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Iraqi Shiites between secularism, sectarianism

At a crucial time ahead of elections, Iraq’s Shiites find themselves at a crossroads, choosing between a more secular society or a religiously based path.

The proposals of Shiite political Islam groups are likely to face rejection from the Shiite public itself, not to mention the expected negative responses from other ethnic groups and sects in Iraq.

Indifference has marked the most recent stance of Shiite political Islam groups — such as the Sadrist movement, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — regarding the draft laws on Shiite personal status and Jaafari jurisprudence. This is not to mention the scathing criticism by Shiite religious authorities of these two draft laws.

The truth of the matter is that Shiites have always swung between two main approaches: The first calls for the formation of an independent Shiite political identity, while the second calls for the establishment of some sort of a secular state and the participation of all parties in building it.

Many historical and contemporary examples can be presented to illustrate the first ideological tendency, starting from the complete withdrawal of Shiites from political participation during the 1920s. This is not to mention Ahmed Chalabi's call to establish the Shiite House group before the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The ISCI has also called for the establishment of a Shiite province in central and southern Iraq.

One of the recent provocative attempts on the part of the advocates of this approach is the two new draft laws regarding Shiite personal status and Jaafari jurisprudence, which appear far removed from the concerns of the Shiite public from all walks of life.

Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari, a Shiite cleric from the Islamic Virtue Party, introduced the two controversial draft laws. He made an appearance in the media and was keen on portraying them as a victory for Shiites after their beliefs have long been absent from Iraqi legislation for decades.

However, all this seemed a sick joke in the eyes of Shiite observers themselves, for these draft laws came six months before Iraqi parliamentary elections, since everyone knows that the political forces have failed to pass more important laws, despite that they have been sitting on the parliament table for many years now. Most important, one should mention the laws on oil, gas, distribution of resources, political parties and protest organizations, among other laws.

In fact, ever since the establishment of the Iraqi state, the majority of Shiites have called for peaceful coexistence within democratic frameworks governing everyone. Shiites have pragmatically dealt with many controversial issues, even those that prejudiced their beliefs to the core. This behavior is quite different from that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example.

All this indicates a new way for Shiite Islam to adapt to the requirements of democratic governance, through which some aspects of political Islam could coexist with what we can call the requirements of secularizing the regime in Iraq, given the country's diversity and plurality.

Ironically, the Shiite public — with all its voters and political, cultural and religious elites — continues to pressure Islamic parties to accept this kind of adaptation.

However, will this approach, which is closest to participatory liberalism within the state, succeed in preserving [the presence of] all these warring ethnic groups in the framework of a coherent Iraq?

Or will the Shiites withdraw and espouse an intimidated and isolated identity given the winds of sectarian tension that are blowing in the Middle East?

The Shiites' vote on the draft laws of personal status and Jaafari jurisprudence will be considered an important indicator regarding this issue.

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