Iraq is home to some of the most important shrines belonging to the two major Schools of Thought in Islam: Sunni and Shi‘i. It has the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain as well as all the other Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt except Imam Raza who is buried in Mashhad. Similarly, Imam Abu Hanifa, who has the largest following among Sunnis, is buried there. So is Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, one of the greatest sheikhs of the Sufi Tariqa.
Capping all this, Prophet Ibrahim (as), was born in Ur, present-day Iraq that Pope Francis visited during his recent trip (more on this later). There are also reports that Prophets Adam and Nuh (as) are also buried there. So, Iraq’s soil is graced with the remains of great prophets and personalities of Islam.
Based on such a rich legacy, it would be reasonable to assume that Iraq would be one of the strongholds of the global Islamic movement. That this is not the case is largely due to the fact that Iraq’s “liberators” (the Americans) are not done “liberating” yet. It would, however, be wrong to blame all of Iraq’s problems on the American occupation although it has been a major contributor in the last two decades.
The other millstone around Iraq’s neck is Arabism. This nationalistic ideology is essentially a glorified form of tribalism that has bedevilled Iraqi politics—and indeed socio-political life in most Middle Eastern countries for nearly a century. The well-known Algerian thinker and writer, Malek Bennabi (d.1973) pointed this out decades ago. He said that whenever Muslims think of finding solutions to their problems through Islam, the West is there with an alternative ideology.
In Iraq’s case, Arabian nationalism took the form of Ba‘athism. It caused havoc with the Iraqi society and resulted in the murder and torture of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. While Saddam Hussain, its most vicious enforcer, is gone from the scene, Iraq remains mired in problems.
Let us list some of them. Like most societies, there is widespread corruption in Iraq. American occupation has merely exacerbated the problem. Unable to win Iraqi hearts and minds—how could it with its shock and awe operations?—the Americans came with suitcases full of dollars and bought anyone who was willing to sell his soul. It spawned a different kind of culture of corruption that has reached dizzying heights. In fact, it has become deeply entrenched.
Iraq’s ethnic mix has also contributed to its woes. In addition to the Arab population—both Shi‘i and Sunni—there are Kurds, Turkmen and Yazidis. Thus, Arabian nationalism cannot solve Iraq’s problems although its Arab neighbors, primarily Saudi Arabia, are pushing it in that direction. The aim is to reduced and ultimately eliminate Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Iraq’s religious mix is also contributing to its problems although this need not be the case. During Saddam’s era, the Shi‘is were brutally suppressed but this was not because the former dictator represented Sunni sentiment. He promoted his Takriti clan at the expense of everyone else. The various Shi‘i religious groups in Iraq today should be able to rise above sectarianism and work with their Sunni brothers for the well-being of everyone in the country, including Christians. This is what Islam teaches its adherents.
Another unresolved issue is that of the quietist approach versus the activist approach. Traditionally, Shi‘i Muslims have shunned involvement in politics. They have adopted the attitude of waiting for the emergence of Imam Mahdi to set things right. Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad on this matter should have resolved the issue but traditions and the weight of history make it difficult for people to break out of a particular mindset.
The negative consequences of this approach are evident in the fact that Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a British citizen, is the prime minister of Iraq. And some Iraqis expressed pleasure that Pope Francis visited Najaf in Iraq to meet Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Sistani and not Qum or Tehran to meet Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Is pope the authority to determine who should be the leader of Muslims?
One of these Iraqis is Hayder al-Khoei (grandson of the late Ayatullah Abul Qasim al-Khoei), who now works for Chatham House in England. This so-called British think-tank is linked to British intelligence. In an article published by the American channel NBC News website on March 5, 2021, Hayder al-Khoei wrote: “The Shia Islamic world is divided between a mainstream, Iraq-based school of Islam that believes there should be a separation of church and state and a revolutionary, Iran-based school that believes in theocracy. The meeting with the pope represents international and interreligious recognition of the mainstream Iraq-based Shia school.”
It is a sad reflection of the Ummah that some people believe the West confers legitimacy on Islamic scholars. Such thinking is the product of an acute sense of inferiority complex. We do not, however, hold the late Ayatullah Khoei responsible for his grandson’s errant ways. After all, the Qur’an tells us that Nuh’s (as) son rejected his father’s plea to join the ark and drowned. Ibrahim (as) prayed for his father’s guidance but he died a mushrik!
Not everyone in Iraq, however, is so mesmerized by the West. In a major development last month, several militia groups gave Prime Minister al-Kadhimi a straight choice: in return for these groups not attacking the occupation forces, he must demand the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq within 12 months. Despite enormous oil wealth that the US has plundered for many years, Iraq’s economic situation is grim. Unemployment stands at 36% (nearly 50% among the youth); 30% of the population lives in poverty. Corruption is rampant.
This situation will only get worse unless the occupation forces withdraw and genuine representatives of the Iraqi people, not Western puppets, take the helm of affairs.