On Being with Krista Tippett

Ahmed H. al-Rahim

A Perspective on Islam in Iraq

Last Updated

March 4, 2004

The religious landscape of Iraq is complex and somewhat enigmatic to the western world. Nearly 97% of Iraq’s 25 million people are Muslim, and a majority of Iraqis are Shiite rather than Sunni. What does that mean? And how powerful is the prominent cleric Ayatollah Ali al Sistani who has effectively challenged the American-led coalition. Could he become another Islamic revolutionary like Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini?

As part of Iraq’s rebuilding process, the Iraqi governing council agreed on an interim constitution that cites Islam as a source — but not the primary source — of future legislation. Approval of the interim constitution was delayed first by violence, and then by a group of Shiite council members who raised objections to elements within it. Host Krista Tippett speaks at length with Iraqi-American professor and advisor, Ahmed al-Rahim, for insight into the unfolding new relationship between mosque and state in Iraq.


Ahmed H. Al-Rahim has taught Classical Arabic language and literature at Harvard University and is presently a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia.


March 4, 2004

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’ll explore the complexities of the religious landscape of Iraq. In recent days a devastating attack on a holy Shiite ritual delayed approval of Iraq’s new interim constitution. This violence was intended, perhaps, to deepen the divide between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites. But the process leading to the new constitution was marked by negotiation and compromise on every side. Here is the announcement of the Iraqi governing council.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have adopted unanimously a — an instrument, the law for the administration of the Iraqi stay during the transitional period which includes, among other things, a comprehensive bill of rights, something which is really unheard of, unprecedented in this part of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: The new Iraqi constitution prohibits legislation against Islam, but it sites Islam as merely one source, not the primary source, of Iraqi law. This hour I’ll speak with an Iraqi-American thinker and educator, Ahmed al-Rahim, for background on the complicated, evolving role of Islam in Iraqi civil society.

First, some history. Ninety-seven percent of Iraq’s 25 million people are Muslim. Islam came to this region in the year 637, just five years after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Pivotal events in the early history of Islam happened here, including two civil wars between Muhammad’s contemporaries over the question of who was to succeed him. This schism led to the division of Islam into two major traditions, Sunni and Shiite. Sunni and Shiite Muslims agree on basic tenets of their faith; the belief in one God, the belief that the Qur’an is from God, and that Muhammad was the last prophet. The major difference between them is in the importance they place on spiritual leaders, or imams.

Sunni Muslims represent 90 percent, the vast majority, of the world’s Muslims. They believe in a direct approach to God and have little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. But there are a handful of countries, including Iran and Iraq, where Shiite Muslims are in the majority. Sixty percent of Iraqi Muslims are Shiite. Unlike Sunnis, Shiites invest their clerical hierarchy with great influence in secular and religious terms. Still, for centuries Shiite clerics have traditionally avoided political power. This tradition was radically broken by the Iranian Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini when he toppled the American-backed shah of Iran with an Islamic revolution. Here’s a BBC report of those events from 1979.

REPORTER: The streets of Tehran were alive to the sound of cheering crowds, and streams of cars had their headlights and their horns blaring. It was, as far as the people were concerned, total victory. They danced and they cheered, and loudest of all they called for the return of a man they see as taking the shah’s place, the exiled religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

MS. TIPPETT: Ayatollah Khomeini, like many Shiite clerics, was a jurist, an interpreter of the Qur’anic teaching or laws meant to govern the lives of Muslims. Interestingly, Khomeini developed his new idea of political rule by Islamic jurists while he was in exile in Iraq in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. When American officials worry about the challenges ahead in post-Saddam Iraq, the specter of Khomeini’s Iran is never far from the discussion.

My guest today, Ahmed al-Rahim, believes it is not likely that Iraq could become another fundamentalist republic along the lines of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, but he also says that in failing to understand the details of Islam in Iraq Americans are missing opportunities to nurture a constructive role for religion in the coming era. Ahmed al-Rahim was born to Iraqi parents in Lebanon. He teaches Arabic language and literature at Harvard, but his knowledge of Iraqi society is personal as well as academic. He has served as an advisor to the US forces in post-war Iraq and consulted on the reconstruction of the educational system. He offers practical insight into the history and texture of Islam in Iraqi society. Like every Muslim country, he points out, Islam in Iraq has a distinctive character. Divisions among Iraqi Muslims fall more along lines of class, geography and ethnicity than theology. For example, the Kurdish insurgents who were Saddam Hussein’s fiercest opponents are predominantly Sunni, like Saddam. Traditionally, Iraqi has been considered a relatively secular Muslim people. I asked Ahmed al-Rahim whether he thinks of Iraq as a very religious country.

