This week's column presents an interview with Ayad Jamal Aldin, a Shiite cleric and member of Iraqi parliament, someone I first noticed in April 2003, before the new Iraqi constitution that enshrines sharia above all was even written. The occasion, in fact, was the first post-liberation meeting of Iraqis to discuss a new constitution. The column I wrote at the time begins like this:
April 21, 2003:
After roughly 100 Iraqi exiles, sheiks and clerics gathered in a fortified and air-conditioned tent in Iraq this week to begin piecing together their country's future, U.S. Central Command headquarters released a 13-point summary of the meeting that included the outcome of the historic first vote in Saddam-free Iraq. The Iraqi proto-body voted to meet again in 10 days, and also voted on a string of high-minded resolutions.
Point one said "Iraq must be a democracy"; point three said "the rule of law must be paramount"; and point four stated that the country "must be built on respect for diversity including the role of women." No word as yet on how "respect" for "diversity including the role of women" translates into legal or political rights; maybe that comes at the next meeting.
Meanwhile, there's something positive to be said about the plainspoken certitude with which some of these democratic building blocks are being laid out, at least on paper. But such energy is lacking in another key point on the list. Point six is downright phlegmatic which it comes to noting, merely, that, "the meeting discussed the role of religion in state and society."
It did, did it? Well, what did "the meeting" say? Nothing that could be distilled into a declarative point of consensus. Which shouldn't be surprising. The most intractable problem facing democratic reform in Iraq (or anywhere else in the Muslim world) is how to reconcile that founding principle of democracy -- the separation of church and state -- with Islamic law, which is predicated on the inseparable union of religious and political power.
"Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming," a conference participant told The New York Times, echoing a line that resounds with much of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. At least one Iraqi Shiite cleric at the big-tent planning session, Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din, however, disagreed. "Dictators may not speak in the name of religion," he said, calling for a "system of government that separates belief from politics." (Let's hope such a "system" is an improvement on a dictatorship that is secular.) Sheik al-Din's is a rare voice of dissent.
More typical is the comment of another Shiite imam to Agence France Presse: "Our objective is to set up an Islamic state, because this is the supreme ambition of all Arab and Muslim countries. All Muslim countries would like to see their governments applying sharia (Islamic law)."
This doesn't bode well for democracy, fledgling or otherwise. As Islamic scholar Ibn Warraq explains in his book Why I am Not a Muslim (Prometheus, 1995), Islamic law "tries to legislate every aspect of an individual's life. The individual is not at liberty to think or decide for himself; he has but to accept God's rulings as infallibly interpreted by the doctors of law," or clerics. Another problem is that Islamic law limits, or even "denies the rights of women and non-Muslim religious minorities." Which, of course, is no way to run a democracy.
We have already begun to see elements of sharia re-introduced into post-Taliban Afghanistan, where, as Freedom House's Nina Shea has warned, a "theological iron curtain" is dropping across the country even as the United States pours in hundreds of millions of political and economic reconstruction dollars. Will that happen in Iraq? It's too soon to tell, of course; but not too soon to make ourselves acutely aware of the possibility.
Nor is it too soon to develop a really good nose for similar developments elsewhere. Citing an article in the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, Cybercast News Service reports that the new Palestinian constitution -- the creation of which is considered a prerequisite for reforming the Palestinian Authority -- defines not a democratic republic, but an Islamic state. Not a good sign. ...
None of these were good signs, but all of them were enabled if not also encouraged and underwritten by Uncle Sucker, I mean, Uncle Sam. And now? Aldin says the US is ignoring another disaster: what he sees as the creation of the Iranian "province" of Iraq.
This week's column:
"The real danger in Iraq is Iran. It controls Iraq with a firm fist." So said Iraqi parliamentarian Ayad Jamal Aldin to Bloomberg.com last month in London. "It was through (Grand Ayatollah Ali) al-Sistani that Iran was able to invade Iraq."
"Could you please elaborate on that?" I asked Aldin this week in Washington, D.C., where the leader of the new anti-corruption Ahrar Party was making the rounds. This point -- that post-Saddam, post-surge Iraq (initial thanks to top cleric and Iranian citizen al-Sistani) is effectively a satellite of Iran -- goes against the victory-narrative of the policymakers and pundits who have urged the Obama administration to repeat mistakes the United States made in Iraq again in Afghanistan.
The answer (through an interpreter) was a chilling geopolitical lesson taught from the perspective of an Iraqi Shiite cleric from Najaf, who, from the beginning, as I reported in 2003, has called for the separation of religion and state in Iraq. An amalgam of apparent contradictions difficult to unravel in one interview -- Aldin is considered pro-Western but would support the anti-Western objectives of the Arab League (including the boycott of pro-Western Israel); says "people need nightclubs" even as he believes alcohol consumption "undoubtedly leads one to Hell;" wears the black turban of those who claim descent from Muhammad and penny loafers -- Aldin is nonetheless an insightful, implacable opponent of Iranian influence in Iraq, which, as he describes it, is in full and malevolent ascendance.
First things first: Aldin is grateful to the United States for removing Saddam Hussein. This was a boon, he says, not just for Iraq but for humanity. But due to the U.S. backing "the Iranian men," the net American effect has been to create "a new Iran -- Iraq -- with its capital in Baghdad."
For example, think back to the big Iraqi oil auction last year -- a bust for U.S. oil companies. Aldin explains their being empty-handed with a question: "Is there any U.S. oil business in Iran? No." He continues: "Iraq is the second Iran. The difference between the two is that the new Iran is supported and defended by the U.S. The old Iran is boycotted and sanctioned by the U.S." But there's "no meaning" to such measures because more than the notorious Iranian terror-bank Bank Melli operates in Iraq. A multitude of Iranian banking concerns, he says, operate freely in Iraq under Iraqi names.
Do they laugh at us over things like this? I asked. "No," he replied. "People think the U.S. must be in some big conspiracy." In other words, we just couldn't be as dumb as we really are.
What about China and Russia, the big winners in the oil auction?
"We don't need China and Russia," he replied. "Iran does. Iran needs China's and Russia's support at the United Nations. Iran doesn't have much to give, so Iran gives them Iraqi oil contracts to get their support at the U.N."
"Iran's objective is to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East," Aldin says. And, he says, Iran works with al-Qaida and the Taliban to do so. Testing him on another Washington myth, I asked: But Shiite Iran wouldn't work with Sunni al-Qaida and Sunni Taliban, would they?
"They all have one enemy," he said. "The U.S. -- Shia and Sunni differences don't matter to them when it comes to the common enemy."
He continued. "There is a saying in Iran: The guard of any caravan is partner with the thieves." That, he says, describes Iran's simultaneous support for the government of [correction] Iraq and its support for al-Qaida, or anyone else operating against U.S. interests -- Baathists, Taliban, anyone.
Al-Qaida and Iran, he says, can control the whole Middle East, between al-Qaida's "southern crescent" (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) and Iran's "northern crescent" (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza). What about Saudi Arabia, I asked.
He doesn't laugh but somehow conveys the impression that he did. Not any kind of a power, in his view. Just rich.
When you tell U.S. policymakers your assessment of Iran in Iraq, what is their reaction?,
Deep inside they may realize what has happened, he thinks. But for now, "they're not interested. State of denial."
You can say that again.