My first run-in with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army came on March 31 in Baghdad. The US occupation chief Paul Bremer had just sent armed men to shut down the young cleric’s newspaper, Al Hawza, on the grounds that its articles comparing Bremer to Saddam Hussein incited violence against Americans. Sadr responded by calling for his supporters to protest outside the gates of the Green Zone, demanding al-Hawza’s reopening.
When I heard about the demo, I wanted to go, but there was a problem: I had been visiting state factories all day and I wasn’t dressed appropriately for a crowd of devout Shiites. Then again, I reasoned, this was a demonstration in defense of journalistic freedom—could they really object to a journalist in loose pants? I put on a headscarf and headed over.
Demonstrators had printed up English-language banners that said, “Let Journalists Work With No Terror” and “Let Journalists Do Their Work.” That sounded good, I thought, and started doing my work. I was soon interrupted, however, by a black-clad member of the Mahdi Army: He wanted to talk to my translator about my fashion choices. A friend and I joked that we were going to make up our own protest sign that said, “Let Journalists Wear Their Pants,” but the situation quickly got serious: Another Mahdi soldier grabbed my translator and shoved him against a concrete blast wall, badly injuring his back. Meanwhile, an Iraqi friend called to say she was trapped inside the Green Zone and couldn’t leave: She had forgotten to bring a headscarf and was afraid of running into a Mahdi patrol.
It was an instructive lesson about who Sadr actually is: not an anti-imperialist liberator, as some on the far left have cast him, but someone who wants the foreigners out so he can shackle and control large portions of Iraq’s population himself. But neither is Sadr the one-dimensional villain painted by so many in the media, a portrayal that has allowed many liberals to stay silent as he is barred from participating in elections and to look the other way while US forces nightly firebomb Sadr City, punishing the entire civilian population and, most recently, knocking out electricity in the fighting in midst of a Hepatitis E outbreak.
The situation requires a more principled position. For instance, Muqtada al Sadr’s calls for press freedom may not include the freedom of women journalists to cover him. Yet he still deserves to have his right to publish a political newspaper-not because he believes in freedom but because we supposedly do. Similarly, Sadr’s calls for fair elections and an end to occupation demand our unequivocal support—not because we are blind to the threat Sadr would pose if he were actually elected but because believing in self-determination means admitting that the outcome of democracy is not ours to control.
These kinds of nuanced distinctions are commonly made in Iraq: Many people I met in Baghdad strongly condemned the attacks on Sadr as evidence that Washington never intended to bring democracy to their country. They backed the cleric's calls for an end to occupation and for immediate open elections. But when asked if they would vote for him in those elections, most laughed at the prospect.
Yet here in North America, the idea that you can support Sadr’s call for elections without endorsing him as Iraq’s next Prime Minister has proved harder to grasp. For arguing this position, I have been accused of making “excuses for the theocrats and misogynists” by Nick Cohen in the London Observer, of having “naively fallen for the al-Mahadi militia” by Frank Smyth in Foreign Policy in Focus and of being a “socialist-feminist offering swooning support to theocratic fascists” by Christopher Hitchens in Slate.
All this manly defense of women’s rights is certainly enough to make a girl swoon. Yet before Hitchens rides to the rescue, it’s worth remembering how he rationalized his reputation-destroying support for the war: Even if US forces were really after the oil and military bases, he reasoned, the liberation of the Iraqi people would be such a joyous side-effect that progressives everywhere should cheer the cruise missiles. With the prospect of liberation still a cruel joke in Iraq, Hitchens is now claiming that this same anti-woman, anti-gay White House is the Iraqi people’s best hope against Sadr’s brand of anti-woman, anti-gay religious fundamentalism. Once again we are supposed to hold our noses and cheer the Bradleys—for the greater good, or the lesser evil. There is no question that Iraqis face a mounting threat from religious fanaticism, but US forces won’t protect Iraqi women and minorities from it any more than they have protected Iraqis from being tortured in Abu Ghraib or bombed in Falluja and Sadr City. Liberation will never be a trickle-down effect of this invasion because domination, not liberation, was always its goal.
Even under the best scenario, the current choice in Iraq is not between Sadr’s dangerous fundamentalism and a secular democratic government made up of trade unionists and feminists. It’s between open elections—which risk handing power to fundamentalists but would also allow secular and moderate religious forces to organize-and rigged elections designed to leave the country in the hands of Iyad Allawi and the rest of his CIA/ Mukhabarat-trained thugs, fully dependent on Washington for both money and might.
This is why Sadr is being hunted—not because he is a threat to women’s rights but because he is the greatest single threat to US military and economic control of Iraq. Even after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani backed down from his opposition to the handover plans, fearing civil war, Sadr continued to oppose the US-drafted constitution, continued to call for the withdrawal of foreign troops and continued to oppose US plans to appoint the interim government rather than hold elections. If Sadr’s demands are met and the country’s fate is truly left in the hands of the majority, US military bases in Iraq will be in serious jeopardy, as will all the privatization-friendly laws pushed through by Bremer.
Progressives should oppose the US attack on Sadr because it is an attack not on one man, but on the possibility of Iraq’s democratic future. There is another reason, as well, to defend Sadr’s democratic rights: It’s the best way to fight the rise of religious fundamentalism in Iraq.
Far from reducing the draw of extremism, the US attack on Sadr has greatly strengthened it. Sadr has deftly positioned himself not as the narrow voice of strict Shiites but as an Iraqi nationalist defending the entire country against foreign invaders. Thus, when he was attacked with the full force of the US military and dared to resist, he earned the respect of millions of Iraqis living under the humiliation and brutality of occupation.
The heavy-handed attempts to silence Sadr have also served to confirm the worst fears of many Shiites-that they are being betrayed by the Americans once again, the same Americans who supported Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, which took the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis; the same Americans who told them to rise up in 1991, only to leave them to be slaughtered. Now, under siege once again, many are seeking refuge in the certainties of fundamentalism, not to mention in the emergency social services provided by the mosques. Some are even concluding that they need a tyrant of their own, a fierce fundamentalist to do battle with the other strongmen trying to control Iraq.
This shift in attitude is evident in all the polling. A Coalition Provisional Authority poll conducted in May, after the first US siege on Najaf, found that opinion of Sadr had improved among 81 percent of Iraqi respondents. An Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies poll ranked Sadr—a marginal figure only six months before—as Iraq’s second most influential political player after Sistani.
Most alarming, the attacks appear to be boosting support not only for Sadr personally but for theocracy generally. In February, the month before Paul Bremer closed down Sadr's newspaper, an Oxford Research International survey found that a majority of Iraqis wanted a secular government: only 21 percent of respondents said their favored political system was “an Islamic state” and only 14 percent ranked “religious politicians” as their preferred political actors. Fast-forward to August, with Najaf under siege by US forces: the International Republican Institute reported that a staggering 70 percent of Iraqis want Islam and Shariah as the basis of the state. The poll didn’t differentiate between Sadr’s unyielding interpretation of Shariah and more moderate versions represented by other religious parties. Yet it’s clear that some of the people who told me back in March that they supported Sadr but would never vote for him are beginning to change their minds.
In response to my last column, “Bring Najaf to New York,” I received a letter from Maj. Glen Butler, a US Marine helicopter pilot stationed in Najaf. Major Butler defends the siege on the holy city by saying that he and his fellow Marines were trying to prevent the “evil” of “radical Muslims” from spreading—“Our desire is to keep Najaf in Najaf.”
Well, it’s not working. Helicopter gunships are good at killing people. Beliefs, when under fire, tend to spread. This column was first published in The Nation.