In an otherwise very good analysis of Muqtada al-Sadr in yesterday’s Washington Post, Amit Paley glossed over what I think is a very significant point about the Iraqi Shia political scene:
Sadr, the third of four sons, was born in Najaf into one of the most revered clerical families in Shiite Islam. His father’s cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was an adored religious figure who founded a school of thought that became the Sadrist movement, which argued that the clergy should actively engage in politics to aid the downtrodden Shiite masses. When he was tortured and killed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein’s government, Moqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, also a grand ayatollah, took his place as the head of the movement and became a chief opponent of Hussein’s rule.
It’s true that the Sadrist movement is based upon the teachings and theories of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, who is generally regarded as the most significant and innovative Shia scholar of the 20th century. But even more than that, all of the major Shia parties in Iraq derive elements of their programs from his work, a deeply intellectual form of Islamic scholarship which engaged and critiqued the various political ideologies at work in the contemporary Middle East.
Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party was co-founded by Sadr in Najaf in 1957. The Dawa (“call to Islam”) was conceived by Iraq’s Shia clerics as an effort to combat the influence of secular ideologies such as socialism and Communism among Iraq’s poor and middle class. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) –formerly known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — was founded in Iran in 1982 by the exiled cleric Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, himself a former Dawa colleague of Bakr al-Sadr. SCIRI was also grounded in Sadr’s theories of clerical activism, though it became more closely aligned with the extremist theory of vilayet e-faqih (rule of the religious scholars), as espoused by the group’s Iranian patron, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the brutal, sanctions-starved Iraq of the 1990s, Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, developed his elder cousin’s ideas into the potent populist-nationalist message that defines the current Sadrist movement. Sadeq also established a network of activist clerics and social services in opposition to the perceived “quietism” of the Najaf establishment. The latter aspect has enabled Muqtada to establish a base of political power far out of proportion to his relatively meager scholarly credentials, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis depend on services provided by his offices.
While Dawa and ISCI continue to appeal more to Iraq’s scholarly and commercial classes, the Sadrists find the vast majority of their support among Iraq’s poor. Given the size of their constituencies, it’s no secret why Dawa and ISCI are extremely nervous about the coming provincial elections, and are seeking to weaken the Sadrists in advance. Trying to isolate and marginalize this movement — which should not be confused with, or simply reduced to, the Mahdi Army, it’s militia wing — is not likely to achieve sustainable gains.
Muqtada al-Sadr doesn’t fit the simplistic mold of a radical firebrand cleric as he is sometimes portrayed to be in the media. He is a major nationalist figure who was born into what is perhaps the most important family for Shia politics in Iraq –- akin to the Bush family for Republicans or the Kennedy family for Democrats here in the U.S. Bakr al-Sadr’s influence has shaped the current generation of Shia leaders in Iraq, and Muqtada’s ability to personally draw upon that legacy has been of significant benefit to him.