AHMED AL-RAHIM: I wouldn’t say that it’s deeply religious, I would say that people identify with Islam as a — a religious identity, and then that has to be broken down into the various sects of Islam. So I would say people broadly identify with Islam, but not in any particular religious sense on the whole.

MS. TIPPETT: But could you take that apart a little bit? I mean, could you sort of explain what it — what does it mean to be, let’s say, deeply Muslim in Iraq in particular but not necessarily deeply religiously devout?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, I mean, recently there was an article that talked about Kurds in Iraq who do not necessarily identify with Islam as a public political religion, but who look at their faith as a private one. And that was contrasted to how Shiites in the south and in Baghdad are beginning to identify with their religion in a very public, political way. And the example that was given was there were some protests in Basra about the lack of jobs and petroleum, gasoline, and they were holding up signs that said `There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.’ And one wonders what does that mean in the context of protests for gas…


DR. AL-RAHIM: …to — to hold up those kinds of signs? So I think there is a — a divide within Iraq about the use of religion publicly, particularly in the north where the Kurds have had relative autonomy since 1991. And where they have had access to the Internet, to satellite television, they have begun identifying with religion as a private thing. It’s not to say that there aren’t Kurds who use religion for political purposes…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: …but there is this divide.

MS. TIPPETT: As a private thing meaning also a spiritual experience, or is it — is it still a matter of cultural identity?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I would say that it could be spiritual, it could be a matter of identity. It really depends on — on the individual and the group that he’s affiliated with. I mean, for example there is the Naqshbandia, which is a Sufi order in Iraq which is — is growing.


DR. AL-RAHIM: It’s mainly Sunni.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s a mystical and…

DR. AL-RAHIM: Yeah, mystical interpretation of Islamic doctrine and the kind of group that brings together people on the communal level to participate in religious ceremonies. It might even have some impact politically. There are also — for example, in Baghdad I would say that the majority of the Shiite merchant class view their own religion as a private faith, a spiritual one, a — a connection between them and God, not necessarily a political one.

MS. TIPPETT: And when you say merchant class, you’re describing what we would probably say middle-class?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I would say middle to upper-class Iraqi Shiites who’ve really been left out of this dialogue about the new Iraq.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. But who presumably will be very important in rebuilding?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Presumably. And — and they are involved with it right now. The problem is this particular class has stayed out of politics partly because politics for many Shiites has been stigmatized, and so they’ve focused on business and they’ve done very well. But what they don’t understand is that their economic power in Iraq could be translated into political capital. And — and they haven’t done that yet.

MS. TIPPETT: We talk a lot in a political context about religious dynamics, but a question I haven’t heard anyone ask is, you know, what has been the — the spiritual effect of the Saddam years and the occupation? I mean, what has all that done to people’s religious and spiritual sensibility quite apart from the structures or the leaders? What’s your feeling about that?

DR. AL-RAHIM: In — in an odd way, it’s actually strengthened religious feeling and — and spirituality in Iraq because there was no longer a civil society, there were no longer organizations that they could voice their concerns to about the government…

MS. TIPPETT: You mean under Saddam?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Under Saddam Hussein.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And so they turned to religion and religious identity. So in some sense it was strengthened. Saddam also wanted to strengthen it and use it for political reasons, and that’s one of the reasons we see Allahu Akbar, “God is great” on the Iraqi flag. He wanted to use religion for political reasons. So in some ways it strengthened it but in — in other ways people really don’t understand what democracy and Islam mean, those two concepts together. And so you hear a lot of slogans used here and there about Islam and democracy, Islam being the — the rule of Iraq, and so on. But what it means is very difficult to know.

MS. TIPPETT: Because people have no direct experience of that?

