Ayatollah Sistani and Iraqi Politics

Alexander Dawoody

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman is planning to nominate the religious leader of Iraqi Shiites, Ayatollah Sistani, to Nobel Peace Prize. Many Iraqis and Americans, however, wonder if Sistani deserves this Prize while refraining from even uttering a word against the brutality of Saddam’s regime, the violence of wars, and the atrocities of the occupation. Is codling the power on ground, no matter how repressive, is a legitimate criterion for winning a peace prize or defending justice and speaking against wrongs through non-violence? Many Americans also ask if this is why American soldiers fought and died for in Iraq? Did American mothers send their children to the Iraq war in order to empower a clergy, such as Sistani, and his vision for creating another Islamic republic like Iran, ruled by another ayatollah?

In the era of post-September 11 the image of an ayatollah in charge of a vital state to US strategic interest, such as Iraq, remains sensitive. Yet, many Iraqi Shiites, some Americans, and the Bush Administration consider Sistani as one of the most moderate leaders in Iraq.

Politically, Sistani became active shortly after the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, issuing religious decrees calling on Shiite clergy not to get involved in politics. At the same time, he began calling for the creation of a constitutional convention by a direct vote and criticizing the US- appointed Iraqi government of Ayad Allawie as undemocratic.

Sistani’s role became more visible in 2004 as a response to Muqtada al-Sadr, a 42 years Shiite clergy and the head of an independent militia known as the Mahdi army. Sistani's role as a political leader was supported among the Shiite property-owners, while Muqtada’s support was among the urban poor Shiites.

The contrast between the two became clearer in early August 2004, when Sistani visited London for heart treatment. A few weeks later, he returned to Iraq to broker an agreement that ended the standoff in Najaf at the holy Imam Ali shrine between U.S. marines and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army.

  <>Ever since, his edicts provided many Iraqi Shiites with the religious backing to participate in the politics of occupied Iraq, including the January 2005 elections and the efforts to form a democratic government. While some clergies argued that democracy was "non-Islamic" because it based power on people instead of claiming it as derived from God, Sistani's message was that the Shiites had a religious obligation to vote. He also urged them not to respond in kind to attacks from Sunni extremists, which have become common in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq like the area known as the "triangle of death."    <>Sistani’s justification for his call for the Shiites to participate in the elections is based on a lesson he learned from the Shiites boycotting of the 1922 elections in the young state of Iraq. The Shiites boycotted the elections of 1922, and because of that they were left out of the political arena for nearly eight decades, suffering greatly ever since. This is precisely why he insisted that every Iraqi Shiite had to vote. He sees it as his duty never to let the Shiites commit the same blunder as they did in 1922.

In forming the new Iraqi government, Sistani sees himself as a guardian, not as puppet master. His goal is to safeguard the rights of the Shiites and to establish an Islam-friendly regime ruled by politicians but supervised by the clergy in religious affairs. He also wants the Shiites to remain devoted to Islam and united against others, such as the Sunnis, the Americans, and the Kurds.

  <>Despite his great influence on Iraqi politics, Sistani is not an Iraqi. He was born in Mashhad, Iran, in 1929 to a family of religious scholars. His family comes from the area of Iran known as Sistan, which accounts for the title "al-Sistani" in his name.   <>After spending a few years of his childhood studying religious teachings in Qom in central Iran, he moved to Iraq in order to study in Najaf under Ayatollah Khoei. There, he settled down, raising a family and became an integral member of that city's community. In 1962, he was appointed by Khoei as a marja (a religious reference).  <>Sistani followed Khoei's belief of separating the clergy from politics, and subsequently of keeping out of great political involvement. This helped him avoid persecution by the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, except for a short period of detention in 1991 after the Shiite uprisings that followed the Gulf War.  <>After Khoei’s death in 1992, Sistani was named as his successor. His position, however, was challenged by other clerics, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr (the uncle of the young Muqtada al-Sadr). But, once Saddam executed Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Sistani secured his leadership position among the Iraqi Shiites.  <>In theory, Sistani supports the Islamic Republic of Iran. On occasions, however, he expressed his disenchantment with its theocracy. He believes that politicians, not clergymen, should run government. Iran, on the other hand, gives full political control to the clergies by advocating a system called vilayet-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent), whereby the clergies rule all aspects of political affairs.  

Despite his popularity, Sistani continues to face challenges to his leadership among Iraqi Shiites. For example, many Shiites do not want to cooperate with the Americans. Also, the method of non-violence advocated by Sistani had instead aroused anger among young radical and militant Shiites. Lastly, some are interpreting his involvement in political affairs as a road map toward recreating another Islamic republic in the region.
  <>While his political role is a cause for concern, Sistani describes his actions as just. He fears the loss of what he describes as Iraq's Islamic identity, and trusts that Iraqis will not dismantle it if given a voice through elections, even if such elections were held under a foreign occupation.
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