these charities are linked to political organizations. This is a dangerous thing.

The government started to encourage religious activities. They started what they called the "faith campaign" because the official ideology of Arab nationalism has been discredited and people would not subscribe to it anymore. So the Hussein's government is trying to replace its old ideology with a religious ideology, again for pragmatic reasons.

There are other threats to secularism. One is coming from Iran. It's encouraging fundamentalist groups. Ironically, one of these fundamentalist groups has been empowered by the U.S. Another threat comes from Saudi Arabia, which has been sending all sorts of Wahhabi preachers [to Iraq]. Sunnis in Iraq are not Wahhabis. Wahhabism belong to a very rigid law school of Islam called Hanbalism. It's a very rigid branch of Islam; Wahhabis have a very different religious rationality. So these Wahhabi preachers from Saudi Arabia are now working in Baghdad and other cities, giving people money and asking them to throw away their radios and TVs because these are 'Satanic verses' of modernity. So there are three forces attacking Iraqi secular society: the government, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. And unwittingly they are helped by the U.S. government. Saddam been tolerant of Iraqi Christians, and in fact has cracked down on anti-Christian sentiment. If Saddam is deposed in the current conflict, what do you think will happen with religious situation in Iraq? Probably the fundamentalist groups from Iran--with Iranian money and with the empowerment they've had from the U.S.--will gain a strong foothold in the post-conflict government or authority. If that happens--and I hope it will not--it will trigger a counter Sunni fundamentalist response, and Saudi Arabia will throw all its weight behind it. This will cause a communal divide in society. We don't have communal divide in Iraq at present.
If we'd like to go beyond Saddam into a pluralistic and secular society, we need urgently to replace religious charities by NGOs which will provide medical help and employment without any conditions. Religious charities now extend these services on the grounds that you should Islamize your code of dress, your behavior. The services are conditional. In Lebanon, Hezbollah would pay money to your family if your daughters would wear the Islamic veil. They encourage people along these lines. I came across at least 20-25 examples in Baghdad alone of secular, middle-class women who have been pressured into wearing the Islamic veil. It's not their own choice. If it was their own choice, I would respect that. They've been intimidated or threatened or encouraged with money and what have you. What are other things need to happen to encourage religious tolerance in post-Saddam Iraq? We need two conditions to materialize: 1) We need to remove Islamic fundamentalists from all armed militias. They should be civilian outfits. 2) No money should pour in from regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran) into the coffers of their Islamic protégées inside the country. In the U.S., do you allow any parties to take money from foreign powers? Remember the scandal in the last Clinton elections when allegedly the Democratic party took money from the Chinese. Why do we allow that in Iraq then? We are a fragile society, a poor one. We need these two conditions firmly established. I didn't want this war. I opposed this war. I called for a political solution to have Saddam abdicate and leave the country, to have homegrown peaceful change. But it seems all my prayers went unheeded. So realpolitik dictates that we have to wait and see.

Let's hope we can move into building a civil society well established in the rule of law, in pluralism and tolerance. Otherwise, we'll have the worst nightmare: chaos and Islmiac fundamentalism, the very antithesis of Mr. Bush's plans to have a democratic government to combat terrorism.

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