Occupation vs. Radical Islam?
Naomi Klein had an interesting piece in yesterday's Guardian (originally published with a brief postsript in The Nation) looking at the factors influencing support for Moqtada Al-Sadr and theocracy more generally within Iraq. It reflects my own concerns that the occupation is strengthening such forces, probably at the expense of putative progressive counterbalances, but does a much better job than I have of providing evidence to back up that claim:
Sadr has deftly positioned himself not as the narrow voice of strict Shias but as an Iraqi nationalist defending the entire country against foreign invaders. Thus, when he was attacked with the full force of the US military and dared to resist, he earned the respect of millions of Iraqis living under the brutality of occupation.
This shift in attitude is evident in all the polling. A coalition provisional authority poll conducted in May, after the first US siege of Najaf, found that 81% of Iraqi respondents now thought more highly of Sadr. An Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies poll ranked Sadr - a marginal figure six months before - as Iraq's second most influential political player after Sistani.
Most alarming, the attacks appear to be boosting support not only for Sadr personally, but for theocracy generally. In February, the month before Bremer closed down Sadr's newspaper, an Oxford Research International survey found that a majority of Iraqis wanted a secular government; only 21% of respondents said that their favoured political system was "an Islamic state". Fast-forward to August, with Najaf under siege by US forces: the International Republican Institute reported that a staggering 70% of Iraqis wanted Islam and sharia as the basis of the state. The poll didn't differentiate between Sadr's unyielding interpretation of sharia and moderate versions. Yet it's clear that some of the people who told me in March that they supported Sadr but would never vote for him are beginning to change their minds.
I recently received a letter from Major Glen Butler, a US marine helicopter pilot stationed in Najaf. Major Butler defended the siege on the holy city by saying that he and his fellow marines were trying to prevent the "evil" of "radical Muslims" from spreading. Well, it's not working. Helicopter gunships are good at killing people. Beliefs, when under fire, tend to spread.