The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq

by Roel Meijer
published in MER237

The October 15, 2005 referendum on the new Iraqi constitution, like other stages in the US-sponsored political transition after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, drew fresh attention to the many opponents of that transition and the US occupation who are not directly involved in the ongoing insurgency. In keeping with the pattern in place since the old regime fell, the global media identified this opposition as “Sunni,” implying that political attitudes in Iraq are uniquely determined by religious affiliation. In fact, these opposition forces are not uniformly Sunni Arab, and many are secular nationalist -- not sectarian or even religious -- in orientation and identity. Yet it is true that the course of the post-Saddam political transition, coupled with the disproportionate representation of Sunni Arabs in the old Iraqi state and the Baath Party, and the heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign in majority-Sunni Arab areas, have conspired to concentrate opposition to the new order in the Sunni Arab community.

By the early summer of 2003, it was clear that sectarian and ethnic identity would be a major organizing principle of post-Saddam Iraqi politics, if not the most important one. Seats on the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by US viceroy L. Paul Bremer were allocated according to a sectarian-ethnic quota system. Powerful Iraqi actors on the council, chiefly the Shi‘i religious parties returned from exile and the twin Kurdish parties, advocated strongly for the interests of pious Iraqi Shi‘a and the Kurds, respectively. Zealous “debaathification” of ministries and the dissolution of the Iraqi army threw a sizable number of Sunni Arabs, who had been favored for leadership positions under the old regime, out of work. In this environment, and with an insurgency growing, numerous organizations emerged to advocate for Sunni Arab interests.

“Under One Roof”

By far the most important hardline Sunni Arab political organization has been the Association of Muslim Scholars (Hay’at ‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin). The Association was founded five days after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Its headquarters are in the immense Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, which was built by the old regime after the 1991 Gulf war and is famous for its minarets in the shape of Scud missiles. Its leader, Harith al-Dhari, 64, acquired a degree at al-Azhar University in Islamic studies and taught at Baghdad University, before fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime at the end of the 1990s, returning only after the regime’s fall. Although the Association claims to include all Sunnis, “whether Arabs, Kurds or Turkmen,” [1] in practice it represents mainly Sunni Arab imams and clerics of mosques and schools in the “Sunni triangle” -- the area of northwestern Iraq heavily inhabited by Sunni Arabs -- but also in Sunni pockets in the Shi‘i south, such as in Basra. The Association is well-organized, with a newspaper named al-Basa’ir and a sophisticated website, as well as articulate representatives, such as Harith al-Dhari himself, his son Muthanna al-Dhari, chief ideologue and international spokesman Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi, and domestic spokesmen ‘Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi and Bashar al-Faydhi. All of these men are regularly asked to comment on pan-Arab satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya. They travel frequently to neighboring Arab countries, where they are received by such figures as Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, and they have garnered the explicit support of prominent Islamist intellectuals like Fahmi Huwaydi. [2]

In stark contrast to its present role as a major political force, the Association denies any political ambitions. ‘Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi claims that “We are not a political party, nor are we a movement.” Rather, the purpose of the Association is to “bring the Sunni community under one roof.” [3] Other Sunni organizations contest the Association’s aspiration to become the spokesman of the Sunni community. One of these is the Sunni Endowment headed by the septuagenarian ‘Adnan Dulaymi. The Sunni Endowment was established subsequent to the Coalition Provisional Authority’s decision to split the Ministry of Religious Endowments (awqaf) into a Shi‘i and a Sunni section. Although financially stronger than the Association, the Sunni Endowment is politically weaker. Because its head is a government official, he can be fired; after Dulaymi criticized the draft constitution in July, he was succeeded by Ahmad al-Samarra’i. The second major competitor is the Iraqi Islamic Party, particularly those members of the party close to ‘Abd al-Muhsin Hamid, who served in the CPA’s Iraqi Governing Council. Like the Association, the party springs from the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has taken a much more accommodating attitude toward cooperation with the US. It also maintains close relations with Saudi Arabia.

