Shias Dance for Iraq

Shias have special reason to celebrate the downfall of Saddam, but will remain loyal to a sovereign Iraq as long as their basic rights are respected.

Shias Dance for Iraq

Shias have special reason to celebrate the downfall of Saddam, but will remain loyal to a sovereign Iraq as long as their basic rights are respected.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

In the last two decades, the level of state repression against the Shia in Iraq has reached unprecedented heights, with mass expulsions, expropriations, destruction of schools and colleges, and wholesale murder and assassinations of the Shia leadership. Iraq is at a critical juncture in its history. The tyranny that has been inflicted on Iraq will pass, but the conditions that have allowed dictatorship to flourish must be removed once and for all if we are not to fall back into another form of misrule and oppression.

The airing in public of the sectarian issues facing Iraq does not subject Iraq's unity to any serious threat. Ignoring the problem, or sweeping it under the carpet because of some ill-defined "threat" to national unity, only compounds the issue and is an affront to the memory of the multitudes that have perished or suffered hardships and indignities because of their sectarian identity.

The lessons drawn from Iraq's history are clear: the Shia have at no point sought to establish their own state or unique political entity. Rather, whenever the opportunity was afforded to them, they participated enthusiastically in nationwide political movements and organisations. The Shia, both in their Islamist and non-Islamist manifestations, have avoided being dragged into separatist schemes and have been steadfast in their commitment to a unitary Iraqi state.

Even today, where state anti-Shi'ism has reached unprecedented levels of violence, the Shia have not raised the banner of withdrawal from the body politic of Iraq.

The Shia's disillusioning experience with the circumstances that underpinned the formation of the first Iraqi government in 1920 was the defining factor in their political evolution. Although the Shia played a pivotal role in establishing the conditions for an independent Iraq, being the main actors in the Iraqi Uprising of 1920, the Iraqi state was designed within clear sectarian boundaries, with the intention of distancing the Shia and their leadership from decision-making structures. The state never ceased to remind Sunnis of the alleged Shia menace and the threat that the Shia allegedly posed to their rights and privileges.

The authorities' insistence on the continuing isolation of the Shia from any meaningful exercise of power helped transform the Iraqi Shia into a recognisable social entity with its own peculiarities, far from any specific ideological and religious considerations. The Shia's opposition to the state in Iraq is based on political rather than sectarian considerations. In spite of the policies of sectarian discrimination, Iraq has not witnessed social discrimination in terms of one community, the Sunnis, consciously oppressing another, the Shia. The discrimination with which the Shia have been afflicted is entirely the work of the state.

While the Shia in Iraq subscribe to numerous political and intellectual groupings, it is the Islamist movement that acts today as the main political drive for the Shia. Yet the Islamist parties in Iraq have an explicitly Islamic, rather than sectarian, orientation. The condition of the Shia in Iraq is such that they can owe allegiances to a variety of political and cultural currents that are not necessarily Islamic in direction.

Today the Shia demand the abolition of dictatorship and its replacement with a democratic parliamentary constitutional order that carefully avoids the hegemony of one sect or ethnic group over the others; the adoption of federal structures with a high degree of decentralisation and devolution of powers; the elimination of official sectarianism through the adoption of specific political and civil rights that would eliminate the disadvantage of the Shia; and the protection of the Islamic identity of Iraqi society.

Iraq's federal structure would not be based on a sectarian division, but rather on administrative and demographic criteria. This would avoid the formation of sectarian-based entities that could be the prelude for partition or separation. Ideally, a federal system would legislate for the maintenance of Iraq's unitary nature while recognising the need to fully accommodate Iraq's diversity.

In order to eliminate the accumulation of sectarian policies employed over decades, a federal authority would be established with a remit to combat sectarianism. This authority would examine closely the principles employed for filling all senior governmental posts and would be charged with adjudicating all complaints and cases of sectarianism.

A fund would be established to compensate all those who have been harmed as a result of sectarian and ethnic discrimination and policies. A set of laws would be introduced to abolish sectarianism and criminalize sectarian conduct. A new nationality law would be introduced, based on a notion of citizenship that would emphasise loyalty to Iraq rather than to any sectarian, national or religious affiliation.

The key civil rights that have a special resonance for the Shia would include their right to practice their own religious rites and rituals and to autonomously administer their own religious shrines and institutions; freedom to teach in their religious universities and institutions with no interference by the central or provincial authorities; the right to establish independent schools, universities and other teaching establishments within the framework of a broad and consensual national education policy; revising the history curriculum to remove all disparagement of the Shia; official recognition by the state of the key dates of the Shia calendar; repatriation of all Iraqis who were forcibly expelled from Iraq, or who felt obliged to leave under duress, and the full restitution of their constitutional and civil rights.

It is essential that all the elements of Iraq's political spectrum, as well as the representatives of Iraq's varied communities, become involved in the process of finding a way out of the terrible situation that Iraq finds itself in now and which threatens its very survival. All these groups must participate in the design of a new Iraqi state so that all have a stake in the outcome and feel themselves true and equal partners. This is the minimum requirement for rebuilding the Iraqi state on a new basis.

Mowaffak al Rubaie is a founder of the Iraqi National Congress and coordinator of its human rights committee.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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