The failures and the problems of the Islamic movement in Iraq

It is increasingly clear that nothing short of Saddam Hussein’s abdication will be enough to deflect the US from its commitment to war in Iraq. To be sure, “regime change” in Baghdad would be a welcome and long overdue development: Saddam’s catalogue of crimes against the Iraqi people and other peoples in the region is unparalleled. But the fact that “regime change” would be imposed by an outside power whose cosiness with bloodthirsty dictators and war criminals, including Saddam at one time, is also unparalleled, casts doubt on the veneer of humanitarianism in which US president George W Bush is trying to cloak his impending military adventure.

Yet if “regime change” directs attention to America’s typical hypocrisy, it says much more about the abject failure of Iraq’s internal opposition, especially the Islamic movement, to destroy the carapace of dictatorship and repression that the Ba’ath party has instituted in Iraq for more than three decades. Indeed, the great irony of Iraq’s agony is the failure of the Islamic movement to transmute its long years of sacrifice and struggle into results. The most important question raised by this failure is why it has come about.

Trying to answer this question brings up a host of complex factors that have stunted the struggle of the Islamic movement in Iraq. In the discourse of the Iraqi opposition, this set of factors is often referred to as a “crisis” (azmah). It is a process in which internal political influences as well as the pressures of external events and situations come into play. But an aspect of escapism lurks in the opposition’s discourse on this crisis. It tends to seek refuge in the dangerous comforts of blaming others, either emphasizing external influences, such as political repression, outside intervention or lack thereof, or giving in to the temptation to trade recriminations. Like most one-sided and reductionist modes of analysis, blaming others is a sort of opiate that entails self-deception and unawareness of one’s own weaknesses. It shies away from political introspection, and from looking at the bleakness of internal shortcomings. In the case of the Islamic movement in Iraq, it was upon such blinkered analysis that all calculations and possibilities of dealing with difficult political choices have foundered.

Above all, blaming others has diverted attention and resources away from attempts to tackle the fissiparous tendencies that have transformed the topography of the Islamic movement in Iraq into a faction-ridden quagmire. Rivalry runs strong and deep within Iraq’s Islamic movement. Even the terror of Saddam’s Ba’athist state apparatus and the tragedy of exile have not been enough to persuade the leaders of Iraqi Islamic groups to bury their differences.

In many ways, the faultlines dividing Iraqi Islamic groups mirror the sectarian, ethnic, regional, tribal and linguistic divisions in Iraqi society. These have been exacerbated by idiosyncrasies of individual behaviour on the part of some leaders, as well as familial and personal rivalries between members of various established families of ulama. Despite the fact that the programmes of many of these groups subscribe to broadbased Islamic structures, they in practice remain parochial to the core. Some groups even openly limit their activities to a narrow subgroup of Iraqi society.

The factionalism of the Islamic movement in Iraq created many of the movement’s worst problems. It fostered ever shifting conjunctions of political forces with an equally unstable balance of interests and perceptions. Fragmentation was therefore a serious obstacle to effective planning. It made the movement incapable of producing a coherent strategy and of squeezing the maximum possible benefit from every advantage. Obviously, the formulation of strategy under conditions of excessive factionalism is impossible under the weight of objectives and courses of action that tend to contradict and nullify one another. Lack of unity and ability to cooperate also inhibits clarity of vision.

In these circumstances, a framework for common action became as elusive as clarity of vision. The experience of the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) is a case in point. SAIRI was formed in 1983, with Iranian prodding and sponsorship, as a coalition that would help the Islamic movement in Iraq to overcome its fragmentation and provide it with a unified framework for action. But SAIRI not only failed to provide an organizational structure amenable to coherent, high-level strategic planning, but also ended up adding one more faction to the faction-ridden landscape of the Islamic movement in Iraq. Other attempts to establish looser forms of coordination and dialogue have fared no better, such as the short-lived experiments of al-Bayt al-Islami (‘the Islamic House’) and the Tajammu’ al-Qiwa al-Islamiyyah al-‘Iraqiyyah (the Assembly of Islamic Iraqi Forces), which were supposed to provide forums for consultation between Islamic movements of different stripes after the second Gulf war.

