Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Ahmad al-Sulayti, or, Maliki’s Basra Problem

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 September 2009 12:17

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

The standardised Western narrative on Basra political developments over the past two years is as simple as it is deceptive: For a while, the people of Basra were terrorised by militia rule directed mainly by two “extremist” and “milita-affiliated” groups – Sadrists and the ruling Fadila party – but this sorry state of affairs came to an end in March 2008 by the heroic intervention of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,  variously celebrated as the “legalist”, the “secularist” and the “hater of the Iranians” depending on the writer’s closeness to the Bush administration. The militias disappeared, “the rule of law” was restored in Basra, and Maliki was rewarded by the Basrawis last January with a resounding win in the local elections.

The reality in Basra these days is somewhat different. Since the assumption of power by the new local government last April, reports of increasing Islamisation of Basra’s public sphere have intensified. Growing pressures towards Islamic dress code in public-sector workplaces have been reported, along with increased attempts at gender segregation in public spaces like parks and university areas. In August came a formal ban on the sale of alcohol.

Some of these moves have been championed by the very “secularist” list that Maliki’s alliance was supposed to represent, with the new governor Shaltagh Abbud in the lead. However, by far the greatest enthusiast for imposing strict Islamic order in Basra society – in fact, his zeal is such that other council members have had to restrain him lately – is from neither the Daawa nor the Sadrist camp. Rather, Shaykh Ahmad al-Sulayti is a leading figure of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and a preacher in Zubayr, traditionally a Sunni stronghold but since the 1960s increasingly populated by Shiites. He has been at the forefront of several of the recent legislative initiatives aimed at enhancing the observation of Islamic codes of conduct in Basra. Like many other Shiite activists he refers to the elusive “marjaiyya” as his source of authority; at his website this is operationalised with links to the “four great” top ulama of Iraq – the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the three other leading traditionalists of Najaf.

Basra may be in the middle of a water supply crisis but Sulayti’s current preoccupation is that he wants Basra’s men to grow their beards – to let the beard flow freely, as the Arabs say – a matter in which he is indeed supported by Sistani fatwas. It should be stressed that the way he has gone about this business in itself seems quite innocuous: Last week he introduced a law that would prevent public officials from directing employees to shave their beards, referring to the principle of individual freedom. But if his strategy thus seemed somewhat indirect (and not really different from, say, campaigns by Muslims in Europe for the right to wear the hijab at work), it was considered to go too far by the rest of the council (which had previously approved the ban on alcohol) and was cancelled a few days ago after having first been adopted.

Sulayti’s priorities reflect an interesting focus on rituals and dress code as the key to creating Islamic spaces, not entirely different from Sunni Islamist tendencies, but previously often thought to be the preserve of “radical Sadrists” as far as the Iraqi Shiite scene was considered. And whereas the Daawa-led coalition in Basra right now appears to be in a position to resist pressures from clerics like Sulayti, it is surprising how far in the direction of Islamisation they have ventured already, their rock-solid majority in the local council notwithstanding. More than anything the Basra developments speak volumes about the pressures that Maliki is facing from elements in the Shiite Islamist camp often considered “moderates” by the outside world, and hence the need for him to think carefully through the constellation of his political alliances in the next parliamentary elections. (Not that the Basra regionalism trend is going away either – a Basra member of his list, Mahmud al-Maksusi, recently reminded Iraqi parliamentarians about their promise to give Basra special status as Iraq’s “economic capital”.)

The situation in Basra has wider ramifications that are as fascinating as they are potentially explosive. At some point, members of the Iraqi public with an interest in Islamic law are likely to ask themselves why, given the theoretical oneness of Islamic law, is it legal to sell alcohol in Baghdad and not in Basra? More likely, they will not stop by asking themselves, but may well want to pose the question to other authorities that are supposed to be in the know about these issues, like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or the Federal Supreme Court, or, worse, perhaps both of them at the same time. Even more critically, some may want to know why the ban is not being implemented in the streets of Arbil and other parts of the Kurdistan Region, which just like the rest of the Iraq is subject to the constitutional imperative that no legislation may contradict the fundamentals of Islam. In this battle between Islamic law and secularism lies the conflict that could one day topple the project of Iraq as an Islamic federation, as set out in everything but the name in the 2005 constitution. And if the issue is not raised by the Iraqi public itself, it will under any circumstances force its way onto the agenda once the law on the composition of a new federal supreme court – promised in 2005 but considered a too sensitive subject until now – is to be debated in the Iraqi parliament.

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