The Current Transformations in Iraq’s Religious Demographics Require that the Church Repositions Itself as a Courageous and Daring Catalyst for Unity in Diversity
By Martin Accad
My Iraq Brief this month will build on three articles of the Carnegie Middle East Center, drawing implications for the church in the MENA region and its relationship with broader society.
Post-Saddam (2003) and post-ISIS Iraq continues to struggle to redefine a cohesive narrative of what its society and political system will look like in the coming decades. At the heart of this soul-searching process is the struggle of the Muslim community to recover a self-expression that does justice to its rich diversity and emerges into a coherent national identity.
In an article describing the transformation of Iraq’s leading Dawa Party from Islamist radicalism to Islamist rentierism (one that seeks to gain popularity among supporters by providing economic favors), author Harith Hasan describes the transformation of the once exiled Islamist party, resulting chiefly from a process of secularization imposed by political pragmatism. Once unified around the ideological agenda of establishing an Islamic state inspired by the Iranian model, the party had to reorient its goals towards more democratic and pluralistic commitments to meet the exigencies of the electoral process and expediencies of government in post-Saddam Iraq. Hasan describes this shift as one resulting from the “crisis of political organizations formed in times of grand narratives and ideologies.” On the up side, political pragmatism is often the grave of any kind of ideological fanaticism. Yet it can also become the cradle of economic corruption and socio-cultural decay. The lesson for us is that the softening of religious radicalism will not lead to civil peace and equal social and economic opportunity outside a program that robustly advances economic transparency and the consolidation of civil institutions. If the shift towards democratization and pluralism is to be celebrated, these gains will quickly collapse under the burden of corruption and clientelist politics.
A second article, by Mohanad Hage Ali, warns that jihadi Islamism in post-ISIS Iraq (as in Syria), rather than being on its way out after the military victory against it by the western-backed military coalition, is increasingly returning to the globalized version of the struggle that has remained the primary brand of al-Qaeda. In my Brief last month, I had pointed out the reemergence of al-Qaeda as a major player in the global jihadi scene, marked by the rise of Hamza bin Laden (aka Osama Junior) through the ranks of the organization’s charismatic leadership. On the ground, Hage Ali highlights the rise of Hurras al-Din, an offshoot of ISIS, inspired by the al-Qaeda model of global jihad, vying for prominence against other groups, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham being chief among them. He notes that “the group is wagering that by gaining credibility as a transnational group, defections from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham toward Hurras al-Din will increase, helping to revive the Al-Qa‘eda model—one that is both lethal and invisible.” Everyone agrees that battle-hardened combatants do not simply merge back into the crowd of citizenry overnight, and that their inclination to religiously-motivated violence does not simply vanish. We are then to brace ourselves, and the lesson here is that if we do not search for new solutions for the reintegration of disgruntled youth, violence will simply continue to breed violence.
The third article also comes to us from Harith Hasan. He describes the growing rift between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, manifested in the struggle between the two groups for the control and management of religious endowments. Hasan observes that “the boundary between the two Islamic confessions has been further solidified and neutral spaces became points of contention rather than of cohabitation.” As the centralized state-control of religious institutions disintegrated in post-Saddam Iraq, Mosques and Islamic centers have become the tools of popular power struggles and sectarian control, with religious authorities both Sunni and Shiite failing to seize the opportunity of this new-found independence to turn religious institutions into rallying points for the healing of sectarian tensions. With influential social institutions and often lucrative businesses attached to them, the economic benefits of religious endowments have become the cause of further conflict and division among Iraq’s two major sects. This has led in effect to the economic confessionalization of Iraqi Islam. The solidification of confessionalism between Sunnis and Shiites will also have its negative implications for religious minorities in Iraq. This is the third lesson that we must take away from these developments.
Theological Perspectives and Missiological Implications
The changes that Iraqi Islam is currently undergoing have little to do with developments in theological thinking and everything to do with human greed vying for power and control. This is the problem with religion. More often than not, its manifestations change and transform for the worst as a result of politics and economics, rather than being itself the catalyst of positive transformation in societies and communities. Rather than allowing faith values to inspire better socio-economic practice and to promote diversity and pluralistic coexistence, religious actors are prone to use their religious clout to increase their control and influence over other religious groups.
What can the church learn from these developments in Iraq? In times of “grand narratives and ideologies,” we must beware of opportunism and continue to act out of faith values and convictions. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed as king by people who expected he would lead an uprising against Roman rule, did not change the course of his mission as servant rather than political ruler. Jesus was not an opportunist, and he kept his mind fixed upon the original purpose of his life—that of giving himself up to death out of love for our salvation.
Last month, as we celebrated Palm Sunday and Holy Week, churches around the world journeyed with Jesus from his entry to Jerusalem and we joined him on his way to the cross at Golgotha. We effectively celebrated the memory of his journey away from popular expectations that he would rule as earthly king, and witnessed his embrace of his role of suffering Messiah. In this journey is our model of behavior in the face of the attractiveness to earthly power. The global church has much to learn from its Servant King, and we have much to witness about as we speak prophetically to earthly powers.
The current transformations taking place in Iraq’s religious demographics require that the church reposition itself as a courageous and daring catalyst for unity in diversity that shuns ghettoization along ethnic and sectarian confessionalism. We must address the huge need for social reintegration of former combatants into societies that can offer them hope for a redeemed future. With the church in Iraq, we must ask ourselves how we can be more cooperative with others; not just other minorities, but also with Islam’s two major groups that take up the demographic lion’s share in our societies.