Chests beat out people's power

May 23, 2003

Political Islam may provide the Iraqi people with a way to forge a democratic and inclusive future, despite Anglo-American opposition, says Iftikhar Malik

The sight of multitudes of impassioned, chest-beating yet totally orderly Shia pilgrims converging on the Iraqi city of Karbala so soon after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime has transmitted divergent messages across the globe. While Muslims may seek a greater sense of pride from the spectacle of elderly and young men and women defying the heat and dust to walk barefoot to celebrate the anniversary of the assassination of Imam Husain - the Prophet's grandson - the Anglo-American alliance finds itself in a quandary.

It appears as if the floodgates of energy and pent-up feelings have been suddenly removed to usher a newfound solidarity among those who have experienced heinous bombings and a total disappearance of civic authority.

Instead of fighting Sunni Muslims, garlanding the Abrams and Challenger tanks or even emptily gazing at a cruel sky, these Iraqi masses represent a new and equally crucial phase of Political Islam. Here is the people's defiance at its best - something that reveals the inadequacy of the intelligence agencies and other opinionated pundits in once again failing to understand the dynamics and tribulations of yet another Muslim community.

Maybe we are witnessing the phoenix-like rise of a new Iraq after its devastation and the looting of its heritage, as predicted by the eminent Indian poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal almost a century ago. To him, every Karbala - the most traumatising tragedy in Muslim history - was the harbinger of a new Islam.

But, wait a minute. Are we being carried away by this spontaneity, or is it another chapter in the Muslim saga of tragedy, from wars and ethnic cleansings to self-flagellation and Islamophobia? Is Iraq waking up to another Hulago-like post-1258 stampede or is it a typical emotional outburst where fanaticism comes in handy to opiate a crestfallen people? Is there more to this sustained Islamic fervour than just a sheer balm?

Notwithstanding the Anglo-American penchant for oil and easy victory, the immorality and illegality of the invasion, the peripheralisation of the United Nations and the continuing humiliation of the Arab-Muslim world, the fall of Saddam Hussein is welcome. Once again, the millions heave a sigh of relief over the demise of another dictatorship, whose own quick removal managed through an external intervention still cost Iraqis so much havoc and anguish. If they could have performed this by themselves, the event would have assumed a revolutionary status in the Arab history, and certainly more judicious help from the global civil society should have enabled them to do so.

Ends, however, do not justify the means when they involve mass killings and destruction of heritage and environment; thus the fall of the Taliban and now that of Saddam is no heroic victory for Tony Blair and the US neo-conservatives. A plain lesson for the developing world from these two gory events is that authoritarianism, no matter how rational it may sound, is always bad news. Only democracy and universal empowerment offer assurance against internal and external fissures.

The fall of Saddam may afford Shia Muslims a sought-after chance to rebuild an Islamic democracy avoiding the extremes of dogma and dictatorship. The Anglo-American forces will be understandably weary of such a polity and are already applying every instrument to avoid it. They cannot allow another Khomeini-style state to raise its head in a crucial area where oil, economy and pro-Israeli considerations reign supreme. However, rather than descending into a typical witch-hunt and a medievalist version of Taliban-style theocracy, the educated Shia clerics are well placed to offer a unique synthesis of democracy and pluralism, away from violence, unilateralism and coercion.

Seeing the crowds in the angry, devastated and marooned land of Mesopotamia display a rare and peaceful consensus for a Muslim state without rancour to anyone is itself amazing. Where the Anglo-American commanders and bureaucrats are still working out the details of reconstruction, the clerics have already assumed greater local civic responsibilities.

So far, all those dictums of the failure of political Islam by specialists such as Olivier Roy stand rejected by this sea of humanity sharing grief and fraternity. Certainly, Islam continues to enthuse, aggregate and mobilise masses even where food, water, medicines, shelter and electricity have been absent. The spontaneity of people's power and their adherence to mutual respect and peaceful coexistence is not a minor feat, though it remains peripheral in the news reports. The Karbala assembly could prove a new Bastille, a new Hyde Park, a new Long March or it may be the harbinger of new dissension as already being witnessed in Algeria and Afghanistan.

While some cynics may see in these self-flagellating and bleeding Muslims an expected recourse to Talibanisation, to the neo-Orientalists and the neo-conservatives it is too perplexing. 9/11 has resuscitated this endangered breed brandishing Huntingtonian sabres for a clash of civilisations. Many of their number are puzzled at this populous yet so disciplined outburst, though they only read in it the mob psychology of some inferior, primitive and easily excitable community. To the American populist author Daniel Pipes, the greatest threat to the US has been from Islam, nebulously eating away its prized heritage. Bernard Lewis, the veteran British scholar at Princeton University, finds Islam still yonder from its overdue reformation and renaissance. His current bestseller reveals how out of touch he is with the wider Muslim world as he interprets every global development as a continuing crisis of Islam, posited between a holy war and unholy terror.

The noted Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, much like prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has joined the bandwagon with her denunciatory outpourings in The Rage and the Pride . It appears that former liberals abound the corridors of power alongside neo-conservatives, shrouded by racism and hooded by unrighteousness. They scoff at the anti-war and anti-racism alliances across the world and have failed to understand how Muslims, peaceniks, church-goers, atheists, old and young, socialists and anarchists could come together chanting "not in my name".

Despite the western political and intellectual sceptics and critics, Iraq may offer a chance for one more attempt to establish a participatory polity "from below" where empowerment, education, economy and egalitarianism run supreme in their universal connotations. It may also turn into a vast killing field with warring clerics, tribal chieftains and surrogates ruining their opportunity to rebuild Iraq as a role model for all.

Neither a theocracy nor the dictatorship will take Islamicists anywhere. It is only through democracy, peace and guarantees of pluralism, away from unilateralism and militarism, that political Islam, with its historic anti-colonial, anti-hegemonic, anti-racist and anti-violence traditions, can come to the rescue of the have-nots. If the Shia Muslims of Iraq, despite all the goodwill, are unable to establish such a paradigm, their chest beatings and verbose pronouncements will simply reiterate the contention that political Islam is still far from maturing into a systemic ideology. But its Huqooul Ibaad - rights and duties to the people - may yet offer a greater hope for Iraqi civil society and thus could transform itself from a mere ideology of displacement to a fully fledged mechanism of replacement.

Iftikhar Malik is a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University College. His book Islam and Modernity will be published by Pluto in August.

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