Shia Responsibility in the Iraqi Elections
Posted Sep 24, 2005


by Abdulaziz Sachedina

In the midst of today’s political turmoil in Iraq there is a ray of hope for the future. There is nothing more exciting for any nation than to be able to democratically elect a government to represent and protect its people’s rights. Yet as the people of Iraq prepare to choose a legitimate government in the elections scheduled for January 30, 2005, the 60 % Shiite majority bears a heavy moral burden. It has to reassure the 20% Sunni Arab minority that it will not be punished for its repression of the Shiites.

It was Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the inspiration of Shiite Islam, who emphasized the importance of forgiveness and compassion to those in positions of power. It is true that throughout their history in Iraq the Shiites have suffered when the minority Sunnis controlled absolute power. And under Saddam Hussein, powerful Sunni officials committed terrible atrocities against the Shiites. Not long ago, after the war began in earnest in March, 2003, in a meeting with Iraqi religious leaders in Amman, I heard a prominent Iraqi Sunni leader, Professor-Shaykh Qubaisi, urge Prince Hassan of Jordan to take over Iraq, so that the Sunni influence would continue in this “Arab” nation. The call appeared to suggest that if the Shiite majority were to come to power the “Arab” character of Iraq would be lost…

It is not far-fetched to suggest that the Arab world dominated by a Sunni majority has not remained neutral toward the Sunni insurrection in Iraq to destabilize the interim government and sabotage the elections. There is an unarticulated but widespread fear among Sunni Arabs that genuine democracy in Iraq will take away the power from the Sunni minority that enjoyed state protection under Saddam. More importantly, and against the liking of the Sunni-Arab world, real democracy would transform Iraq into a majority ruled “Arab” Shiite nation. The fiction entertained by many Arab scholars is that Shiism is a Persian phenomenon, and, hence, non-Arab. To see Iraq become a Shii-dominated democracy is anathema to many Arab nationalists. This is also the source of unsubstantiated accusation against Iraqi Shiites that they are in alliance with Iran and its traditional animosity towards Arab nationalism. It is important to recall that under Saddam the Shiite Arabs of Iraq adopted a most radical form of secular Arab nationalism against the liking of Iran under the Shah, and later on under the Ayatollahs.

As for the Iraqi Sunnis, it is important to emphasize that not all Sunnis in Iraq share the nightmare of Shaykh Qubaisi. In fact, a large majority of Sunni clerics want to work towards the preservation of Iraqi sovereignty under a democratic system, whoever the people decide to vote for. But given the Sunni conduct in the recent past of Iraq, their fear that the Shiite majority will disregard the rights and interests of the Sunnis is understandable. It is this fear that needs to be eased by the Shiite leadership at this time so that the elections in January could take place with the full participation of the Sunnis. The grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other Shiite leaders, in the spirit of the ethics of responsibility as taught by Imam Ali, need to explicitly assure the Sunni minority that not only will their rights be protected through legitimate democratic governance but also that through constitutionally guaranteed political power-sharing, they, along with the Kurdish minority, will have the ability to participate meaningfully in determining the future of the nation.

At this critical time in the history of Iraq the perpetuation of the historical divide between the Shiites and Sunnis would be detrimental to the essential need of creating a national culture of citizenship built on equality and justice. The senior Shiite leadership thus far has emerged as a voice of fairness and sound political judgment. It should now assume the lead in providing the national voice of reconciliation between the two Muslim communities in sharing power for the betterment of all the citizens of Iraq. Such a message of reconciliation and forgiveness towards fellow Muslims coming from Ayatollah Sistani and other leading ayatollahs in Najaf will restore the confidence of the once powerful—and abusive—Sunni minority that they will not face reprisals from an elected Shiite majority. No community, however numerous and powerful, has a right to be indifferent to the ethics of responsibility in a democracy. The ball is in the court of the Shiite leaders. If they play it right then they will gain the gratitude of millions of people around the world who wish for peace and justice in Iraq for all.