DR. AL-RAHIM: They have no direct experience of it, and religion has become politicized. And so now after Saddam has — has been captured and the fall of Baghdad there’s a real vacuum politically, and so people are attaching themselves to this interpretation of religion or that interpretation, or to this sect or that sect. But the details of how that program will work is not really clear.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I could also imagine just from the kinds of stories we hear about not just what life was like under Saddam Hussein, but a lot of the suffering that is still going on in Iraq and that — that has occurred as a result of the fact that there’s been a war there could be very demoralizing to people. But — but are you saying that you’ve experienced a lot of people to be turning to religion because of that?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I think so. I think — I think people are turning to religion as an escape. Certainly they did that under Saddam. One thing that I noticed on going back to Iraq was all the women that were wearing the veils, the head scarf.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And this wasn’t the case back in the ’70s when I left. I don’t remember that at all, but now it’s predominant. What it means, I think, is to be determined. I think as politics begins to develop and mature in Iraq people will begin thinking differently about religion, what it means to be religious. Do they want an Islamic state like Iran? All these questions, I think, will be debated and are actually being debated right now.

MS. TIPPETT: When you mention women wearing the hijab, you see that as a matter of choice rather than — that that’s being required of them somehow culturally or religiously.

DR. AL-RAHIM: I think there’s a expectation. Certainly the time that we spent in Basra, some of the women that we were working with who weren’t wearing the hijab were made to feel very uncomfortable when we went out to restaurants, when we went out into the streets, when we went to schools, and so many of them decided to put it on just so that they’re not hassled. So there is pressure, I think, for women to wear it. And I think particularly there are certain Iraqi groups that have come back from Iran or from Lebanon and — where they — they were involved with certain religious communities there where that was the expectation — and in Iran the law — and they’ve come back to Iraq now putting pressure on Iraqis to do the same.

MS. TIPPETT: Ahmed al-Rahim of Harvard. We’ve asked him to give us a picture of the Islamic landscape of Iraq. Most of the world’s Muslims follow the Sunni tradition of Islam, but in Iraq a majority are Shiite. The word `shia’ connotes `a follower of Ali.’ He was the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad who Shiite Muslims deem to be Muhammad’s rightful heir. In fact, Ali was buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, now a shrine city and a destination for Shiite pilgrims. As in every Muslim country both Sunni and Shiite Islam has distinctive histories in Iraq with many schools of thought and practice. Shiite clerics here have long followed a quietist tradition, favoring spiritual influence over political power. I asked Ahmed al-Rahim to help me understand what the Sunni/Shiite divide in Iraq means in practical terms.

DR. AL-RAHIM: The division is a historic political one and it involves succession to Muhammad. The Sunnis claim that Muhammad left the question open and didn’t designate anyone to succeed him, and that succession would come about by a process of shura consultation of the elders, the — the respected leaders of the Muslim community. And the Shiites, on the other hand, believe that Muhammad designated his son and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed him. So it’s — it’s fundamentally a question of leadership. What it’s come down to politically — historically is that the Sunnis have dominated most of Islamic history in the sense that the — the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate were generally of Sunni persuasion. The Shiites, on the other hand, have tended to stay out of politics except for some of the dynasties like the Fatimids and others where they dominated. But by and large it’s been a political division.

MS. TIPPETT: But there are theological implications to that, right, that Sunnis believe more in a direct approach to God? They don’t have such a — a strong hierarchy, that Shia Muslims do have the more exalted position in their imams. Isn’t that right?

DR. AL-RAHIM: That’s right. With the Shiites you have the institution of — of Marja’iyyah, which is a — a — an institution of the supreme jurist whom Shiites have to follow in questions of practical law. And there can be many of those jurists, I mean, as there are now in Iraq and in Iran and — and Lebanon. And — and so they have to follow them in — in these practical questions. Also, within Shiism there is a division between the — the quietist tradition…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: …and the — the more political one, the…(foreign language spoken), a rulership of the jurists as we find in Iran.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, the quietist tradition has been the more predominant tradition among Iraqi Shias, right?

DR. AL-RAHIM: It’s been the predominant tradition in the Shia world for many years up until Khomeini who came up with this theory of rulership of the jurists.

MS. TIPPETT: And he came up with that in Iraq, didn’t he, and then went back to Iran?

DR. AL-RAHIM: That’s right.


DR. AL-RAHIM: It’s interesting. He did come up with that in Iraq, and the irony of history is that now his grandson, Hussein Khomeini, who was here on a recent visit to the US, is coming up with his own ideas about a referendum on the Islamic Republic, and he’s doing that in Iraq. And he is calling for a secular government in Iran. He is looking to establish a institution which does the research on the Islamic relationship between secular and religious traditions. And so he’s doing that in Iraq, and — and he’s his grandson.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s fascinating. Back to the Sunni/Shiite divide, it’s not so neat just to say Saddam Hussein was associated with the Sunnis and now the Shiites want a say. I mean, the Kurds are also Sunnis.

