Politics & Policy

Sunni Disposition

These moderates should be our friends.

Sheikh Afeef Abdul Qadir Gailani is one of Iraq’s leading Sunni clerics, a moderate leader who could have done much to help the United States-led Coalition restore order and peace in his homeland. I say he could have, because he was forced to flee Iraq and is currently living in self-imposed exile in Kuala Lumpur. I recently met with him there and believe that his story partly explains the chaos in Fallujah today.

#ad#Sheikh Gailani is the inheritor of the great saint of Baghdad, Abdul Qadir Gailani (d. 1166). For years he maintained the mosque, community center, and school named after his ancestor, where almost 5,000 people were fed every day by his charity. Like many other moderate, religious Iraqi Sunnis (as distinguished from secularists), Sheikh Gailani is a Sufi of the Qadari Sufi Order. Under Saddam Hussein, the Sufis were more or less the only group allowed to run mosques and practice their religion freely. This was because, historically, they were non-political and non-confrontational. A Sufi–an often misused term today–simply means a practicing Muslim who has accepted additional religious duties to achieve heightened spirituality. Traditionally, Sufis have been more interested in their personal relationship with God than with politics, keeping a low profile and maintaining their religious traditions. Sufis can be either Shiite or Sunni.

Sheikh Gailani would not say that he enjoyed an easy life under Saddam, but he was free to practice Islam and was part of the established Sunni authority of greater Baghdad. He and clerics like him, including the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Karim Mudarris, were internationally respected Islamic scholars and teachers of classical, moderate Islam. Saddam knew well that the best bulwark against the rise of jihadists was the Sufis, so he relied on them to keep the jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood out of Iraq’s mosques. Everyone knew Saddam did not like competition, and this uneasy relationship helped ensure there was none from Islamists. It is important to note, however, that these Sunnis were not Baathists. Unlike the Shia of the South or the Islamists, allowing the Sufis to operate the religious administration served Saddam’s agenda of absolute authority, so he largely left them alone.

The fall of Saddam changed this whole dynamic overnight. In the commotion of war, the Islamists, calling themselves “Saddam dissidents,” had the ear of Coalition leaders. They cleverly made the case that, as opponents of Saddam in exile or in prison, they were the natural allies of the U.S. We used them as informants, translators, and confidantes–inadvertently empowering the very people who are now plotting our death at night.

Between these newly ascendant Islamists and the U.S.-allied Shia, there was no room in the public square for the moderate Sufi Sunnis. The Sufis were no less supportive of the invasion and the ousting of Saddam; but the power-hungry Islamists sought revenge against these so-called “privileged” Muslims. They gave false evidence to Coalition forces about bombs, Baathists, and Saddam loyalists amongst them. In turn, Coalition forces raided their homes, imprisoned their fathers, brothers, and sons, and progressively alienated those who would otherwise have been our strongest allies.

Sheikh Gailani and the more than 1,000 clerics who follow him were left powerless. They had no friends in the CPA to plead their case and the ransacking of their communities continued. Islamists were pleased because Coalition forces were doing the dirty work for them and they benefited by taking over the schools and mosques formerly controlled by Sufi moderates. However, this very large segment of the Iraqi people would not stay silent forever. They demanded Gailani and other clerics intervene and organize a resistance like that of the Shia and the Islamists. Gailani refused, saying that what they were calling for would instigate a civil war.

Without leadership, the people–in old tribal fashion–sought revenge for the death of their loved ones and exacted retribution. They resisted Coalition forces because of the horror stories they heard–tales passed from home to home of loved ones captured and disappearing forever–just as they had in the days of Saddam. As a consequence, our troops are fighting against both would-be friends and genuine foes in the Sunni Triangle.

Recently, the Islamists came to Gailani’s own mosque and demanded his expulsion. The community begged him to stay and fight, but again he refused. The centuries-old home of his noble ancestors is probably in the hands of Jihadi fighters who revile his spiritual beliefs and are undoubtedly using it as a safe-house for terrorists.

There is a way out of this mess. First, we must realize that what we see today in many parts of Sunni Iraq is a combined resistance of jihadis as well as Sunni traditionalists fighting desperately for self-preservation. The latter have no seat on the Governing Council, no relationship with the CPA, and hence no future in the governance of Iraq. Those who do not understand the subtleties of domestic politics there might be glad to be rid of leaders who did nothing to fight Saddam’s oppression. In reality, though, the continuing disenfranchisement of this moderate majority is a recipe for disaster. Creating oppressed and bitter masses in the north will not breed stability; ultimately, it could lead to the dreaded civil war that so many are warning about and that al Qaeda has promised to incite. We do not need “re-Baathification” but we do need the “Sunnification” of Iraq. We need to reach out to these moderate Sunni masses and give them a seat at the table–lest they take it by force.

Hedieh Mirahmadi formerly served as senior advisor to the U.S. embassy in Kabul and currently is a consultant on international Islamist extremism.

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