MEA Book Review: Muqtada

21 11 2009

Sayyed Muqtada Al-Sadr

Muqtada, by Patrick Cockburn

The book, whose title refers to Sayyed Muqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army in Iraq,  starts out with the author traveling to Najaf to do an interview with Sadr in 2004. The journey is harrowing, as Iraq was in the process of disintegrating  into unimaginable violence at the time, but Mr.  Cockburn knew the importance of understanding the man who was already well on his way to becoming one of the most important men in Iraq.

Interestingly, less than half the book is directly about the man himself, the intent being that, for us to understand Muqtada Al-Sadr and his position in Iraq, it’s crucial for us to understand the history behind the Shia of Iraq, including their beliefs, heroes, and struggles. It is here where Cockburn examines the origins of the Shia, their history, and what life was like for them under the regime of Saddam Hussein in order to shed some light on the mindset of the Shia in Iraq today.

The break between Shia and Sunni happened after the Prophet’s death (PPBUH) in 632 AD, and was a matter of succession over who should be the next leader of the Muslims. Some people wanted the leader appointed, these became the Sunni. Others wanted the leader to be a descendant of the Prophet. This group, the Shia, wanted Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law to be the leader.

The author does a much better job than I do of going through the details of how everything evolved from there for the Shia, including the Ali’s assassination, the battle of Karbala, and the origins of Najaf; all of which are as important to understanding the present-day Shia condition as  understanding the myths and legends of America’s founding fathers is to understanding the modern United States, perhaps even more so. And Cockburn does a fine job of parsing through and explaining it all in the right amount of detail as to not be tedious.

For hundreds of years, the Shia have been ruled by Sunni. The only place where this is not true in the Middle East is Iran, where the Safavid dynasty converted Persia to Shiism in the 16th century. Aside from that, the Shia have existed for centuries as the underclass of the Muslim world. Some Sunnis even consider them heretics.

This was especially true in Iraq, where the Shia make up two-thirds of the population. The ruling Sunni regimes were fearful of the power of their numbers, and were forever on guard against an uprising. As a result, any act of protest or civil disobedience was swiftly dealt with.

Part of the value of this book is its illumination of the often misunderstood culture of the Shia. The author unravels the history of the characters in a way that is of immense value to the reader. We learn that Muqtada al-Sadr is  third in a line of powerful Sadr’s. Sadr I, Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr (Muqtada’s father-in-law), and Sadr II, Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada’s father) are revealed to be monumental characters in the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shia.

Historically, the mindset of the Shia involves quiet suffering and non-violent resistance in the face of oppressive rulers. This is a useful tradition, as the Shia  often existed under the worst of conditions and under mostly cruel Sunni regimes. For them, the only way to get through life under these conditions was to accept in their minds that it was the destiny of the Shia to live this way, and that God would reward those who had handled it well.

As a result, the prevailing doctrine of learned Shia clerics was to keep religion out of politics. This way the Shia could continue to worship as they chose , without drawing the wrong kind of attention from security forces, and the religious leaders and the religion itself could survive. The strategy, good or bad, worked until the early 1960’s. Just as there was a cultural revolution going on in America, France, and many other parts of the world, the same was true for the Shia.

Religious leaders in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq were sewing the seeds for a transition and revolution for their people, one that continues to this day. Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Imam Musa Sadr (cousin of Sadr I) in Lebanon were deeply involved in the affairs of their community. Musa Sadr eventually went on to form the Amal party and militia, and Khomeini went on to overthrow the Shah of Iran to establish an Islamic Republic.

Similar changes were afoot in Iraq, but under the ultra oppressive Sunni Baathist regime, events had to proceeded more slowly, and a lot more secretly. Contrary to the other clerics, such as Ayatollah Sistani, the Sadrists don’t adhere to the policy of the seperation of church and state. The Sadrs in Iraq believed that it was the mosque should be used as a way for the people to organize politically, and that it was the clerics who should be their voice and their leaders.

The resolve of this new brand of cleric was about to be challenged by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, who became the leader of Iraq in 1979. Known for his ruthlessness and his distrust of everyone around him, Cockburn eerily quotes a former Baathist as saying the only way to survive in his regime was “to be ten percent crueler than the boss”.