DR. AL-RAHIM: The majority of Kurds are Sunnis.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: There is a group, the Felis, who are — are Shiites. There are also the Yazidis, which is a — an ancient religion that combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Akiism together. They constitute about maybe 300,000…


DR. AL-RAHIM: …members. So, yeah, the Kurds are very complex. But generally speaking the majority of them are — are Sunnis.

MS. TIPPETT: So if you tried to draw an analogy for an American who knows religious dynamics here — let’s talk not about the political differences, but how Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis live together, work together, are neighbors — is it like the difference between a protestant and a Catholic maybe 50 years ago? What analogy would you think of?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, it really depends on the city. If you look at Baghdad, you’ll see that Kurds, Sunni, Shiite, Yezidi, Arabs, you know, Sunni, Shiite, Christian — all, I mean, generally live together, they work together, they have shared interests. You can break down that interest into classes even. You could say that there’s a middle to upper-class of all those different backgrounds and they tend to work together. And perhaps once there’s a political system there in Iraq, they might even vote as a — together as a bloc. So there are some shared class interests. Generally speaking, that’s — that’s how it is. I mean, I think Iraqis tend to be nostalgic about — for example, living under the monarchy they would all claim that, you know, Christians, Jews, Muslims, they all lived together and there were really no differences.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, that there’s a history of pluralism.

DR. AL-RAHIM: There is this history of pluralism. And I think, you know, sure, I think — I think on the surface, certainly under the monarchy, that was something that was maintained. We had many Jewish members of the parliament, Shiite heads of the parliament. I mean, it was — it was quite diverse.

But what I would say is that underneath all that there is this private language that each community has about the other, and that was never really addressed. And during political times, difficult crises and so, this — this private language about the other which involved suspicion and so on would rear its ugly head. And I think there’s always possibility for that. Until there is real public debate in Iraq about — about that aspect of the relationship, about what each community believes, how to go about living together — once that can be brought out into the public then I think maybe some of those issues will be addressed. But as long as it remains a private language, then — then I think there’s always potential for sectarian and religious strife.

MS. TIPPETT: Just to illustrate that, I mean, did you grow up with that kind of private language in your own family?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Sure, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, tell me what it — what form it would take.

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, it would take the form of, for example, not allowing — I mean, in my case I come from a Shiite background, and certain family members would feel very uncomfortable with other family members marrying Sunnis, for example. They would oppose it. They wanted the marriage to be within our own sect. Just general suspicion. You know, `You can’t really trust Sunnis, that you can’t trust some of the other religious communities.’ At one point certain religious members of my family would claim that — that Christians were impure, these kinds of things. And ritually impure so that one cannot eat something that they cooked. You know there are these kinds of issues there which have a basis in the law but, you know, it comes off in a very suspicious way of the other community.

MS. TIPPETT: Iraqi-American educator and advisor Ahmed al-Rahim. He’s a specialist in Muslim intellectual history and teaches Arabic language and literature at Harvard. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith. Today we’re exploring the complex background of Islam in Iraq.

Recent pronouncements by the leading cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appear to contradict the non-political tradition of clerics that Ahmed al-Rahim has been describing. I asked al-Rahim whether Sistani is influenced by his Iranian counterparts who impose the rule of the jurists — that is, Islamic law on the workings of government.

Ayatollah Sistani has challenged the plans of the Coalition Provisional Authority on several points. Sistani also criticized American security after the devastation of recent terrorist attacks on worshippers at Ashura, their holy ritual of martyrdom. Ahmed al-Rahim says that ritual, in fact, commemorates the historic roots of the quietist or non-political tradition of Iraq’s hierarchy.

