Taqiyyah is one of those peculiarities of Shi'ism which, like muta'a--or "temporary marriages"--set it off from the dominant Sunni branch of Islam. The term means "dissimulation," or concealing one's true beliefs to save oneself from injury or persecution. The Sunnis associate the practice with nifaq, or hypocrisy; the Shia, however, view it as a often necessary means of protecting themselves from religious oppression. Today, some observers wonder if the Shia have practiced a kind of political taqiyyah by hiding their designs for an Islamic state behind a mask of moderation, conciliation and open-mindedness. A mask they are now discarding in the wake of their electoral victories on January 30.
Juan Cole is one of these Shia-skeptics. Although the good professor's political views are usually far from "informed," he often demonstrates keen insights into his main field of expertise, the Shia. In particular, his recent observations provide a necessary counter-point to the largely upbeat assessment of the Party of Ali put forth by the administration, neo-cons, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and this writer.
In yesterday's "Informed Comment," for example, Cole translates a statement from a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyid that deserves close scrutiny
All the clerics and the sources of authority, and most of the Muslim Iraqi people, emphatically request the state and the national parliament that Islam be, in the permanent Iraqi constitution, the sole source of legislation in Iraq, and that any article or law be struck from the permanent constitution if it contravenes Islam . . . [this matter] is non-negotiable . . .
Afghanistan-born Fayyad is one of the four top Ayatollahs of the Shia religious establishment at Najaf, so his opinion is as weighty as it is worrisome. Worse, Sistani evidently back his views, signaling through intermediaries that he "wants the source of legislation to be Islam."
Millions of lives and the future of Iraq hang upon that definite article. In March, when the Iraqis and the CPA cobbled together an interim constitution, the Shia--under pressure from the U.S.--agreed to a clause calling for Islam to be "a source" of legislation. The fact that the Hawza is now apparently calling for Islam to be "the source" of law seems to constitute a ratcheting up of their demands.
This suspicion was echoed in Friday's New York Times, where Edward Wong wrote that "leading Shiite clerics are pushing for Islam to be enshrined in the new constitution." This means shari'a, or Islamic law, a draconian code of behavior based on the Koran, the sunnah (or life of Mohammad), tribal customs and a mish-mash of Roman and Jewish law. Although shari'a lays down proscriptions for every conceivable realm of human behavior, Muslim governments usually ignore or circumvent its commerical aspects--such as forbidding the charging of interest--restricting its application to those issues that most impact upon women. True enough, Wong suggests something similar taking place among the Shia.
At the very least, the clerics say, the constitution should ensure that legal measures overseeing personal matters like marriage, divorce and family inheritance fall under shari'a...For example, daughters would receive half the inheritance of sons under that law.
Readers interested in how shari'a affects women--and how close Shia clerics nearly came to establishing the Islamic code over Iraqi family matters--might want to check out my earlier post, "Left Behind."
This idea that the Shia are now showing their true colors has become a rallying point for critics of the war--from disappointed neo-liberals like Lawrence Kaplan to leftist critics like Cole. Nativistic right-wingers have never trusted the party of Ahl Bayt: in 2003, Pat Buchanan wrote "We have let the Shia genie out of the bottle," quoting Yitzak Rabin after Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon. For my part, I raised concerns about the Shia's interest in a "government of martyrs" in In the Red Zone--worries which appeared overblown during the recent run-up to the elections, but now seem more plausible.
Still, I remain optimistic. To begin with, the Shia are not a monolithic bloc, and already there are reports of splits between the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa Islamiyya, the two main organizations of the United Iraqi Alliance list. Moreover, as I write this, election officials have not yet finished tabulating the Kurdish vote, whose totals may prevent the Shia from obtaining a two-thirds majority in the New Assembly: this, in turn, will put additional pressure on Najaf to compromise on certain issues such as the implementation of shari'a, which the Kurds oppose.
Then there is Article 61 (c) of the temporary constitution which states that two-thirds of the voters of any three provinces can block the ratification of the new constitution. The Shia hate this provision, but it is crucial to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs who want their minority rights protected by secular, not religious, law. Look for a massive fight to take place over the Article as the Shia, in the name of majoritarian democracy, attempt to have it removed from the new constitution.
Lastly, there are the Iraqi people themselves. Wong puts his finger on this point when he writes,
But how much Islamic influence the clerics manage to get into the constitution could come down to the sentiments of ordinary Iraqis. [Saddam] Hussein spent much of his rule molding Iraq into one of the most secular nations in the Middle East. That indoctrination is not easily cast off, even by the residents of Najaf.
Taqqiyah is a concept for an oppressed minority, which the Shia have been for much of their history. Today in Iraq, however, they are the majority, the rulers, the people upon whose shoulders the fate of the country rests. With this responsibility comes a sense of limits, and with limits a humility that may temper even the word of Allah.