Is PM Maliki Growing Assertive Against the US: Reflections on a Recent Speech
Maliki has said some rather surprising things recently that ought to raise eyebrows, but they require sufficient context that it is perhaps unsurprising they did not. As a blogging law professor who doesn't need to worry about word limits and burying leads, I will lay out that context in a few paragraphs because the lead doesn't work without them, and then I will explain why it is that I think Maliki's recent comments are worth paying attention to in light of that.
To the extent that Americans think of this time of year as it concerns Iraq, they probably think of it as the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdous Square, nine years ago yesterday. But Iraqi Shi'a don't think of that first. They might well think of it, the fall of Saddam will reverberate among the Shi'a long after it fades from the American memory, but to the Shi'a, early April commemorates Saddam's murder of Muhammad Baqir al Sadr on April 5, 1980. I've written on Sadr fairly extensively in scholarly articles and in a memorable exchange with the incomparable Chibli Mallat, whose work The Renewal of Islamic Law remains to this day the authoritative work on Sadr. Suffice it to say, Sadr was to me one of the few jurists who really, truly sought to render shari'a relevant to modernity in a fashion that was self-consciously ideologically driven, with the ideology including a concern for the downtrodden that seems to have evaded all too many reform movements in the region. The ideas are too radical to have been practical (he couldnt have been expected to know that), and his trust in the juristic institutions almost naive (I expect he would have realized this had he lived to see the Islamic Revolution truly unfold), but overall I've found his work quite refreshing relative to so much of the nonsense one sees spouted by most Islamist movements today with conceptions of the shari'a that are not just primitive, but positively incoherent,
In any event, Sadr's murder effectively began Saddam's reign of tyranny and extreme repression over Najaf (hence he is colloquially dubbed the First Martyr), and Sadr has since been lionized among the Shi'a for his bold ideas. Except, of course, the radicalism of his thoughts never quite took hold, Islamist movements grew largely coopted into Western economic theory with the end of the Cold War, and the turn toward pragmatism, which was probably inevitable, and even sensible, was never accompanied by the same sort of introspective self conscious theoretical set of underpinnings that defined Sadr's work. I get how Sadr justifies his approach to shari'a, but I don't even know what shari'a is when the Brotherhood speaks.
Of course if you coopt the message, you have to coopt the messenger as well, and hence Sadr has been reinvented virtually every anniversary of his death by Iraq's Islamist Shi'i elite. This year is no exception. The reinventions are quite interesting to those few of us who have actually looked at Sadr's work in a great deal of detail, but probably not for everyone else. For everyone else, what is interesting is what the reinvention betrays about the person engaging in the practice, and it is here where Maliki's recent remarks in Kerbala commemmorating Sadr's death prove quite fascinating. (Shout out to my buddy Muayyad who pointed this in my direction and recognized its signicance).
The first and most reflection Maliki offers is that a "foreign power ordered Saddam to execute Sadr the martyr when an airplane from a foreign side landed in Baghdad airport and ordered Saddam to kill Sadr."
This is important, someone, Maliki is suggesting, is out to get the Shi'a. (It's not important because it's true to be clear, I'm more or less assuming he made it up.) In fact, this someone is so out to get the Shi'a, that Maliki is willing effectively to shift some blame away from his favorite bogeymen, the Ba'ath, onto them for the greatest assassination conducted against the Shi'a in a century. Who does he mean? Does he obliquely refer to The United States of America? That seems to be the likely culprit right? Landing secret planes in Baghdad airport and ordering the murder of the beloved Shi'i jurist? Is Maliki turning away from the U.S., getting ready to paint them in a bad light if they follow through on attacks against Iran. Consider this gem in the same remarks:
Among the reasons that hastened his execution was his support for the Islamic Republic in Iran.
That's actually true, interesting that Maliki pointed it out, at the same time he indicates that Sadr was actually killed by a foreign power. So the foreign power, seeing Sadr supporting Iran, sent a plane to Baghdad airport and ordered him killed. And who had hostages in Iran back then?
OK you might say, but he could surely be referring to Kuwait perhaps, or Saudi, couldn't he? Avowed enemies of Iran, a demonstration of the evil Sunni neighbors prying into Iraqi affairs to suppress the Shi'a. Couldn't this be a disguised play at sectarianism? Probably not, given this, from the remarks:
The ideas of Sadr do not resort to terms of sectarianism. He used to call the Shi'a and the Sunnis the children of Ali and Umar.
Partly true. Certainly true in the writing of his remarkably ecumenical Iqtisaduna. But later in life clearly he turned more to Shi'i models and Shi'i ideas. Still, the point here is Sadr as national figure for all. Maliki goes on.
We see in the ideas of Sadr the means to build a state. There are answers to many of the questions posed respecting state building.
So he doesn't seem to be trying to stoke sectarianism, it's not his style anyway. He's all about the state of law and the like. When he wants to crush an opposition he calls them extralegal bandits and terrorists, not heretics. Here's more turning against the West suggested:
Whoever looks at the world today, and sees socialism having gone extinct, and observes capitalism on the way to extinction, he will see that Sadr's vision, of combined economics, is the correct view.
Actually, Sadr went out of his way to argue that while Islamic economics had elements in common with socialism and capitalism, it was not a combination of the two of them, but rather its own, independent way. He'd probably turn in his grave at the combination reference. But again, that's more interesting to the Sadr nerds than anyone else. More relevant to everyone else, what's this about capitalism on its way out? He's sounding like Ahmedinijad. And finally, consider the following, at the start of the remarks:
The ideas of Sadr contributed to the confrontation of the challenges that the 'umma (the Muslim community) faced in the last century, and that were represented by Marxism, and secularism. We were able to defeat these challenges with the grace of books by Sadr, including Our Economics . . . .
It's one speech, political leaders say things and retract them all the time. And the PM may well have figured nobody was going to pick up on it in the West, where few know who Muhammad Baqir al Sadr even is. But still, the equating of Marxism with liberal democracy, of capitalism with socialism, of building a national project that resists hegemons, and above all else, of hanging the murder of Iraqi Shi'ism's most beloved figure on a mysterious all powerful foreign entity that landed a plane in Baghdad airport and sped his execution up because of his support for the Islamic Republic of Iran, at a time when Iran had US hostages?
There's something happening here. What it is aint exactly clear. There's a plane with an order over there, telling Saddam he's got to beware. . ..