DR. AL-RAHIM: It goes back to what they see as the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the — the third Shiite saint, after his revolt in Karbala in Iraq against Yazid al bin Muawiya. After this revolt failed and he was massacred along with members of his family — for which there are many passion plays in the Shiite world, very much along the lines that — that you see about the passion plays about Jesus, there are a lot of parallels — the Shiites felt that they were no longer interested in politics and that they would actually begin working on — on jurisprudence, on the questions of theology, identity of the community. And that tradition continued up until the — the 12th imam and then his occulation, his hiding. So this has continued all the way down to the — to the modern period, with some exceptions, in Iraq, in Iran, and the political shift occurred under Khomeini. So this quietist tradition has stayed out of politics. But it’s interesting to note that Sistani, you know, for all his claims about wanting to stay out of politics, he’s really at the heart and center of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s what I’m trying to understand.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And — and I think what that has to do with is a sense of competition that the jurists have among them. You — you have to understand that the juridical culture in Shiism is very, very competitive.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, meaning?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Meaning competitive about who has religious authority…


DR. AL-RAHIM: …and political as well. And I think the point that Sistani is trying to make to Khomeini, the head of Iran, is that `Look, we have this quietist tradition. We don’t need Khomeini’s political thought, and look how much political power we have at the same time.’ So he’s trying to make a point, I think, to — to the Iranian clerics.

MS. TIPPETT: Harvard’s Ahmed al-Rahim. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of our conversation. He describes the restoration of civil society as the best hope for a constructive role for Islam in the new Iraq.

When you visit our Web site at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find background and resources on Islam in Iraq and full audio of this interview. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.

Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, an expanded conversation with Iraqi-American educator and advisor Ahmed al-Rahim. After much debate, the Iraqi governing council recently approved an interim constitution. Ahmed al-Rahim is giving us details about the religious landscape and challenges of post-war Iraq. We most often hear about Iraqi clerics because they are either pro or anti-American. One such example is the fiercely belligerent Muqtada al-Sadr, the surviving son of a prominent ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein. In recent months American attention has focused heavily on another cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He is currently the most important cleric in Iraq. He calls for direct elections for Iraq’s interim government, contradicting US plans. One typical recent headline read “Iraq’s path hinges on words of enigmatic cleric.” I asked my guest Ahmed al-Rahim whether he believes that Americans should be looking at Ayatollah Sistani to understand the religious direction of the new Iraq.

DR. AL-RAHIM: Unfortunately, that’s the only place that we can look right now because we, America, has — has created this — this situation in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority has painted themselves into a corner and have no other choice but to heed what Sistani says.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me what that means. I mean, how could it have gone differently?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, it could have gone differently, I think, by looking at the diversity of the Shiite community in Iraq. I had mentioned the — the merchant class…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: …the Shia merchant class. We have not done very much in supporting, for example, a Shiite chamber of commerce, you know, that could play a role politically, that could make pronouncements here and there which counterbalance those pronouncements from Najaf and Karbala where Sistani is. But what we have done is — let me step back here a minute and…


DR. AL-RAHIM: …and — and look at this. US policy towards Shiites has shifted in the last 10 years. Up until the — the first Gulf War the Shiites of Iraq were perceived to be like the Shiites in Iran, that if given a chance they would establish an Islamic state similar to Iran’s. Then historians and others, policy-makers, began to really think critically about the Shiites of Iraq and research the topic, and they realized that, to the contrary, the s of Iraq have this quietist tradition.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s a very different history, isn’t it?

DR. AL-RAHIM: It’s a very different history. It’s one that’s antithetical to Khomeini’s line — political line. And so this gave hope to certain policy makers in the US that there could actually be regime change in Iraq and we wouldn’t necessarily have an Islamic state if we worked with the Shiites there. And who were the Shiites under this new vision of Shiism in Iraq? Mainly Sistani, the al-Sadr family, the clerics. There was very little thought about the merchant class of Shiites, what role they could play.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I was going to ask you if, because under Saddam Hussein Shiites were sort of excluded from power essentially, that the reason these religious figures, quietist though they may be, are so visible now is that that was the only place that Shia leaders could have authority. But I think you’re saying that we could be looking in other places for that kind of leadership, or to nurture that kind of voice, that Shiite voice that we, in a sense, have focused on Ayatollah Sistani.

DR. AL-RAHIM: That’s right. I think that we can look at other parts of the Shiite community. I would say that the majority of Shiites in Iraq — certainly many that I met with, teachers, businessmen, physicians and so on — generally have a very private sense about their faith. It’s not a political public sense that we associate with, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr. They see their faith as a private faith, one where they associate more with the class that they come from, where they’re looking for stability, they’re even looking to the West. So we haven’t really focused on this group, unfortunately.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And the reason is that there wasn’t any form of civil society under Saddam for these kinds of groups to work together, to come together. And so that as a result of the vacuum individuals like Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Rahim: …naturally come to the top.

