Islamist Movements in Iraq

Social Education, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Islamist Movements in Iraq

WHEN THE UNITED STATES invaded Iraq in March 2003, one of its stated intentions was to inaugurate an era of Iraqi politics in which new kinds of democratic parties would emerge. However, one of the most dramatic effects of the U.S. invasion has been the boost it has given to the Islamist parties and movements that were banned under Saddam Hussein.

Recent surveys have shown greater support among Iraqis for the establishment of Islamic law (i.e., the sharia) and much more backing for religious parties than was the case in opinion polls conducted in the months following the U.S. invasion. It is clear that Islamist parties will play an important role in Iraq's new political era.

An election planned for Iraq at the end of January 2005 will choose an assembly responsible for drafting a constitution. To establish sharia law as the basis of the constitution, the Islamist parties would need to win a significant majority, of Iraq's Arab population. About 20 percent of the Iraqi population consists of Kurds and other minorities, including Christians, who overwhelmingly support a secular system. About 80 percent are Arabs, so that 60 to 70 percent of the Arab population would need to support Islamist parties for sharia law to be enacted (the exact proportion depends on how many Arabs vote in an election that some Sunni Arab groups have threatened to boycott).

This special section provides Social Education readers with the background to the recent rise of religious political movements in Iraq, as well as details about the diverse Islamist organizations that now play a significant role in the country. (1)

The Islamist Resurgence in Iraq

The U.S. invasion of Iraq produced an environment very favorable for Islamist movements, because it is common in times of national crisis for people to look to their religious faith for sustenance. The invasion and the occupation of Iraq by more than 100,000 foreign troops speaking a different language and believing in a different religion from the population provoked a renewed sense among Iraqis of their own religious identity, beliefs, and values. Mosques are well attended, portraits of religious leaders bedeck public places, and women have come under great pressure to observe Islamic dress codes.

Apart from the increased Islamic ethos, there are also practical organizational reasons why Islamist movements have done so well in the period since the U.S. invasion. The most determined Arab opposition movements to Saddam Hussein's secularist Baath Party regime had been Islamist, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein created a free political environment in which they could reorganize. Because of their past experience and their ability to revive their political networks, they had a head start over their secular rivals. In addition, the extremely insecure conditions in Iraq have favored movements that can organize people who go to mosques, which continue to be open and attract the faithful despite the insecurity. In contrast, Iraqis wishing to establish or participate in newer secular political movements have had less favorable conditions for doing so, as people stay home, avoid public squares and meeting places, and do not engage in the kinds of activities that are essential to a flourishing civic life.

Pragmatic Islamist Movements

All Islamist movements have as their common denominator the belief that government should be based on the precepts and principles of Islam. Their distinctive demand is for the implementation of Islamic law. Despite common general objectives, however, Islamist movements in Iraq are not a monolithic force, and have different interpretations of the implications of Islamic precepts and principles for contemporary states and societies. There is a diversity of views among Islamists about the nature of political freedom and civil rights, the appropriate balance of powers in government, cooperation with secular political movements, the role of women in society and desirable foreign policies. …

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