The issue of the Shiite marjas’ intervention in political and social affairs has long remained a subject of controversy and debate amongst observers. There are those who maintain that the traditional Twelver Shiism in Najaf and Karbala always preferred not to get involved in politics. This situation continued until Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran, which introduced the concept of the “Wilayat al-Faqih” [Guardianship of the Jurists] to establish its rule. Although many of the traditional marjas in Qom and Najaf did not support this doctrine, they have always voiced their political views on different issues now and again, raising the question of under what circumstances and conditions they should put forward their opinions on matters of politics.
To date, the Syrian crisis has claimed the lives of nearly 38,000 people and displaced more than 1.4 million, inside and outside Syria. As a result of the humanitarian crisis and the war between the regime and the rebels, a political and moral division has reared its head between those who support the ouster of the regime and those who are standing with it, such as the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and other radical Shiite groups.
There can be no doubt that there is a sectarian dimension to the Syrian crisis, just as there are also attempts being made by moderates to avoid such conflict.
However, we have also seen tensions escalated by extremists on both sides. The stance adopted by Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki and his allies backing the al-Assad regime is part of this sectarian aggravation, leading Fouad Ajami to criticize al-Maliki and others who have failed to learn the lessons of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. He wrote: “it would be painfully ironic if the Shia overcame their historical weakness only to lose their soul, their strong sense of righteousness, in the bargain. The Syrian rebellion is a test of the moral integrity of Shia identity. When victims come to power, they must beware of the darkness into which power may tempt them.” (How Sectarianism Blinds the Shia to the Horrors of Syria, The New Republic, October 2012).
Unfortunately, anybody observing the marjas’ stances towards political issues must notice that some marjas refrain from intervening when their position conflict with the interests of their religious institute, or when this will affect relations between their institute and their rulers. True neutrality cannot be applied in some cases and ignored in others. Researcher Mehdi Khalaji –son of Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Khalaji – studied the principles of Islam and Islamic jurisprudence in Qom between 1986 and 2000. He argues that the Syrian crisis represents a moral challenge for the Shiite marjas of Qom and Najaf, which he believes are no longer politically or financially independent from the Wali al-Faqih in Iran. Khalaji also criticized the Western media’s portrayal of the “intellectual” Marja of Qom and the “Sufist” Marja of Najaf, and the assumption that the former is influenced by the concept of the Wilayat al-Faqih whilst the latter rejects it. He holds that this is inaccurate, citing the fact that leader of the Hawza of Najaf, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, does not publicly reject the “Wilayat al-Faqih” concept or the policies of Iranian Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, particularly those regarding Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, al-Sistani has no choice but to make peace with Khamenei, as have other marjas who fear the machinery of power in Iran or Syria. (The Silence of the Graves: Why are the Shiite Marjas being silent on the killing of Muslims in Syria? The Majalla, November 2012.)
There can be no doubt that the marjas have played positive roles in rejecting sectarianism and protecting national unity at different times in history. However this intervention in political affairs sometimes puts them in an awkward position, religiously and morally. Ayatollah al-Sistani enjoys great popularity amongst Shiites, and he was a very positive voice in protecting Iraqi unity following the fall of Baghdad in 2003. In numerous statements, he criticized sectarian violence and the phenomenon of corruption within the Iraqi government. Yet, this marja has not issued a single condemnation of the systematic killing of the Syrian people by the al-Assad regime over the past 18 months, despite the fact that al-Sistani’s office has issued many numerous condemnations in recent years, including condemnation of Israel during the 2006 war, the defamatory Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, the situation in Gaza, and other Iraqi and regional issues.
What is happening in Syria is simultaneously a regional and a sectarian crisis. Despite this, senior marjas failed to take any action to relieve the sectarian tension and pull the rug out from under those promoting it. Sunni scholars have been criticized on numerous occasions – and this is something that must continue – when they have utilized fatwas to intervene in politics. Some of these fatwas resulted in large-scale destruction and violence in Iraq and elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is silence when it comes to Shiite marjas or jurists who do the same.
A question must be asked: have Shiite intellectuals done their duty in terms of criticizing Shiite political Islam and its repeated hijacking of the sect’s voice? Up until now, we see no reasonable criticism in this regard, with the exception of a minority of jurists, and even this minority is being criticized by both Sunni and Shiite liberals. This is apparent in the Lebanese crisis, as only a small minority of Shiite intellectuals are capable of criticizing Hezbollah and its “resistance”. It is as if this policy – which has hijacked the Lebanese state’s decision-making process – is legitimate, whilst extremism on the part of others is rejected and suspect!
In a message from well-known Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush to Ayatollah Khamenei criticizing the marjas’ negative role in politics, he said: “you must accept criticism so that we can move towards national reconciliation.” (December 2011). Perhaps this is what the Shiite marjas require with regards to the Syrian crisis.