MS. TIPPETT: So right now would be a time when those kinds of people and groups in Iraqi society might be forming and new leaders would be coming to the floor, but that’s going to be a process that’s happening — could happen now.

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, it’s a process that should have been initiated after the fall of Baghdad. We should have reached out much more to these communities.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: But it’s a process that has to begin and is beginning at one level or another. And certainly once we have political institutions, once we have a government, then the possibilities, I think, will come to fruition.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you mentioned, let’s say the American government could have helped form a Shiite chamber of commerce. That would be such an alien idea in the American imagination because we have this virtue of separation and state always at the forefront and — I mean, that has worked in this country. I don’t know, do you think that when America goes to a place like Iraq they may need to open that idea up a little bit?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I think so. I mean, if one even looks at the US, I mean, there are many aspects of civil society that have to do with an ethnic religious base. I mean, if you look at, you know, Jewish groups here, if you look at Christian groups, it’s a sort of a broadly conceived religious identity, not necessarily even religious. I mean, some sense maybe even ethnic.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And I think that in Iraq it is different and — and it is more complex in some ways. And so, yeah, we have to begin thinking differently about how to work with those communities.

MS. TIPPETT: Iraqi-American thinker and Harvard educator Ahmed al-Rahim. I asked him to tell me about other religious leaders Iraqis are watching as they form their own sense of the role religion will play in their country’s future.

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, one example is Sayyid Ayad Jamal al-Din. This was the cleric who had stood up in the first Nassiryah conference — this was the — the big tent conference, the first one — and he stood up and called for a separation of religion and state. Now he’s a Shiite cleric, has a turban, so on, has a religious following, spent many years in the United Arab Emirates and in the West. And I spoke to him, and — and — and I think he really has a deep understanding of — that religion, religious freedom, can only be protected under a secular government, a government that separates religion and state. And he experienced that being in the United Arab Emirates, being in the West and so on. So he is critical of Sistani, he is certainly critical of Muqtada al-Sadr. He is afraid that Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, if given enough power and authority, will form some sort of council of jurists that has the right to veto certain things, that — that has the right to define what — how people believe. And so I think he’s — he’s an interesting voice, but unfortunately he’s a voice that hasn’t been supported by the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority.

MS. TIPPETT: Would it work for the CPA to support voices like that, or would — would — the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer, or would — would that seem to be meddling in Iraqi society?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Look, it’s clear that the CPA, the CIA, the State Department, they all have their favorites and they all support them in one way or another. I’m not saying that they necessarily have to directly support him, but they have to give him the opportunity to voice those views, and that’s — that’s not being done. And the reason is he doesn’t fit the American conception of Shiism in Iraq. I mean, he just doesn’t fit the Sistani/Muqtada al-Sadr model.

MS. TIPPETT: Hm. You’ve mentioned Muqtada al-Sadr a few times. Could you say who he is and why he’s important in your mind?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Sadiq al-Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric who came up with a theory of working with the tribes in Iraq, and — and — and at some points was allowed to do that under Saddam. Ultimately he was a threat to Saddam and was killed.

MS. TIPPETT: In — in 1999, I think.

DR. AL-RAHIM: In 1999.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: And Muqtada al-Sadr is his son. He’s in his early 30s. He is a firebrand, he — he is anti-American in his rhetoric. He thinks he can assume the leadership of his father. And — and he’s someone that is a little bit unpredictable in his ways. One week he would talk about cooperating with the Americans, the next week he would talk about jihad against the Americans. He’s someone who I think is very immature politically, and I think ultimately will be sidelined by the political process.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve also spoken of — in some of what you’ve written and — and said, you — you use the term “separation of mosque and state.” Is that a concept that is part of the public discussion in Iraq now?

DR. AL-RAHIM: It is a concept that is part of the discussion. Certainly it’s been mentioned at women’s conferences in Iraq. I’ve mentioned Ayad Jamal al-Din as a proponent of that view.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. AL-RAHIM: It is a view that’s — that’s being discussed, but unfortunately it’s one where if you promote that view then you’re looked at as anti-Islamic and — because somehow it’s thought that, you know, you’re saying something bad about the mosque, something bad about Islam. So the — the details of that kind of theory, of that kind of view haven’t really been addressed. It’s really just beginning to happen now.

MS. TIPPETT: Where do you look for hope about how this all might go as well as it possibly could? What would happen — what would be nurtured, maybe, by the American presence?