The main strategy the Association has adopted to counter its Sunni competitors is to claim to be a Sunni counterpart to the Shi‘i marja‘iyya (religious authority) in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. As the marja‘iyya does for the Shi‘a of Iraq, the Association aspires to act as a power broker behind the scenes in the Sunni community of Iraq, laying down the main political guidelines and strategy for the whole community, interfering in day-to-day politics only when necessary. Another strategy the Association has adopted is to claim to speak for those engaged in anti-occupation struggle. The exact nature of the Association’s relations with the insurgency is unclear, and it is unknown which groups it represents, but its influence is apparent from the role it played in securing the release of foreign hostages in 2004. The choice of so many guerrillas to lay down their arms for the October 15 referendum is also partly attributable to the Association’s call, though some “former regime elements” also called for quiet so that people could vote no in peace. The fact that the Association has developed such a broad ideology shows that it tries to represent a broad spectrum of insurgent groups.

The Association’s rise to political prominence dates from the April 2004 Falluja crisis, when the Iraqi Governing Council, under US pressure, condoned the US military’s assault. The Association owes its popularity to the fact that it was the most important self-identified Sunni organization to oppose the attack. Not only did it defend the rebels and mobilize its wide mosque network to collect food and aid for the besieged inhabitants of Falluja, but through its intellectual input, the association also provided the insurgency with a more sophisticated political platform. Reflecting the highly mixed character of the insurgency, ranging from conservative ‘ulama’ in Falluja to jihadis in Ramadi, as well as the Baathist officers who may be the most organized leadership, the Association mixed an ideological cocktail to justify the rebels’ fight. Apart from numerous interviews with its spokesmen, the best concise expression of the Association’s ideology is found in a series of 20 articles by Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi collected as the Jurisprudence of Resistance (Fiqh al-muqawama). [4] Through these writings, the Association aimed to counter the constant US effort to denigrate the insurgency as nothing, to use the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but “thugs, gangs and terrorists.”

Resistance or Jihad

Initially, the political platform of the Association was based not on Islam, but on universal rights mixed with nationalism -- namely the natural right of every people, Muslim or non-Muslim, to resist occupation (ihtilal), as had been the case with the Vietnamese. As the right to defend oneself is a natural human right, Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi said in a December 2004 debate on al-Jazeera, it was not necessary to call for a jihad or issue a religious edict (fatwa) to sanction the Iraqi struggle for independence. Another reason for not adopting Islamic terminology was that it might scare off non-Muslims who feel outrage at the occupation of Iraq. [5] Instead of the term “jihad,” the Association preferred the more neutral term “resistance” (muqawama), which it borrowed from Hamas. Implied is that the United States plays the same role in Iraq that Israel does in the occupied Palestinian territories. On a higher level, the struggle is cast as part of a overall civilizational war between “crusading” forces of evil bent on destroying the Iraqi nation -- to “sequester its mind, thought, social relations and way of life,” said Kubaysi on al-Jazeera -- and the heroic resistance which defends the “land,” “honor” and “religion” of Iraq.

However, despite its defense of armed resistance as both a human right and a national right, the Association was ultimately unable to withstand the lure of calling for a jihad and adopting a discourse that resembles that of the jihadi salafis in its praise of violence. Most of its defense of armed resistance is directed against “moderate ‘ulama’”—a code word for its rivals who have been more flexible toward the US presence. Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi states that the present crisis leaves no room for moderate political means. All efforts should be subordinated to waging a jihad because “the call to Islam is the call to jihad, because jihad is Islam.” [6] Like the jihadis, he regards resistance as a personal duty (fard ‘ayn) that is ignored at the risk of denying tawhid, the unity of God. [7] In fact, Kubaysi states that joining the muqawama and taking up arms is a “duty of the times” that takes precedence over duties like fasting and even prayer. [8] On the other hand, Kubaysi and the Association have on numerous occasions denounced the use of indiscriminate violence against Iraqi civilians, such as that attributed to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia organization. [9] Even attacks directed against the Shi‘i-dominated National Guard are condemned, because, as Kubaysi argues, Islamic law stipulates that criminals can only be convicted in a court of law. His statement, “You cannot execute them without legal proceedings; an Iraqi is not an occupier but a citizen of the nation,” demonstrates that the real distinction is not so much a classical legal one between Muslims and infidels as a nationalist one between citizens and occupiers. While citizens are protected by law, Iraqis have a national as well as a religious duty to fight occupiers. [10]

