Three Cheers for Sistani

By Paul Iddon – Jul 31, 2015

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

When Iraq’s most pre-eminent Shia cleric comments on political affairs it’s worth your while to listen. But don’t expect some rabble-rousing sectarian demagoguery from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Despite his stature Sistani has never tried to attain for the Shia of Iraq more than their due.

After the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 Iraq was for a time governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Its administrator, Paul Bremer, was for a brief time, in essence, Iraq’s viceroy. When corresponding with Ayatollah Sistani about what kind of system should be implemented in Iraq Sistani was adamant that a one-person, one-vote democratic order should be immediately established in Iraq. Sistani also issued a fatwa decreeing that Iraqi Shia women should also vote, even if their husbands disapproved, saying it was their duty to do so. On what kind of constitution the post-Saddam Iraq should be governed under Sistani informed Bremer, “You are an American and I am an Iranian. I suggest we leave it up to the Iraqis to devise their constitution.”

Sistani was born in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. The only shrine city in all of Iran. He has however spent the vast majority of his life ensconced in the Iraqi Shia shrine city of Najaf. His views pertaining to Shiism’s role in society is directly divergent to that of the ruling Iranian theocracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s conception of Shia governance is quite an obscurantist one which has depended upon authoritarian state coercion in a top-down order to try and shape the society. The legacy of this order has seen to these theocrats unwittingly linking the clergy to the many failures and unpopular policies of that regressive and repressive regime which has consequently tarnished it quite badly. Unlike Sistani’s bottom-up approach which is wholly democratic and non-sectarian in nature. Sistani never advocated a theocratic order for Iraq, which is one of the reason he seldom comments on political affairs or attempts to directly influence them – incidentally, when Ayatollah Khomeini became the symbol of opposition to the last Shah of Iran during the Iranian Revolution he invariably claimed he wouldn’t seek power when he returned to Iran and that he would simply return to the Iranian Shia holy city of Qom and fulfill his day-to-day duties as a cleric there, he was lying. Sistani answers religious inquiries from the Shia faithful about how they should live their lives and is a relatively reclusive figure solely dedicated to Islamic learning. One of his few political-related acts was to push for an democratic system during the aforementioned transitional stage.

Sistani is not the type who cynically uses democracy to advance his sect or cause in order to obtain power. He doesn’t view democracy as a means to an end as, for instance, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sometimes seems to, the very politician who once, contemptibly, remarked, “Democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off.”

Obviously a democratic Iraq was going to be one whereby the Shia would get more of a say in the affairs of their state since, demographically, they are Iraq’s largest community – that’s not to imply, of course, that all Iraqi Shi’ites think alike, it’s simply to say that as a community they have much more self-determination, certainly a far cry from the days when they were oppressed by the Saddam Hussein regime. Sistani never associated with the likes of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who, when he was running again for a Prime Minister in early 2014 sought to meet with Sistani in Najaf but Sistani refused. He seldom accepts visiting politicians because he doesn’t want to be seen as endorsing any candidates. In the early 2014 elections when asked he simply told Iraqis to vote “wisely”.

His understanding of democracy isn’t one which believes 51% of the electorate have the right to do whatever they wish to the other 49%, minorities and other citizens have certainly inalienable rights. During the worst of sectarian tensions in Iraq he was a refreshing voice of reason. For example when al-Qaeda terrorists blew-up the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra back in 2006 Sistani strongly discouraged Shi’ites from attacking their Sunni neighbours in retaliation. He, quite rightfully, pointed out that that was what the terrorists who carried out that wicked act sought to bring about, sectarian violence which would jeopardize Iraq’s prospects of becoming a successful secular democracy.

And then comes the Islamic State (ISIS, Daesh) takeover of large parts of Iraq exemplified by their infamous blitz across Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. At that critical juncture Sistani unequivocally demonstrated that he is no opportunist or sectarian. He urged his followers to join the security forces – not form sectarian militias in order to try and beat Daesh’s sectarian fire with more sectarian fire. His level-headed approach to this has seen Iraq’s minorities unite with their Shia-brethren under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Daesh is a common threat to Iraqis of all stripes. He emphasizes that fact rather than use it as a pretext to subjugate and/or sideline non-Shia’s.
And remember the context, this was when you had 1,700 Shia Muslims massacred by fanatical Sunni sectarians at Camp Speicher in Tikrit. You would hardly have blamed him for being just a tad chauvinistic – historically leaders are at times of war and/or when their country or citizens comes under attack. But no, he retained his calmness and his composure during that tense and testing time. Since then he has been calling on his followers to do things like shelter and give aid to those displaced by the instability and the violence. Which in a lot of cases means Sunni Iraqis, many of whom are being given aid and shelter in Shia mosques. Sistani has also called for Iraq’s minority communities to be protected.

As the PMU offensives in the two Daesh-occupied Anbar Province cities of Fallujah and Ramadi got underway Sistani made another proposal in a recent weekly sermon. He urged Iraqi police and security forces to ensure they are doing their utmost to guard the families of the thousands of volunteers, militiamen and soldiers who are risking their lives to combat Daesh in Anbar. Not even a mere tincture of sectarian sentiment was present in his sermon, just sober straight-forward proposals and statements calling upon the authorities to ensure that there is nothing overlooked for the cynical and opportunistic sadists of Daesh to exploit.

It’s refreshing that at this dark time for Iraq and its people, whereby the forces of reaction have been threatening to fracture the country for good that the country’s most preeminent cleric is a man who strives for concordance, unity, levelheadedness and good old common sense.


Categories: Arab World, Asia, Iraq

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3 replies

  1. Looking at the picture of Ayatullah Sistani it reminds me of a story:

    On the internet-chat many years ago I had a Bangladeshi Doctor who was opposed to Ahmadiyyat. I told him ‘you watch MTA TV please and then you tell me whether you see anything wrong and we can discuss’.

    His response was interesting: ‘This Hazoor of yours (Khalifatul Masih IV at the time), with his shining smile is deceiving the whole world’. OK, if that is the only thing you can object to…

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