Is Iraq the Next Iran?

Matthew Frankel
Matthew Frankel Federal Executive Fellow

March 6, 2010

Much has been made of the recent controversy surrounding the disqualification of hundreds of candidates from Iraq’s general elections next month for their reputed links to the banned Ba’ath Party. Critics believe it could be a step toward civil war. But what has been overlooked in the mayhem is the potential for Islam to tighten its grip on the Iraqi state. Among the casualties of the decision were numerous Shia candidates, primarily from the more secular tickets headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and current Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani. The clear beneficiaries of their disqualification are the two primary Shia electoral blocs, both of which have deep Islamic roots.

Last year, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law ticket triumphed in provincial elections on a secular “security and services” message, but his government is still Islamist at its core. The founder of Maliki’s Da’wa Party sought an Islamic state in which Shia clerics would play an influential role. Islamic law is cited as a source of legislation in the Iraqi constitution, which also prohibits the passage of laws that contradict Islam. More notably, the constitution walked back the comparatively-liberal 1959 Personal Status Law, returning control of family law back to the clerical establishment. Recent press articles have also highlighted the move, spearheaded by the Maliki government, to ban alcohol throughout the country.

Maliki’s main Shia rival is no better. The Iraqi National Alliance includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and elements of the Sadrists, both of which have strong Islamic roots. Muqtada al-Sadr, currently studying in Iran to become an ayatollah, has endorsed the institution of walayat al-faqih, or a state governed by Islamic law. Before the Iraqi government and the Coalition defeated them, the Sadrists often acted as religious enforcers and established shadow religious courts in areas they controlled, such as Sadr City.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a shift towards a greater role for religion is unlikely, given that these same parties were at the forefront after the 2005 elections and the result was a country more secular than some pundits expected. But much has transpired in the last five years, and the government that gets elected will be facing tremendous pressures to deliver. Studies of more radical Islamic groups find that their most notable characteristic is their dissatisfaction with political status quo. Extensive corruption—a major problem in Iraq—can lead to calls for a purer system as true Islamists argue that the government has corrupted the faith. The rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in the late 1980s was in large part due to the poor governance of the ruling party; the FIS political platform focused on reforms through implementation of Islamic law. Similarly in Turkey, recent polls indicate that a majority of Turks attribute the rise of religious extremism to the failings of secular society, especially in providing education and creating jobs.

There are already hints of this in Iraq, as evidenced by complaints from religious leaders in the holy city of An Najaf last November regarding members of Parliament securing perks for themselves at the expense of important issues of state. ISCI also used the Shia holiday of Ashura as a platform for a massive anti-government rally attended by over 5,000 Shia last December.

This is not to say that Iraq is on a path to become the next Iran. The Iraqi Shia Islamist parties maintain a strong nationalist streak and are generally resistant to entreaties from Tehran. Iraq also has two important checks on the role of religion in the state-the Iraqi Army and tribes-that will prevent religious law from spreading too widely. But those that believe that Iraq is inexorably on a path to secularism are likely to wind up disappointed.