That this nationalist struggle is the main defining feature of being an Iraqi and acquiring a citizen’s rights is underscored by the general attitude of the Association toward the Iraqi Shi‘a. Shi‘ism in itself is not condemned, as is the case with the salafis who regard Shi‘a as “rejectionists” (rafida) of Islam, but participation in the resistance is the main criterion for inclusion in the nation. In this regard, the Association even lays claim to the legacy of Imam Hussein. His choice to die an exemplary martyr’s death and establish a “school of martyrdom” (madrasat al-Husayn al-istishhadiyya), instead of capitulating to the “tyrant of the age” (taghut al-‘asr), has been betrayed by the Shi‘i leadership itself. If it were not for the US and their continuous attempts to instigate sectarian strife (al-fitna al-ta’ifiyya) by deliberately playing the sectarian card (al-waraqa al-ta’ifiyya), the Association argues, Iraq would now be in better shape. The division of the nation and the weakening of the state itself through the introduction of federalism have been successful because the US has convinced the Shi‘i leadership that they head an oppressed sect (ta’ifa mazluma). [11] Consequently, the Shi‘i leadership adopted the US policy to base the interim political system on proportional representation, which enhanced the ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq. As “true democracy is impossible under occupation,” the Association has decided to boycott all Iraqi political institutions as long as the US does not agree to a timetable for withdrawing its troops from Iraqi soil.

A Fleeting Alliance

The high point in the Association’s power occurred between April 2004 and March 2005, when it succeeded in mobilizing the myth of a “national” insurgency to promote all-out political boycott as the only means to defend the interests of the Sunni community. It outmaneuvered its rivals because Sunni Arabs (and many other Iraqis) were outraged by the destruction of Falluja in April and November 2004 and the massive US counterinsurgency campaign in the Anbar province in the following months, while that summer they found a Shi‘i ally in the firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia rose up against the US in several towns in the south. Against this background, any attempt by Sunni moderates to join the “democratic process” offered by the January 30, 2005 elections would have meant committing suicide.

Pointing to Sadr, who stressed the Arab character of the Shi‘a in his clash with the formerly Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da‘wa Party, the Association seemed justified in arguing that Iraq’s problems Iraq were political, and not religious or ethnic, in nature. The Shi‘a, in their view, were working with the US because they sought political gain within the proportional system that favored their numerical majority, not because they were against the Sunnis as such. Moreover, Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubyasi argued, not only Shi‘a, or Kurds for that matter, had suffered from Saddam Hussein’s repression. In the new myth of the nation extolled by the Association, all groups had suffered equally. [12] To underscore cross-sectarian solidarity, the Association organized a rally at Umm al-Qura during the first attack on Falluja in April, in which, according to some reports, up to 200,000 Shi‘is and Sunnis participated. [13] At the same time it participated in the establishment of several joint Sunni-Shi‘i organizations to “encourage unity and end the division between the sects that has sprung up.”

The Association of Muslim Scholars did not succeed, however, in convincing a critical mass of Iraqis to adopt its view of the strategic picture. Their gestures toward pan-Iraqi solidarity petered out after Sistani’s acceptance of the elections scheme in October 2004. In a mirror image of the Association’s platform denouncing the January elections as the fruit of an illegal occupation, Sistani proclaimed that voting in the elections was an “individual duty.” Announced on the eve of the second invasion of Falluja and that city’s destruction in November, this decision by the highest Shi‘i religious authority in Iraq was regarded by the Association and others as a stab in the back. With the end of Sadr’s rebellion and the buildup of the National Guard, the political clash between Iraqis over cooperation with the US increasingly assumed the cast of a sectarian-ethnic conflict.

The sectarian-ethnic dividing lines were especially clear-cut on January 30, when the combination of boycott calls and rampant insecurity kept Sunni Arab turnout extremely low -- as little as 2 percent in the Anbar province. Moderates and hardliners alike stayed home. As a result, Sunni Arabs were not represented in numbers proportionate to their share of the population in the transitional national assembly, and their inclusion in important political decisions has occurred only at the sufferance of the victorious Kurdish and Shi‘i religious parties.

