Saturday, December 11, 2010

Religious Fanaticism Targets Democracy And Civil Life In Iraq

By Hamid Alkifaey
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 11/12/2010

Fanatics are always slaves to an idea that has captured their imagination and have taken control of their thinking and feeling. They cannot depart from it, no matter how far life circumstances have taken them away from it, and even if their duties and interests, and sometimes their fate, dictate otherwise and require them to do something else. They are always hostages to theory, and do not pay attention to practical realities or interests. That’s why they are not fit to lead society, which is mainly concerned with its interests.

The Taliban ‘mujahideen’ insisted in 2001 on demolishing the Buddha statues in the remote mountains of Bamyan, which stood high for over 1600 years. They rejected all international appeals to keep them because they were holy to millions of people and represented one of the rarest among cultural landmarks recognized by UNESCO. They brought their artillery and rockets, and rooted them out from the mountains of Bamyan as if the statues were actually threatening their country, the interests of their people and the future of their generations! Those extremists remained in power, imposing their extreme, primitive ideas on the people of Afghanistan until American forces toppled them after they had proven to the whole world, beyond any shadow of doubt, that they were a threat to the civilized world. Afghanistan under them became a centre for all fanatics and those looking for martyrdom or heroism.

In Cambodia, Pol Pot killed a quarter of his people between 1975 and 1979 because of his extremism and strange ideas which were hostile to education, science and all who differed with him. He turned his army, the Khmer Rouge, into a tool of killing, torture and displacement. His people suffered under him until neighbouring Vietnam intervened and toppled him militarily, but only after he killed about two and a half million Cambodians in the strangest ever campaign – to achieve ‘Agricultural Socialism’ and send the country back to ‘Year Zero’!

In the Soviet Union, Stalin killed at least ten million people in his campaigns of forced migration, purge, and crackdown on political opponents. He caused a famine in his country that left millions of victims between 1932 and 1933. While Hitler caused the killing of more than this figure in his internal wars against minorities and foes, and external wars against his European neighbours. His racism, arrogance, expansionist ambitions and twisted thinking led him to cause all that devastation, but he was finished after the whole world was united to fight and defeat him.

In Uganda , Idi Amin killed more than half a million and forced millions of Ugandans, immigrant Indians and others to flee their homes. Again, all this happened due to Amin’s obsessions and fanaticism. Ugandans suffered under his rule until neighbouring Tanzania, which he had occupied part of its land, invaded Uganda and toppled him militarily. Saddam Hussein caused the killing of millions of people in wars, prisons, executions, mass graves, and racist displacements. These actions targeted all Iraqis, Arabs, Kurds and others, and again, they were due to the extremism, tyranny, selfishness and chauvinist ideas which dominated his thinking. Iraqis went on suffering under Saddam for over 30 years until George Bush toppled him militarily in April 2003. From that time, fanatics began marching on Iraq from all corners of the Islamic world. Their aims are disparate: from ‘fighting the American occupier’ to fighting Iraqis who are ‘infidel, renegade, and traitors’, and other such imprecations that extremists excel at. As if the activities of foreign extremists, who filled Iraq with terror, death, fire and rubble, were not enough, Iraqis developed local extremism which resulted in a sectarian war that lasted three years at least, and didn’t subside before it had harvested the lives of uncounted innocents, and displaced and terrorised millions. Things didn’t end there, but ‘Islamic’ militias and groups began to apply ‘Sharia Law’ in Iraq . Their typical activity can be symbolized by crackdowns on barbers who ‘contravene Islamic law of shaving hair’ in using different methods of hair-cutting, Ba’athists because they ‘belonged to an infidel party’, and targeting of places which sell alcohol, such as restaurants, hotels, shops, which no one ever thought of closing (except Saddam Hussein in his sudden ‘Faith Campaign’ in the mid nineties, although he didn’t actually ban them but he ‘regulated’ and ‘streamlined’ them).

Academics, artists, pilots, scientists and journalists were not spared the scourge of terrorists’ extremism. Hundreds of them were killed in ambiguous circumstances in the last few years. But, Iraqis can take some consolation in the fact that those killings were perpetrated by outlawed armed groups – or at least this is what the government says.

But the decision to close shops selling alcohol, restaurants that serve alcohol, nightclubs and even social clubs – including the ancient Literary Social Club – was taken by the ‘elected’ local government of Baghdad led by the Islamic Da’awa Party of Prime Minister Noori Al Maliki. This decision was taken after the elections and after Maliki became Prime Minister Designate. It was taken at a time when Iraq is fully engaged in the issue of power-sharing between political groups and the issue of finding a solution to the plight of the Christians in Iraq, who are facing repeated armed attacks on their homes and churches. This decision has added to their difficulties since it has closed all their shops, clubs and businesses, and has not left them any window of life in the ‘democratic’ Iraq.

Religious extremism has begun marching on local government across Iraq . A few weeks ago, hardliners in Babylon Governing Council banned a songs carnival that was called for by none other than the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, and foreign participants in the carnival had to return home without performing their songs. In the southern province of Basra, the Governing Council banned an art show a few weeks ago. The reasons given were very shaky, but the truth is clear to all: members of these governing councils do not wish to see any activity that doesn’t conform to their religious persuasions against alcohol, singing or art exhibitions. The Islamic Da’awa Party controls the governing councils of Baghdad, Babylon and Basra, as well as others, and it must bear full responsibility for these bans, which are not isolated incidents or effected by individuals acting on their own initiative. They are planned and concerted efforts.

It looks very much as though Iraqi religious parties intend to establish a religious state in which their version of Sharia law will be applied – one which conforms to their ideology and politics. They may justify the closing of liquor shops by saying they need to ‘regulate’ them (or that they are ‘only responding to people’s demands’), the banning of art shows in Basra by saying ‘the venue was not suitable for an art show’, and the banning of singers from performing in Babylon by saying ‘the song’s carnival was not licensed’. But the real reasons are not hidden, they are very clear. They cannot stand difference, and cannot bear to see others practising their freedoms. They do not in fact believe in democracy, and do not wish to establish a modern state that allows all people of all walks of life, of all religions and tastes, ethics and political persuasions, to coexist. Their values come from the ancient past and from narrow interpretations of religious texts which they intend to impose on all people, by fair means or foul. All their claims that they would accept others and coexist with them began to fall before their dealing with realities of daily life. They are marching in the opposite direction to most other countries, while at the same time deploying modern sciences and technology to serve this serious regressive trend. There are many important questions that need answers here. Why do the religious extremists believe they are able to force all the people to succumb to their desires and whims, and believe in their ideas, at a time when the whole world is heading towards pluralism and respect for all the peaceful choices of others, no matter how different? Can’t they see that they are actually damaging their popular support and provoking their opponents into another type of extremism which will backfire on them? Where are their election promises that they would respect the choices of others and work towards the transformation of Iraq into a modern state? Last, but not least, what do non-religious political forces think about these practices which contravene the constitution and the principles of democracy? Finally, what do the secularists who trusted and supported religious parties in the last elections, think now? Will they engage in political flattery, or stand for their political goals of secularism and modernity?

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