National Review Online

Ignoring Iraq’'s Islamists: A grave and gathering challenge

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq has enough on its plate with security problems, ethnic tensions, and wrangles over the election and the handover of sovereignty, but its neglect of the threat by radical Islamists to Iraq's institutions is both troubling and dangerous. If it does not rectify this, it sends a strong signal that it is indifferent to whether a future Iraq will be a religiously repressive state.

One sign of increasing Islamic extremism, both Shiite and Sunni, is that religious minorities have become a particular target, in part because they are generally more open to working with Americans. One striking instance was the January 21 murder of four Christian women who were riding to their jobs as laundresses at Habbaniya Air Force Base. Throughout the country, stores selling alcohol, usually run by Christians, have been closed down, and in Mosul and Basra, storeowners have been murdered. There have been attacks on the Syriac Antiochan Bishopric and on Christian schools in Mosul.

Another target has been Sabaean Mandeans, followers of John the Baptist. Before his assassination in August, the prominent Shiite leader Ayatollah Al-Hakim gave a decree, also posted on his website, that, unlike Christians and Jews, Mandaeans were not People of the Book (Ahl-i-Kitab). This meant that they were "unclean" (najes), were not protected by Islamic law and, like the Bahais in neighboring Iran, could be killed without penalty or punishment. (Among many reports of their persecution is that in Falluja alone 35 Mandaean families have been forcibly converted to Islam and their women and girls married off to Muslims.

The CPA appears to be acquiescing to increasing Islamist influence in the Iraqi Governing Council itself. When the council's December 29 closed-door session passed resolution 137, replacing the country's civil-status law, covering marriage, divorce, birth, and inheritance, with an undefined Islamic sharia law, CPA head Paul Bremer did refuse to approve the measure. But he has allowed other Islamization moves to proceed and, earlier this month, the Governing Council's current president, Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, the Sunni fundamentalist head of the Iraq Islamic party, called for a much broader adoption of Islamic law.

The Minister of Higher Education, Ziad Abdel Razzaq Muhammad Aswad, a man of Wahabbi persuasion, has fired all university presidents except for those in the three Kurdish universities, and has replaced them with Islamists. Several of those ousted are now afraid to speak publicly because they fear retaliation by extremists. The new presidents have sent circulars throughout the universities demanding that all women in them conform to "Islamic dress." Even though the fired presidents had been elected by their peers under Coalition Provisional Authority supervision, Bremer has refused to intervene.

The Governing Council has also removed the politically independent Sawson al-Sharafi, the deputy minister of agriculture, because Islamists refused to work under a woman. Even though the growing pressure on her was highlighted in a January 16 letter to Bremer from Senator Rick Santorum, he again chose not to intervene. Her case is reminiscent of Nidal Nasser Hussein, whose judicial appointment in Najaf last July was blocked when Shiite religious authorities, including the highest-ranking, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued fatwas stating that all judges must be male. The moderate governor of Nasriyah has also been removed from office because of pressure from Islamists.

Bremer needs to be judicious in limiting the number of his interventions, but the CPA needs to draw the line. Otherwise, Islamists will assume that the U.S. will not oppose them, or even is anxious to propitiate them, and they will continue their pattern of purges and intimidation as they maneuver for total control. In that case, minorities, women, and male Muslims who disagree with their interpretation of Islam, will be repressed.

The debates over Islam and the state in Iraq will continue for many years after the U.S. leaves, but what we do and say now, and the institutions we leave behind us, will have a major effect on the shape and outcome of those debates.