Democracy's Push, Theocracy's Pull ; in War's Wake: Is the Middle East Bound for Resurgence of Radical Islam?

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Democracy's Push, Theocracy's Pull ; in War's Wake: Is the Middle East Bound for Resurgence of Radical Islam?


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The startling explosion of Shiite passion in Iraq is forcing US officials to contemplate the possibility that by toppling Saddam Hussein they have made the region safe for theocracy rather than democracy.

There are many reasons to believe that Iraq will not end up as a mullah-controlled state - the next Iran. Shiites, while a majority in Iraq, must still strike some governing arrangement with sizable Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities. Iraqi Shiites are themselves split over how much religion should be intertwined with civil affairs.

But at the least the end of Mr. Hussein's police state has opened a land bridge between Iran's ruling clerics and Hizbullah and other Shiite-dominated terror groups to the west. The new boldness of Iraq's religious leaders could inspire long-oppressed Shiite populations from Syria to Saudi Arabia.

"Suddenly the Shia are feeling their time in history has arrived," says Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington.

On Wednesday Shiites celebrated the final day of their pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the central Iraqi city of Karbala. The pilgrimage was long banned by Saddam Hussein, who also murdered many leading Shiite clerics and brutally suppressed an uprising in the Shiite-dominated south of the country following the end of the Gulf War of 1991.

The pilgrimage has been marked by an eruption of piety among the faithful, and by chants of anti-Hussein, anti-American, and anti- Israeli slogans.

Asked about the demonstrations, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, civil head of Iraq until a new government is established, said Wednesday that they were evidence of the new freedom that Iraqis have to dissent. He also said a number of them were staged - presumably by Iranian agents said to have infiltrated Iraq in the wake of US forces."A majority of the people realize we're only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them," General Garner said.

Shiites are a minority in Islam as a whole, making up some 10 to 20 percent of all Muslims. They believe that Islam's leader should be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, while the majority Sunni branch of Islam has held that the religion's leader should be chosen by consensus.

In Iraq, Shiites are a majority of around 60 percent. Yet Sunnis have dominated the country from its founding in the wake of World War I through Hussein's tyranny.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq US officials seemed most worried that it was the Kurds, in the north, who would be the country's most independence-minded population. CIA and Special Forces officials did try to make contact with Shiite leaders, but had only moderate success.

One Shiite cleric who was working with the US, Abdul Majid Khoei, was murdered in Najaf earlier this month after returning to the country from exile in London. …

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