DR. AL-RAHIM: That’s a big question.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I know.

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, I would say that there are many things that have happened that show signs of progress in Iraq: the education system, building up certain forms of civil society and — and even just building up the infrastructure, the phone system, there are cell phones now. I mean, there — there — there’s progress being made, but unfortunately it’s being overshadowed by the suicide bombings and the…


DR. AL-RAHIM: …you know. So I would say that the hope for Iraq, if I could put it in a nutshell, is civil society. If the right institutions are formed in Iraq that allow civil society to develop, then I think civil society will always be the counterbalance to political power.

MS. TIPPETT: And what do you think of specifically when you say civil society? Education?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I think of education, I think of unions, I think of religious institutions as well.

MS. TIPPETT: As part of the mix — as a sort of healthy part of the mix.

DR. AL-RAHIM: As part of the mix. I think of the media, which has flourished after the fall of Baghdad. There are over 150 papers in Iraq right now. I think of the business community. But what — what needs to happen is these forms of civil society need to understand what they need to do to have influence over the political process. That’s really what needs to be understood, the basic concepts, mechanisms of democracy and civil society. And that is slowly beginning to happen, but not a lot of work is being done in that direction.

MS. TIPPETT: Ahmed al-Rahim. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, a perspective on Islam in Iraq. In recent months the role of religion in Iraqi civil society has been evolving. Women’s groups objected after the governing council approved a proposal to give Islamic clerics a role in family law. Several Shiite clerics walked out after the council repealed that decision, but they came back, and after intense negotiation and compromise on every side, the council reached unanimous approval on each article of an interim constitution which is being hailed as the most progressive such document in the Arab world. In one significant compromise, the constitution envisions that 25 percent of the seats in the National Assembly will be held by women. Ahmed al-Rahim insists that strong civic institutions will provide the best context for a non-fundamentalist role for religion in Iraq. His specialty is education.

MS. TIPPETT: I know that Iraq traditionally is a place where education was valued. And, in fact, in all of the Arab world Iraqi educators were imported. You’ve been working on the educational system. Did that suffer under Saddam Hussein? Are the bones of that still there in Iraq to be built on now?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Certainly it suffered, particularly in the last fives years under Saddam. From February of 2002 to February of 2003 Saddam spent $6.3 million on the entire educational system in Iraq.


DR. AL-RAHIM: I mean, that’s not enough to buy tissues for schools. And so schools were neglected, there was no hope for parents to send their children to school because the system favored the Baath. The children of members of the Baath Party would go through school with high grades, they would get into medical school. They didn’t have to do any work, so there was no value in being in school. And so parents started taking their children out of school.

What’s happened now after the fall of Baghdad and the rebuilding of the schools and — and hope for the future is parents have begun to send their children back to school. We’re working with an accelerated learning program there, and we can only have about 150 children in each school, and there are five programs in Iraq. We have parents, we have young adults coming to us and — and begging us to come into these schools so that they could study and learn again. So I think there is hope for education in — in the new Iraq.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I think it’s important that that value of education always coexisted in Iraq with an overwhelmingly Muslim society and culture. And in — more on a theological and religious level, when you talk about rebuilding society, what do you find in Islam that can contribute and — Islam in Iraq that will contribute or could contribute positively, constructively to that process?

DR. AL-RAHIM: Well, you know, I would say that their basic ethical concepts within Islam, issues of justness, fairness, equality. You know, Islam, like any other religion, has these basic concepts and — and these need to be emphasized in working and living with other religious communities there. I would say that Islam, as a private faith, needs to be emphasized by Muslims there. I would say that the religious institutions in Najaf and Karbala need to have their own independence. There’s a rich religious tradition of learning within — within those cities, within their libraries, and they need to have independence, and we need to get back to that quietist tradition. I would say that there are forms of Sufism in Iraq which have a rich history which need to be developed. They could function as — as a — as a form of civil society as well, they have historically under Islam. I — I would say that women’s groups need to talk about religious freedom, need to look at what in Islam can contribute to that. So there — there are many things, I think, within Islam, I mean, that — that can be used to this end.

MS. TIPPETT: I had the sense when you were in Iraq in this last period that Americans there are simply frightened by Islam or by religious expression that is Islamic, so that maybe they don’t go close enough and — and encourage that which might be encouraged, the kinds of things you just described.

