Professors discussed the future of Iraq’s political and religious institutions at a Tuesday panel on post-war Iraq.
Organized by the Council on Middle Eastern Studies, the panel focused on the currently volatile situation in the country, including the destruction and looting of museums and libraries, the reaction of the Shiite majority after the removal of the Sunni-dominated government, and the long term prospects of democracy in Iraq. Participating in the panel were political science professor James Scott, religious studies professor Frank Griffel, Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Beatrice Gruendler, history professor Abbas Amanat, and Hofstra University history professor Magnus Bernhardsson. History professor Laura Engelstein moderated the discussion.
Gruendler expressed regret about the priceless works of art and scholarly research that were lost on April 14 when Iraqi citizens looted and burned nine museums. Iraq was one of the world’s most important centers of learning in the 13th and 14th centuries, she said, and many of these original works were lost in the chaos during and following Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gruendler said the revolution in scholarship during 13th- and 14th-century Baghdad was similar to the modern-day information revolution.
“We do think of the Internet age, with its revolution in the way information and ideas are exchanged, as comparable to the exchange of ideas in Baghdad in the 14th century,” Gruendler said.
Gruendler said she was disappointed with the Bush administration’s failure to protect Iraq’s museums and libraries and asked why the United States did not account for the importance of the cultural, historical and scholarly artifacts. She also said the lack of media coverage was regrettable.
“The most discouraging element is the silence of the press,” Beatrice said.
The panelists also discussed the significance of the Shiite majority’s religious pilgrimage to Karbala, where Iman Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed. The Shiites, who represent a 60 percent majority in Iraq, were forbidden to make the pilgrimage under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government. Griffel said the tensions between the Shiite and Sunni communities have the potential to destroy any new Iraqi regime.
The religious fervor surrounding the pilgrimage has been reminiscent of the religious power struggle that has been plaguing Iraq since Hussein’s fall. The panelists discussed how the assassination of Abd al-Majid al-Kho’I, a Iraqi religious leader friendly to the West, highlighted the struggle between Islamic fundamentalists and the more moderate Muslims. Amanat said the political uncertainty in Iraq may lead to an Islamic revolution similar to the one in Iran in 1979.
“Watching the banners of the Shiite pilgrims, representing the different towns and cities, I was reminded of the organization and public demonstrations of the Iranian revolution, of which I was a witness,” Amanat said.
Bernhardsson said he is skeptical about the prospects of a stable democracy based on the federal system the United States is proposing.
“The [U.S.] plan is a nice idea on paper, but the problem is that it conflicts with the nationalist tendencies of the Iraqi people,” Bernhardsson said.
Past empires, including the British and Ottoman empires, also tried to enforce a federalist structure on Iraq. Based on past historical and political experiences, Bernhardson said Iraqis are likely to reject the U.S. plan. Despite his misgivings, Bernhardson said a democracy may be possible after the United States leaves Iraq.
“If history is any indication, there may be hope for an Iraqi democracy because in the last century, most new democracies have been reactions to imperial occupation,” he said.