Toward Engagement

Soon afterward, moderate Sunni Arab leaders seized the initiative from the hardliners. At the forefront of this movement stood Dulaymi, head of the Sunni Endowment. He argued that the boycott of the January elections had been a disaster and that the Sunni Arab community should take part in the “political process.” Otherwise, they would be completely and perhaps permanently marginalized, politically and economically. Dulaymi urged his co-religionists to offer input to the committee appointed by the transitional national assembly to draft a permanent constitution for Iraq.

Other Sunni Arab leaders, including the Iraqi Islamic Party and Ahmad al-Samarra’i, imam of the Umm al-Qura mosque, warmly welcomed this turn toward engagement with the nascent state. On April 1, al-Sammara’i issued a fatwa, signed by 64 prominent Sunni clerics, many of them members of the Association, in which he urged Sunni Arab young men to join the National Guard. The Guard’s recruitment among Shi‘a meant that, increasingly, the clash between the US and insurgents was turning into an intra-Iraqi confrontation with clear sectarian overtones. The fatwa demonstrated that the Sunni leaderhip was deeply disturbed by the Shi‘i and Kurdish takeover of the state, which they feared would further damage Sunni interests. The appointment of Bayan Jabr Solagh, a former high-ranking official in SCIRI’s Badr Brigades, as minister of interior confirmed their worst suspicions.

Meanwhile, and despite promises to the contrary, the leadership of the transitional government did not exactly bend over backwards to locate Sunnis to serve on the constitution drafting committee. Only after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Baghdad in May to push Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani to include the Sunni Arabs did their numbers on the 55-member constitutional committee increase from the original two to 15. Their participation, however, proved an enormous disappointment. By the time they were included in June, the Kurds and Shi‘a had already tailored the draft constitution to their liking. Due to the intense pressure exerted by the US to reach an agreement before the deadline of August 15, the negotiations brought out the differences between the groups instead of bringing them closer to each other.

As the contents of the draft constitution leaked out in July and August, Sunni Arab leaders registered especially strong objections to three components. They regarded the inclusion of an article outlining procedures for ongoing “debaathification” of the Iraqi state as a gross insult and, de facto, a way of excluding Sunni Arabs from the government. They resented the clause reading that “the Arab people of Iraq are part of the Arab nation,” which seemed to imply that Iraq as a whole is not part of the Arab nation. Third and foremost, they rejected the sections allowing Iraq’s transformation into a federation in which provinces might acquire rights over future oil finds instead of the central state. The majority of Sunni Arab leaders argued that voters should take part in the referendum, but only to vote no. Six insurgent organizations issued the same call, and some offered to protect the ballot boxes during the referendum. [14] This newfound unity was, however, undermined two days before the referendum when the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni Endowment, in return for concessions from the government, especially a major revision of the debaathification article, urged their followers to vote yes. Hardliners emerged to denounce this step immediately. The Baghdad headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party was bombed and its Falluja office was set on fire. [15]

Aspirations Unrealized

For its part, the Association of Muslim Scholars retained its rigid attitude toward the post-Saddam political transition during the constitution drafting process, refusing to send a member to the Sunni delegation on the constitutional committee. [16] The group’s Sunni rivals were more flexible, joining the process belatedly and turning the negotiations to somewhat to their advantage by depicting the negotiators of the Kurdish and Shi‘i religious parties as intransigent and self-interested. Even after the draft constitution was rejected by the Sunni negotiators, instead of calling for a mass mobilization to vote no in the referendum, Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi issued a fatwa formulated in the most negative terms, calling upon the Association’s followers to vote against the constitution, but only with the utmost reluctance. While he upheld Association dogma that it is illegal to vote under occupation, he argued that under present “exceptional circumstances” one could break this rule. As one’s survival depended upon political participation, it had become a “necessity” (darura), provided that participation did not hamper the jihad against the US or lead to “cooperation” (muhadana) with the enemy. [17] In an open letter, the Association was even more negative. While condemning the draft constitution, the letter left it to voters themselves to decide whether to vote no or to boycott the referendum, warning them that, if they opted to vote, politicians could mislead them. [18] It is clear that the Association, although it is not anti-parliamentarian in principle and rejects the constitution because it does “not present the will of the people,” has not contributed much to disseminating democratic concepts.

