al-Sadr: proto Khomeini? only if we make him

The Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is an interesting figure. I've compiled a number of links as I try to find out more information, and have come away with the conviction that he's being drastically mis-represented by our media and by supporters of the war.

Consider this typical link from Winds of Change:

Iranian-backed Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is warning the US to stay out of Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shi'ite area. Al-Sadr is also calling for a Khomeinist-style theocratic government independent of the United States.

The first link leads to a "fisking" of the real story at The Financial Times (reg reqd). The clear attitude is that anyone who refuses entry to US troops into their neighborhood must have nefarious motives - but as first-hand reports of abuses by the occupying forces against civilian innocents demonstrates, there are good reasons for Iraqis to distrust their benevolent overlords.

The second link is a gross smear. The article actually quotes Sadr:

"I have decided and I have formed a government made up of several ministries, including ministries of justice, finance, information, interior, foreign affairs, endowments and the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice," the young cleric had said.

"If you agree, I ask you to demonstrate peacefully in order to express you support," al-Sadr had exhorted.

Nowhere is mention of a Khomeini-style theocracy. Sadr's spokesmen have in fact explicitly rejected the Iranian model:

Abbas al-Robai, one of al-Sadr's Baghdad aides, denied that the movement wants to create an Iranian-style state. ``What we are after is a democracy with an Islamic character, not a religious state,'' he said.

Though of course, since Sadr's appeal is primarily to the poor, there is already signs that Sadr's movement is attracting exacty the kind of religiously intolerant thugs that are the greatest threat to the development of such a democracy:

With unemployment running at 60-70 percent, al-Sadr's lieutenants have not found it difficult to recruit from poor Shiite areas in Baghdad and in the southern region of Iraq despite the movement's lack of a clear political vision for the country and al-Sadr's modest religious qualifications.
Many in Karbala, Najaf and Sadr City, a mainly Shiite area in east Baghdad named after al-Sadr's slain father, have expressed anger over the heavy-handed attempts by al-Sadr's followers to impose a stricter version of Islamic teachings.
residents in Sadr City, home to some 2 million Shiites, complain that shops selling compact discs and cassettes deemed immoral by al-Sadr supporters have been trashed or torched and say women not adhering to the strict Islamic dress code in public were being harassed on the streets.

(Let me make note here that I am Shi'a, but am an Ismaili Bohra, not the Ithna Ashari sect that dominates Iraq. I don't believe in the return of the Mahdi. I don't acknowledge any of the Shi'a clerics in Iraq as authoritative on religious issues).

There is a definite threat here, but centered not on Sadr, IMHO. Rather, it is the threat that the lack of Iraqi leadership is allowing religion to fill the political vaccuum. But the religious aspect of the future Iraqi state cannot be minimized, either - Iraq is NOT a place for pure separation of church and state (which I strongly and fervently support here in the US).

If Iraq is truly going to reflect the culture and personality of its people, then its future government does indeed need to incorporate Islam in some way. The problem with the American occupation and the governing council and Chalabi is that they do not demonstrate an awareness of the role that Islam needs to play.

Most critics seem to forget that the Iranian revolution was embraced willingly from within, not imposed from above by Khomeini. In fact, that makes the Islamic Revolution in Iran essentially unique - and also is why the flaws of the Islamic theocracy model are so clear to the vast bulk of the Iranian population today, who are striving for reform. But the point is that it was a natural process of growth. Iran's theocracy has a finite lifetime, and will soon fade, from internal forces. The result will be a truer and more robust synthesis of Islam and democracy (assuming that the US or Israel do not play the role of external threat, which might interrupt the process).

In 25 years, Iran will be a powerful ally. Iraq might well be where Iran is today, if Sadr eventually is elected from his growing base of support and leads Iraq towards a more religious identity. But if our intentions towards Iraq are true, then we have to at some point let Iraq make these decisions for itself.

However, if Sadr is made into a scapegoat and bogeyman figure, it will radicalize his base, and push them further from the path that eventually leads to democracy. Juan Cole notes that the Governing Council is trying to link Sadr with Ba'athist remnants, which makes no sense if you stop to think about the idoelogies involved. Sadr is also being accused of coordinating the bombings in Najaf that killed al-Hakim. And Billmon has more insight into the demonization process.

But what Sadr has actually done is provide Iraqis with a sense of true leadership. Unlike the Governing council which is widely regarded as a puppet of the US, Sadr is making a case for Iraqi sovereignity and control. Unlike the cleric al-Sistani, who has recused himself from political leadership, Sadr is asserting the importance of Islam in the future of Iraq in a tangible way. And he is taking the initiative for providing security and infrastructure that the occupying forces have still failed to provide to a majority of Iraqis.

Sadr is not a unifying figure yet, and doesn't have the broad support that he claims. But he does represent a non-trivial fraction of the Iraqi viewpoint. Attempting to marginalize or worse, demonize him will only guarantee the worst-case scenario.

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