The lack of a framework for coordination is compounded by the fact that there is no leader who can command the loyalty of a substantial proportion of the Islamic movement, let alone all of it. This leadership crisis stems in part from the hierarchical nature of Shi’ah orders, in which the scholarly community and ordinary people recognize multiple loose distinctions based on degrees of learning. Iraq is a country in which at least 60 percent of the people belong to the Shi’ah school of thought in Islam. But, unlike in neighbouring Iran, a charismatic, first-rate and highly political scholar, such as the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini (ra), has never emerged to lead the struggle long enough to inspire and infuse the required unity into the Islamic movement. The only two to begin to play such a role, Grand Ayatullahs Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, were eliminated by the Ba’athist regime. Also, unlike Iran, the political discourse in Iraqi religious circles has yet to be resolved in favour of a unifying theory of leadership such as that of Imam Khomeini’s articulation of wilayat al-faqih.

Circumstances may influence profoundly how groups respond to political challenges and formulate strategy. The tragic political history of modern Iraq has cast a sinister shadow over the country’s political culture. Many constituent groups of the Islamic movement in Iraq have imbibed the conspiratorial coup-mentality that has dominated the Iraqi political scene for half a century. Such a mindset exerts a potent influence over political culture and civil society. It helps to foster a political culture steeped in distrust, and a style of politics and leadership that is conducive to small groups and clandestine organizations, rather than mass political networks and grassroots organizations. In such an atmosphere blind loyalty and conformity take precedence over efficiency and imagination, and pluralism and open debate are sacrificed at the altar of obfuscation and authoritarianism.

But political mindsets cut more deeply than organizational structures. They can also shape a movement’s aptitude for the cultivation of informal networks of support. Under conditions of excessive repression, such as those prevailing in Iraq since the Ba’ath party came to power (1968), citizens can seldom organize themselves into well-institutionalized movements. Formal organizations are often easy to infiltrate and destroy. Hence successful associational and political links occur informally rather than formally. Instead of devoting their energies and resources to the fashioning of broad and effective informal networks of support inside Iraq, the various groups comprising the Islamic movement in the country waited for political change in the country to be brought about by the intervention of outside forces. During the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, hopes were pinned on an Iranian victory that would pave the way for the ‘Islamization’ of the political order in Iraq. After the war ended despondency set in, paving the way for international players to play a more important role in determining Iraq’s political future.

The Islamic movement’s inability to bypass political repression and set up an informal network inside Iraq has proved to be a major handicap. The ensuing gulf separating the constituent elements of the Islamic movement in Iraq, with its leadership in exile, from Iraqi society undermined the Islamic movement’s ability to shape events rather than simply respond to them. It also precluded sustained, coordinated operational strikes that chip away at the apparatus of repression. This helps to explain why major events in the struggle against Saddam’s despotic rule have taken the form of spasmodic, spontaneous and ultimately ineffective bouts of rebellion, rather than being the outcome of efforts to shape events to the purposes of the opposition. In many cases, the various groups of the Islamic movement in Iraq saw clouds gathering on the political horizon but missed the storm. Nothing illustrates this predicament better than the fact that the opposition was as taken aback by the post-Gulf war uprising in 1991 as the regime was.

Devoting considerable time and effort to wrestling with apparently intractable, irreconcilable and interminable factional disputes, many of which are nothing but petty rivalries, prevented the leaders of the Islamic movement from stepping back and considering their affairs from a longer perspective. The perseverance of the Islamic movement in Iraq is remarkable. Surviving the repression of the Ba’athist state is itself a feat of the first order. The movement has also ensured that Saddam Hussein can never rests easily on his throne. But understanding how a process has worked or failed to work in the past is of vital practical importance for the work of shaping a better future. That is why what the leadership of the Islamic movement in Iraq sorely needs is introspection and soul-searching. Without such a close look into the mirror, the Islamic movement’s sacrifices might well be taken over by forces intent on obliterating Islamic movement activism in Iraq altogether.