DR. AL-RAHIM: I — I — I actually think that it’s been the contrary. I mean, I think that the Americans there — certainly a lot of the — the Americans I workedwith there and — and the soldiers that I met — they really connected with — with Muslims. I mean — and that represents some form of Islam. What I think they’re afraid of are the more radical forms of it.


DR. AL-RAHIM: And they have — they have a right to be.


DR. AL-RAHIM: I mean Muslims are afraid of that.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Well, that’s what’s publicized, right?

DR. AL-RAHIM: That’s what’s publicized, but I think the Americans by and large, you know, understand that it’s not necessarily a question of Islam as such.

MS. TIPPETT: And your field is — is intellectual history. Is there some aspect of Iraqi intellectual religious history that you would especially want to be taught and think an awareness of would be constructive in this time?

DR. AL-RAHIM: I think one of the most remarkable things about medieval — or Muslim intellectual history is the acceptance of ambiguity, the comfort with ambiguity. If you look at medieval texts — if you look at, for example, Qur’anic commentary, they will give you 15, 30 different interpretations of one verse, sometimes even one word.


DR. AL-RAHIM: And in the end they’ll throw their hands up and say `And God knows best.’ And there wasn’t this need to — to — to fix the text and say that it has to mean one thing or another, as has happened in the modern period. If you look at commentaries in the modern period they’re very short, very brief, and they — they tell you `This is what it means and that is it.’ And so I think there needs to be an appreciation of the medieval tradition and this — this comfort with ambiguity, because in some sense I think that in that ambiguity we can have tolerance, we can have acceptance of different views, and that can even be extended to other religions. So I would — I would say that that would be the one thing that would be most interesting to develop.

MS. TIPPETT: Ahmed al-Rahim teaches Arab language and literature at Harvard University. He’s also a founding member of the American Islamic Congress, an organization dedicated to building inter-ethnic understanding in the wake of September 11th, and he’s served as an advisor to American forces in Iraq.In all the news this past year it’s been difficult to get the kind of basic insight into the human dimension of religion in Iraq that Ahmed al-Rahim offers. His a measured, relatively secular voice as, apparently, is the historic religious profile of Iraqi society. And it is important to be reminded that while we are prone these days to speak of `the Muslim world,’ each Muslim country has its own Islamic history and dynamics. Indeed, the Sunni/Shiite divide has vastly different texture and impact in every society. In the case of Iraq, where we are engaged in rebuilding that nation, we would do well to pay special attention to such a nuance. But with each terrorist bombing the stakes grow higher. The American ability to comprehend the particular religious dynamics of Iraqi society may be crucial.

In closing, I’d like to read a section from the provocative essay entitled “Mosque and State in Iraq” written by George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni. He began to formulate these thoughts after attending a meeting in Iran two years ago in the wake of Ashura, the same Shiite ritual which was marked by violence in Iraq this past week.

Etzioni’s own presumptions about the inherit stridency of Islam were challenged at that meeting and he began to reexamine an American approach to Islamic countries that would impose our own Western history and sensibilities. He writes “The United States, in Iraq and elsewhere, should cease promoting a secular civil society as the only alternative to a Taliban-like Shia theocracy. We cannot quell the religious yearnings of millions of Iraqis and many others elsewhere merely by fostering strong political and economic institutions and the sound values they embody. The most effective way to counter a theocracy is to include moderate liberal religious elements in the civil society we are helping to erect.

The first amendment to this establishment clause is not a foreign policy tool, but a peculiarly American conception. Just because the American government is banned from promoting religion within the United States does not mean that the State Department and the Pentagon cannot promote religion overseas in societies that are undergoing profound societal changes. This last point is crucial. Overseas we are participating as a key architect and builder of new institutions. We are in what social scientists call `the design business.’ This is quite distinct from what we do at home, shoring up a solid social structure designed two centuries ago, careful not to rock the foundation on which it stands. In Iraq we participate in the ground-breaking, foundation-laying stage, one in which elements we can take for granted at home, such as a thriving religious life within civil society, must be provided.” From an essay by Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and your questions on the role of Islam in rebuilding Iraq. There’s a place for your reflections on our website at speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there, you’ll find links to background and other resources, including a full copy of Amitai Etzioni’s essay. At speakingoffiath.org you can listen to this program again as well as our previous programs. You can always write to us at [email protected] or you can call Minnesota Public Radio at 1 (800) 228-7123.


I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.

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