And cruel they were. Cockburn, in recounting the lives, struggles, and eventual deaths of Sadr I and II, goes into the gory details about how Saddam and his men dealt with protest and unrest. It was no secret what would befall these men once caught, and it’s extraordinarily courageous that they proceeded anyway, for the sake of their community.

One of the more interesting parts of a very interesting book esamined the relationship between the Shia of Iran and the Shia of Iraq. When Saddam Hussein started a war with Iran in 1980, it was unclear whether the Shia of each side would take up arms against each other. According to one Shia fighter interviewed, at first they would shoot over the heads of the Persians, but the Persian were killing their friends and brothers so they eventually returned fire.

The war lasted for eight years and cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. The result for many Iraqi Shia was that their relationship with the Persians was forever tainted. Adding insult to injury was that many wealthy Shia had fled to Iran in the late seventies  to escape the Baathists, and the one that were left behind were  angry and resentful.

The Sadrs could have left but they didn’t. They stayed and supported their people in their darkest hour and suffered tremendously for it. That is why today Sadr I and Sadr II have achieved near sainthood in the eyes of Iraqi Shia.

And that is the stock the Muqtada Sadr comes from. His forefathers and relatives are Shia legends and martyrs. When his father and brother were executed by Saddam’s men he was left to carry the torch.

Muqtada Sadr has an immense following, but he does not have a monopoly on the Shia of Iraq.  One of his biggest challengers is Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim, the current head of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.

Al-Hakim, who is  close in age to Muqtada, also descends from giants of the Shia community. They both have the title of “Sayyed”, meaning that they are descendants of the Prophet, and while Muqtada is related to Sadr I and Sadr II, as well as Imam Musa Sadr of Lebanon, Ammar al-Hakim the son of Sayyed Abdul Aziz, the founder of the SICI, who is also the cousin of Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah, the highest ranking Shia scholar in Lebanon.

All this may be confusing to the uninitiated, but in Shia Islam, lineage is very important for legitimacy and therefore leadership. After the fall of Saddam, the Sadrists viewed the SICI with suspicion and contempt, as they had waited out the decades of extreme hardship in the relative comfort of Iran while training and organizing for their eventual return.

With Saddam gone, the two groups clashed violently for control of Iraq. They knew that the new government would be a democracy, and they also knew that the Shia, with their superior population to the Kurds and the Sunni, would control the new government.

Another interesting point made was that, though he came from a highly respected family, Muqtada al-Sadr himself lacked the religious credentials to truly be the master of Iraq. That is why after the situation had calmed down in Iraq in 2008, al-Sadr traveled to Qom, the Shia Vatican in Iran, to polish  those credentials in hopes of eventually attaining the title of “Ayatollah”. If he succeeds, upon his return Muqtada al-Sadr would have few rivals for the title of the most influential man in Iraq, as he would arguably have more political followers than Sayyed al-Hakim of the SICI, and more religious followers than Ayatollah Sistani.

Also in the book was how Muqtada Sadr came of age during the American invasion, how the American leaders reacted to his influence, and how he handle himself and his movement throughout the war.

Overall, I would like to have heard more of an explanation of how the American’s became the enemy so soon after removing one of the most evil men in history from power and essentially freeing a the vast majority of Iraqis from his cruel grasp. To some, this may be akin to the United States freeing the Holocaust Jews, who immediately say, “thanks, but could you please get the hell out of Germany?”

The Iraqi Kurds underwent similar treatment at the hands of the Americans, including multiple heartbreaking betrayals when they attempted to rise up against Saddam, the failure to produce food and utilities for the people right after the invasion, and the prospect of a lengthy occupation. Yet their reception for the Americans was much different. Why were the Shia so hostile so soon, especially when it was clear that in the new democracy, they would be the new rulers of Iraq?

Also, I would have liked to have heard more about Muqtada al-Sadr himself. The author goes into rich (and vital) detail about the history and culture of the Shia, as well as the lives of Muqtada’s predecessors, but the actual amount he reveals about the man himself left me wanting. Perhaps this is a combination of the curiosity that was piqued in me by the book, along with perhaps that this might be all there is to know about him at this point.

Whatever the case, I highly enjoyed Mr. Cockburn’s  work. The characters and stories he brought to life, I feel, help us greatly to understand the psyche and situation of Iraq today. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for other works by the author, as well as any morsel of news and insight that I can get on his subject, Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr, the man who might one day rule Iraq.

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