05 December 2007

Muqtada al-Sadr: young and restless

I have received a tip regarding this gentleman being chosen as number eight for the list of the fifty most influential youngsters by Details Magazine. I didn't know a lot about this character, but what wouldn't one do to get a bit closer to a hot celebrity?

The truth is that the list mentioned above contains quite a mixed bunch. With some of them (my hero included) I wouldn't like to exchange spit, let alone sharing a bottle of Scotch. But here I am, stuck with a Shiite political leader for my sins...

So, it is Muqtada al-Sadr (MaS further in this opus), Iraqi political maverick of indeterminate age, probably around 35.

Since it is a job for a fashion magazine, it couldn't do without a picture. As you can see, the guy looks like a cross between the Lebanese Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and his Palestinian colleague - Hamas' chief Ismail Haniyeh. A bit less plump than the former and no signs of silver in his beard as in that of the latter. Re his garb, I do not think that he will ever serve as a model for a Western fashion magazine, tending to traditional Muslim clothes like Nasrallah, while Haniyeh, on the other hand, has a predilection for nice suits, which could be his undoing yet.

As for his biography and his character traits: there is a lot of stuff on the Internet, some of it contradictory and some of it badly researched, like this piece on CBC that belongs to "in-depth" department, calling our hero, MaS, "a young Shia cleric", although he did not finish the religious studies necessary to qualify as such and, as Wiki says:

As Muqtada al-Sadr lacks the religious education and degrees required by Shi'a doctrines, he does not claim the title of mujtahid (the equivalent of a senior religious scholar) or the authority to issue fatwas (religious edicts). He has never claimed religious authority, and when asked religious questions refers the questioner to consult their own Marja or religious authority.
As we can see, the man is ever so humble. Of course, it's Wiki, and who knows - maybe he gives that entry an edit here and there from time to time, it is not unheard of in the Wiki world. (In any case, I was trying to collect for this post only the items that are agreed upon by several sources, ignoring some more far-fetched ones.)

Anyway. MaS is a political leader and, as most sources agree, a charismatic one, able to sweep the audience, as successful leaders and demagogues do. Coming from a lineage of religious leaders, it is not a surprise. But he is not just a pretty face and a big mouth. The man is obviously a clever and thoughtful organizer and has enough sense for coolheaded realpolitik maneuvering in the dangerous Iraqi waters. He needs these qualities, since Iraqi Shiites are by no means a homogeneous bunch, being split into pro- and anti-Iranian groups, various internal sects and, of course, let's not forget the turf wars between various Shiite chieftains, the mainly Sunni Baathist gangs that are still active and the last, but not the least - the Al Qaeda - affiliated terrorist units.

The mere fact of his survival and his enormous popularity amongst Iraqi Shiite population indicate that MaS is indeed a leader in the making and a man to be closely watched. His realpolitik talents are clearly shown in this case:
During the first siege of Fallujah in late March and April of 2004, Muqtada's Sadrists sent aid convoys to the besieged Sunnis there.
Helping out the hated Sunnis when politically convenient is not a trivial act at the time of heightened enmity between the two religious streams.

He and his "Mahdi army" appeal to the poorest segment of population, using well proved techniques - charity, free (religious, of course) schooling for the kids, judicious distribution of money, etc. Muqtada al-Sadr's support is strongest among the urban poor, many of whom see him as their champion.

He is not a stranger to histrionics of the kind employed by cheap demagogues when necessary:
He wraps himself in a white funeral shroud, showing he is ready for death.
But it goes well with the image of a folk hero... The possible use of the religious angle has not escaped his attention. It is not for nothing that he is titled Hojatoleslam Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr. The prefixed title Hojatoleslam literally means Authority on, or Scholar of, Islam and is an academic title indicating a middle-ranking Shi‘a cleric. That is while his credentials as a religious cleric are non-existent. But he plays the religious angle for all it is worth:
Hujjat al-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr says that the Mahdi would soon return, in Iraq. This rumor, touching the core of Shi'i faith and eschatology, is being spread by Sadr's preachers. In the Shia tradition, the Mahdi is the 12th Imam, who is in occultation. Muktada al-Sadr says the Americans were aware of the impending reappearance, and that the Americans invaded Iraq to seize and kill the Mahdi. His supporters chant Sadr's name at rallies to imply that he is the "son of the Mahdi."
And, as all sources agree, when necessary he is not above resorting to a murder or two:
The al-Sadr group drew charges of involvement in attacks and intimidation in Al-Najaf that have highlighted political differences among Shi'a political organizations. The most notable of those attacks was a mob killing of a pro-US cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoi(Khoei), shortly after his return from exile in London on 10 April 2003.
He was not always successful in his political and military endeavors: his attempts to revolt against foreign presence in Iraq were put down and he lost control of his troops on more than one occasion. But he is patient and learning the trade. It is quite clear that a formidable enemy of the West is growing up in Iraq, and the more attention (and, eventually, and not too late, care) he gets, the better.

The last, but not the least: The article on the 50 wonder kids mentioned above will be published soon and the cover of the Detail issue will look like this (click to enlarge):

And since you have asked: no, it is not MaS or, in other words, Hojatoleslam Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr, although with that beard and that garb... who knows?