The Association of Muslim Scholars has constructed an ideology on the basis of resistance to the US occupation, and its relations with other groups in Iraq are seen entirely from this perspective. Consequently, the Association does not realize that a shift in power has taken place from the US to the Shi‘i and Kurdish parties in the transitional government. In this respect, its most redeeming project, the search for allies among the Shi‘a, has not been very successful. The alliance with Sadr would reemerge only during negotiations over the draft constitution a year later, when Sadr organized mass demonstrations against federalism in close cooperation with the leaders of the Association and possibly former regime elements as well. In Ramadi and other “Sunni triangle” towns, demonstrators hoisted pictures of Sadr next to those of Saddam Hussein. [19] Sadr also intervened on behalf of the Association when the latter accused the Badr Brigades, operating under the guise of security forces, of waging a campaign of terror against Sunni clerics, particulalry members of the Association. [20] From the time of the invasion until the end of September 2005, an Association report claims, 107 ‘ulama’ have been assassinated and 163 arrested, and 663 Sunni mosques have been destroyed or taken over. [21] The Association’s leadership has not been spared, and both Harith al-Dhari and Bashar al-Faydhi lost a brother to assassins’ bullets during the turmoil of the past two years.

The Association’s concentration on the most radical Shi‘i groups and its obsession with the occupation and armed resistance has not only alienated SCIRI and Da‘wa, but also the more neutral figure of Sistani, who has also criticized the federalism provisions in the new constitution. Meanwhile, Sunni organizations that are willing to act like political parties, like the Iraqi Islamic Party, have partly transcended the confines of the Sunni Arab minority, an achievement the Association still only aspires to. Although its demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops has been popular, the Association for Muslim Scholars’ inflexibility has prevented it from becoming accepted as the Sunni equivalent to the marja‘iyya. Its future influence will depend on the success of other Sunni organizations in mobilizing Sunni Arabs to take part in the December 2005 elections.

Endnotes

[1] Interview with ‘Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi, al-Sabil [Amman], October 7, 2003.
[2] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 2, 2005.
[3] Al-Sabil, October 7, 2003.
[4] Most of the issues of the series have been published in abridged form by al-Sabil, the Islamist weekly commonly associated with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, between February and August of 2005. The Association’s website has now migrated to http://www.iraq-amsi.org/.
[5] “Li-madha muqawama wa laysa jihadan?” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part I, published in al-Sabil, February 22, 2005.
[6] “Mujahidun am du‘ah,” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part XI, published in al-Sabil, May 4, 2005.
[7] “Al-Muqawama wa ‘aqidat al-tawhid,” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part III, published in al-Sabil, March 1, 2005, and “al-Muqawama wa al-maslaha al-‘amma,” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part XVIII, June 26, 2005, accessed online at http://www.iraq-amsi.org.
[8] “Al-Muqawama wa wajib al-waqt,” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part X, published in al-Sabil, April 26, 2005.
[9] See, for instance, Communiqué 91, February 12, 2005, and Communiqué 94, February 19, 2005, available on the Association’s website.
[10] Interview with Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi in al-Sabil, February 1, 2005.
[11] “Al-Muqawama wa al-waraqa al-ta’ifiyya,” Min fiqh al-muqawama, part XII, May 11, 2005, accessed online at http://www.iraq-amsi.org.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Guardian, April 10, 2004.
[14] IslamOnline.net, August 22, 2005.
[15] New York Times, October 15, 2005.
[16] Interview with ‘Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi in al-Sabil, June 28, 2005.
[17] For the full text of the fatwa, issued on August 19, 2005, see http://www.thisissyria.net.
[18] The open letter was published on Elaph.com, September 8, 2005. See also Communiqué 148, August 24, 2005, accessed online at http://www.iraq-amsi.org.
[19] Al-Sabil, August 23, 2005.
[20] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 19, 2005. For the role of Muqtada al-Sadr, see Elaph.com, May 21, 2005.
[21] IslamOnline.net, September 25, 2005.

Filed under: