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Mosques the new homes for politics

Haider Najm
Kadhim Abbadi is a regular visitor to the Buratha mosque in the al-Utayfiyah neighbourhood of Baghdad. Like many mosques in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the mosque is known for its political affiliations. Buratha is…
7.07.2010  |  Baghdad

Under Saddam, religious figures were closely monitored, with preachers influence over political and social affairs limited. Since, with the growth of Islamic political parties in Iraq, mosques have come to function as party offices and to begin providing important services, especially in areas where the government has failed.

“Sunni and Shia mosques have helped widows and martyrs’ families,” says Abbadi. “They make regular payments to families in need and educate children whose parents are unable or reluctant to send their children to government schools. During the pilgrimage season, they also provide work to the unemployed, who can help at mosques and shrines.”

Ali al-Khateeb, Vice President of the Shiite Endowment, the institution responsible for managing mosques and the Shia Waqf, echoed Abbadi’s words.

“The mosques are the only institutions in Iraq that have continued to fulfill their mission in recent years. After the looting, mosques were used to get stolen property back to its owners. They have also provided shelter and protection to those expelled from their homes.”

He adds that imams have been vital in calming local populations during times of turmoil, as well as other more mundane examples of “advising and guiding the masses.”

Sheikh Mahmoud al-Ani, head of the Iraqi Scholars’ Council, a Sunni political forum, says it is the same for Sunnis.

“The mosque’s mission is huge. They play an important role in education and awareness and teach people about the Quran and the Arabic language. In addition, they shelter for the homeless, food for the poor and a strengthening of social relations among all worshippers,” he says.

In the 1980s and 90s, mosques were unable to perform such roles as the state controlled them totally. Imams were told what to say and how to say it. Even the choice of Imams was in the hands of the state and many were chosen because they were employed by the state’s security services.

Mosques do remain politicised, however. Politicians and their parties continue to use them to preach political, rather than religious, messages. Friday prayers are rarely free of criticism of opposing political figures and rarely contain any criticism of the parties controlling them.

On Friday, 18 June, Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Sagheer, a preacher at Buratha Mosque and leading member of ISCI, said in his speech that Nouri al-Maliki’s government was failing to uphold the constitution.

“The constitution endorses decentralisation. What we see now is centralisation. It endorses federalism but what we see now is centralisation,” he preached.

In the same speech, al-Sagheer also criticised Iraq’s erstwhile Electricity Minister, Karim Wahid, a member of the Dawa Party.

"The minister made promises to provide people with 12 hours of electricity supply," he complained. "We get half of that. Maybe one hour, every four.”

He continued to call the government officials involved ‘conspirators’.

With growing influence in the population, some Imams have found it easy to climp the power pyramid and assume parliamentary position.

Harith al-Obeidi, a member of the Sunni Accordance Front, and Sabah al-Saedi, of the Shia Islamic Fadhila Party and Asaad al-Hashimi, the former Minister of Culture, built their political influence on the back of Friday sermons in mosques in Baghdad.

The power of the mosques was seen clearly during recent elections. The parties saw it as important to spend money on mosques, rehabilitating and renovating them after damage they suffered during the years of violence.

Sheikh Mahmoud al-Ani, the head of Iraq's Scholars Council, said, “We don't support the use of mosques and worship places for political propaganda, but the door of repentance is open to all people, even to those who spread corruption on earth. God wants people to repent and we all need repentance.”

There are no official figures for the total number of Shiia and Sunni mosques in Iraq. Officials at the Sunni Islamic Endowment refuse to answer on the topic, although it is known that hundreds of Sunni mosques were built during Saddam Hussein’s ‘faith campaign’ in the 1990s. The number is very much more stable now.

A high-level source from the Shia endowment said Shia mosques fall into three categories: "those that are officially registered, those under registration, and the unregistered ones that have not yet started the registration process."

He continued to state that the total number reaches up to around 16,000.

The Shia situation has improved greatly since 2003. Previously, funds for construction and upkeep were collected in mosques or through donations made by rich Shias. Now the endowment has its own budget and an annual plan to refurbish abandoned mosques.

Competition between the Shia parties to control the existing mosques across the country was rigorous over the last 7 years. Almost all religious institutions in the country have come under the direct or indirect supervision of one party or the other.

Most Shia mosques in the country are under the control of the Najaf authority and the Grand Ayatolla Ali al-Sistani but still battles rage between the Shi parties to be at the forefront of shaping individual mosque’s identities and influencing local populations.

Unsurprisingly, many Shia mosques, especially in the South and in Baghdad, follow the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sader, the father of the Sadrist Stream leader, although in Basra Nasiriyah and Amarah provinces, there are many followers of Sheikh al-Yacoubi, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Virtue Party.

It is a big change for Iraq to have moved from the Baathist political system to the new democratic system. The mosque has certainly moved into a lot of the vacuums left by the system’s overhaul, particularly in Shia areas. How the mosque’s role will continue to develop over time and how entwined that role will be with Iraq’s political parties will be are hugely important questions for the future of the country.