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February 2005

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How do we explain the fury of the Iraqi insurgency? Dr. Palmier looks for an explanation in Islam and its significant differences with Christianity. —Assoc Ed.

Islam the Protector

The fury of the Iraqi ‘insurgency’ is a puzzle to many. A people who hated the tyrant Saddam Hussein are attacking their liberators. Muslims to a man and woman, they are wantonly killing people of their own faith. The reach-me-down explanation, ‘nationalism against a foreign invader,’ simply will not do, if only because the ‘insurgency’ began in strength only after the announcement that government was being handed over to Iraqis.

Much of the bewilderment comes from the difficulty of understanding Islam. The complacent notion sometimes heard that ‘Islam is just another religion, like Christianity’ is quite misleading. Islam is certainly a religion, but it is not at all like Christianity (not better, not worse, but quite dissimilar). For present purposes the relevant differences lie in the relationship between religion and the state, the lack of clerical discipline, the attitude toward violence, and the degree of ardor.

The Christian, however nominal, does not confuse faith with government. He has gospel authority for doing so. The spiritual founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, was reported by his apostle Matthew as saying: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." Not so Islam. As recently as 1925 a respected religious leader (sheikh) of the leading Islamic university, Al Azhar in Cairo, published a treatise advocating the separation of civil affairs from the religious code. The Al Azhar Council of ulema unanimously found him guilty of unorthodoxy, dismissed him, and declared he was incapable of holding any religious office.

The ulema were expressing a more profound truth about their religion than might appear. From the beginning, Islam has been as political as religious. Its founder, Muhammad, saw the continual Arab tribal wars of his day as a source of weakness, which was allowing Christian and Jewish inroads into Arabia. He thought (or was inspired by the archangel Gabriel to think, as devout Muslims believe) that by promulgating the doctrine of one God (to replace the Arab tribal gods) he would forge Arab unity, and so shield his people. This protective characteristic is quite intrinsic to Islam.

One consequence of the identity between religion and the state is that in Muslim countries (whether or not they are Islamic, i.e., governed by Islamic law) religion is a public, not private, matter, and the state assists its subjects in the fulfillment of Islamic ritual. To take religious fasting as an example, Lent in the West is entirely private; it is left to the individual believer whether or not to fast. In Muslim countries when the fasting month of Ramadan is to begin and when to end is announced by government after consultation with Muslim clerics. Observance is public, ensured by mutual observation. Muslims are also expected to make a pilgrimage to the holy sites in Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. Their governments provide considerable assistance to help them do so.

The mutual observation method of social control is part and parcel of public life, and has led some observers to claim that in the Middle East there is no public opinion, only public emotion. This is to use a Western definition of ‘public opinion,’ namely the public expression of private convictions. Among Muslims it would be truer to say that public opinion is the vocal expression of convictions appropriate for one to hold in public -- just as, the world over, public behaviour often differs from private. As elsewhere, in Islam those who go against the opinions of their peer group do not have a comfortable time, and there are few dissenters from these vociferous views. Public opinion is consequently very easy to manipulate. It requires only that a cheerleader, spontaneously or otherwise, start a chant against some hate figure or symbol for all to join in. All this makes for great conformity. A similar method of manipulation used to be quite familiar in Britain. It was the genius of Mrs. (now Lady) Thatcher when prime minister to perceive that the power of trade union leaders to hold industry to ransom lay in the simple fact that strike decisions were taken by a show of hands. Once the law compelled a confidential ballot, the union bosses’ hold was broken.

What infuriates some Muslim zealots is precisely the move towards privacy, particularly as expressed in the secret vote. They are well aware that it may result in the choice of people with a modernizing, not a traditional Islamic, agenda. (The Iranian ayatullah – equivalent to the Sunni ulema – have found a way round this difficulty. They simply disqualify the modernisers from standing for election.) Understandably, some Islamic clergy fear a secular future where they will be as sidelined as their Western counterparts. Hence the embrace of terrorism by some imam (prayer leaders in mosques), and the steady inculcation of extremism in some madrassah or Islamic schools, where go, often, the children of the poor. Though all this is well known in Islamic states and communities, few indeed are those who dare speak out against Muslim clerics.

From the fusion between politics and religion arises another great contrast with Christianity, particularly with Catholicism, that is to say the absence of a clerical discipline. Christianity, being independent of the state, had to set up its own system to control archbishops, bishops, and priests, as well as the faithful. The assertion that Jesus had given his apostle Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven has been used to justify very strong hierarchic rule and a doctrine of infallibility when the head of the church, the pope, speaks ex cathedra. Those who oppose the decisions (which sometimes are very strange) of any successor to Peter find themselves quickly disciplined, and in extreme cases, "excommunicated" from the church.

Since Islam was interwoven with the state, it developed no independent disciplinary system. In the present day, at Al Azhar university the Grand Ulema (appointed by the President of Egypt) has expressed opposition to terrorism. However, several of the more junior ulema have taken the opposite position with impunity. In the 1980s a fatwa or religious ruling, which was in effect a death sentence, was pronounced on the author Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini in his capacity as a mujtahid or interpreter of Islamic law. But it derived its strength from the fact that Khomeini was head of the Iranian state. In the event, the fatwa became inoperative, not because it was negated by a senior cleric, but because other Islamic states, mostly Arab, refused to endorse the Iranian decree. (In Islam the last word is not clerical, but political.)

Islam shows, however, an important similarity with Christianity (as indeed with other faiths), namely a link between ethnicity and variants of the religion. In Britain, this is most glaringly demonstrated in Northern Ireland, where two hostile communities each embrace a different version of Christianity. So also Muslims identify themselves in the first place with a specific people. This principle is perhaps most neatly expressed in the Malaysian constitution, where a Malay is defined as one who speaks the Malay language and professes Islam. In the unlikely event that he renounces his religion, he would lose his privileged position.

Christianity advocates placating the aggressive by ‘turning the other cheek.’ This was the only safe strategy when confronting Roman might and brutality. There is nothing to this effect in the Koran, and it is doubtful if such a message would have appealed to the Arab warriors whom Muhammad was trying to convert. When provoked, they would have been much more likely to reach for their daggers. This warrior tradition, long predating Islam, persists today.

The close connection between religion and community, the conformity of public expression, and the warrior tradition combine to create a degree of ardour that has long vanished from Christianity. To be a Muslim means to accept that your life is well lost in the defence first of your people and their faith, and then of others who have embraced the same faith, as surely as the Japanese kamikaze of the second world war considered their lives forfeit in defence of their people and emperor.

It follows that to treat all Iraqi Muslims as if they were identical is unlikely to make for sound policy. The media, in stark contrast with their treatment of the Palestinian intifada, have been content to parrot the view of the occupation authorities that the ‘insurrection’ is the work of miscellaneous Muslim ‘extremists.’ This has been seriously misleading. A comb of websites favourable to the insurgency (in particular, ‘Jihadunspun’) would have shown what the recent elections have confirmed, namely that the ‘insurgency’ was mainly Sunni in origin.

It was understandable that the Coalition authorities should not have wished to distinguish between Iraqi communities. But, as Northern Ireland has shown, communal reality cannot be ignored. The Coalition made a major error in July 2003, when the administrator, Paul Bremer, approved the creation of an Iraq Interim Governing Council as a way of ‘ensuring that the Iraqi people’s interests are represented.’ He appointed the council members from political, ethnic, and religious leaders who had opposed Saddam Hussein. Since he had obtained his support from the Sunni, they were excluded from the IGC, tantamount to saying that they were not part of "the Iraqi people".

This was a decision looking to the past; what was required was to prepare for the future. It was, of course, a red rag to the Sunni bull. And indeed, who among us, if we were Sunni Iraqi, could look with other than foreboding to a future when, under the rules of "democracy," the Shia majority would be permanently in the saddle and able to avenge the long years of torture and death under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni henchmen. Forgiveness is not a marked characteristic of Arab culture, which is noted more for the blood feud.

The draft constitution envisages no degree of federalism, but rather a strong centralized state. This offers no comfort to the Sunni nor, indeed, to the other minority, the Kurds. They, however, made up of several religions, including Islam, are already safe within their own boundaries. They play virtually no part in the ‘insurgency’.

It seems to be unfortunately true that nations – and armies – do not learn from the experience of others, but only from their own errors. However, it may be worth mentioning that in a minor way we have been here before, that is to say, where a Muslim minority group felt itself under threat and reacted violently. Malaysia is now one of the most stable of countries, with a rate of economic growth (seven per cent in 2004) which others, developing or advanced, can only envy. It has not always been so. The years from 1945 to the late 1960s were marked by several riots between Malays and Chinese. One of the most serious was when the 1969 elections gave a majority of seats to the non-Malay parties. The Malays feared they would be an oppressed minority in what they considered their own country, and riots broke out with over 200 killed, nearly all Chinese. The disturbances were firmly put down but, more positively, the leaders of the ethnic communities worked out a modus vivendi, which has lasted to this day. The constitution of Malaysia is now best described as a qualified, even autocratic, democracy. There was, of course, no outside interference; the former imperial power, Britain, had long gone.

Iraq, alas, is not in such a fortunate position. U. S. forces cannot but respond to the Sunni attacks on them and the government they have set up. This removes any pressure on the Shia to reach accommodation with the Sunni, though these have shown very forcibly that without their consent government writ, even when backed by ‘ the world’s only super-power,’ will not run through Iraq.

At the time of writing these words, however, there are signs that the occupation authorities have seen the light. Shortly before the elections they proposed to the Election Commission that Sunni leaders be given seats whether elected or not. The Commission indignantly rejected this as interference. But the prospects for peace in Iraq are bleak unless the Sunni are placated. Before it is able to construct a peaceful and reconciled Iraq from which to disengage, the United States as sovereign power may well have to bang heads together.


    Dr. Palmier was formerly Reader in Sociology at the University of Bath, U.K., and Associate Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.

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