Friday, May 16, 2008

"Mahdism" and the Sadrist resistance (with an update in real time)

The Sadrist site has this at the top of its main page this morning (Friday May 16). (The dots are what I left out being not sure of the meaning). It is a prayer, not attributed to anyone, and headed: "The resistance remains our strength, and our aim is the liberation of Iraq."
Know, our protector and the lord of time, that we have progressed with your aid in the preparation of your state, the state of right, which will fill the earth with justice and with equity...even as we have filled the hearts of the ...occupier with fear and dread.

And know, our Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr, that we will not yield to anyone but you, nor will we go forward except with you--no matter how the agents and infiltrators lure the people from you, and no matter how they try to kill us and to expose our corpses. They kill only the body, whose destiny is dust, but not our spirit or our mind, and not the sadriin within us, and we say to them... your group is nothing but numbers, and your days are fated...God will not suppress our inspiration or erase our memory.
The mention of exposure of corpses refers back to a report a few days ago of Iraqi government forces driving around Sadr City with bodies to intimidate the people. And obviously the whole prayer is on the occasion of the cease-fire, if that is what it is.

More particularly, in addition to the points about loyalty and religion, there is that striking reference to what sounds like a "millenarian" belief in a new world of justice on earth, that is in preparation. As it happens, Reidar Visser has just published a study talking about some of the constituent elements in the Sadrist tradition, among them: Social conservatism; Iraqi nationalism, which is very pronounced among the Sadrists compared to, for example, the Dawa and SupremeCouncil trends; a tendency in some groups to question the authority of the established authorities, in favor of direct inspiration; and finally, "Mahdism" or the theme of emergence of the hidden Mahdi and the establishment of a state of universal justice.

Visser explains that the Mahdist theme isn't in and of itself special to the Sadrists, but has been integral to Shiism over the centuries. But what is particularly worth noting about post-2003 Iraq is the repeated emergence of forms of "pure" Mahdism, with groups like the "Army of Heaven", the followers of Ahmed al Yamani, and others. What makes them distinctive and radical is (1) the intensity of their belief in a near-term emergence of the Mahdi, and (2) their unequivocal rejection of the Najaf authorities, in favor of the inspiration and relevation given to those who understand what is about to happen.

Moqtada al-Sadr, Visser says, has made frequent references to "establishment of the Mahdist state", but he notes:
It needs to be appreciated that such evocation of the Mahdi's appearance is a perfectly integral aspect of traditional Shiism and not something which in itself can justify the label of unorthodoxy. While some of the rhetoric of the Sadrists may perhaps prompt suspicions of mysticism, Sadrist policies are often down-to-earth to the point where those looking for the exotic may end up feeling disappointed. One Sadrist manifesto, for example, begins with a dramatic assertion that it is the ambition of the Sadrists to pave the way for the "government of total justice [i.e., the state of the Mahdi, Visser's brackets] but then goes on to enumerate a plan of action featuring comparatively mundane items, including "the fair distribution of natural resources such as oil among the Iraqis, without regard to religion, sect, or ethnicity."
But Visser adds that Sadr and the Sadrist trend, for all their continued respect for the structure of authority in Najaf and their specific Iraqi nationalism, still belong at one end of the same spectrum or broad family, to which the "pure Mahdists" also belong at the other end. And his point is that this possibility or risk of a turn to radical Mahdism, along with radical separatist thinking, that emerges from time to time in the South, should be borne in mind by the people who concoct policy for the Americans and the British, because a frontal assault on Sadr and the Sadrists could push the movement or at least important parts of it in the radical direction (both in terms of separatism and in terms of Mahdism).

(From a policy perspective, it is the same point that is made time and again with respect to Sunni groups, in the sense that rejection of the accommodating trends in the MB and elsewhere serves to help the takfiiri types in their recruiting. And this kind of policy-recommendation always arouses in me the same nagging feeling: Surely along with the mind-set of the various Islamic groups, something else even more important needs to be studied: namely the mind-set of the Western policy-elite itself, which persists in these destructive and counter-productive policies of negotiation-by-violence, even when the effects of it are made clear to them).

But my point here is a completely different point. It is that for Sadr and the Sadrists, the fight against the occupation is seen through the lens of "Mahdism" in the sense that their whole training and tradition is steeped in the expectation of a strong kind of historical change, meaning, for instance, that relations--for instance between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi forces--will not always be as they seem to be now, namely in this case in a relationship of enmity. And the "preparing of the way" for the new world includes points as "mundane" as learning how to fight the enemy without at the same time fighting other Iraqis. This isn't the "pure Mahdism" of the crazies like Ahmed al Yamani and the others. But at the same time, it does represent for the Sadrists a guiding principle that is an inner strength, or perhaps an inner weakness depending on your point of view, but that in any event is a feature of their behavior it might be worth keeping in mind when trying to understand their behavior.


UPDATE: As of the end of the day Friday, the first news item under the above-quoted invocation went like this:
[Sadr office spokesperson Salah al-Obeidi] said a delegation including five leaders of the Sadrist trend arrived in Sadr City on Friday, bearing with them with instructions from the leader Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr to continue implementation of the agreement that has been signed with the United Iraqi Alliance. Obeidi told AFP there is what he called good cooperation between the [UIA] and the Sadrist trend, and he said there is hope for a withdrawal of the American forces from Sadr City at the earliest possible time.

For his part, Sheikh Muhamad al-Musawi, who heads the delegation, in the Friday sermon today, urged the people of Sadr City to respect the agreement and to cease firing. He added in explanations to AFP that the advise of Moqtada al-Sadr is for avoiding the shedding of blood, and [the text said] "that he does not wish for any Iraqi to kill his brother Iraqi."

Musawi said the leader Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr informed them that if a person wishes to become a martyr, it is incumbent on him to fight the American forces; and that "the Sadrist trend loves peace, and extends its hand to the Iraqi security forces", in his words.


Blogger rmwarnick said...

Nir Rosen has interviewed quite a few Iraqis who seem to think the U.S. has deliberately pursued a "divide and conquer" strategy. Recent events tend to confirm that theory.

It makes sense that al-Sadr wants to fight back by arranging a truce vis a vis other Iraqis, while continuing to resist the occupation.

1:39 PM  

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