On its front cover, the established Economist magazine portrayed an image of the world as it prepares for the “war of religions”. It stated clearly that the world is on the verge of the next stage of the clash of civilizations. It seems that the Middle East region is the testing ground for this theory that is beginning to materialize. Perhaps what is happening in Iraq endorses this argument to a large extent. In addition to what is happening on the surface, there is a hidden conflict that is crucial to the role of religious authority within Shia political authority between the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the famous Shia authority in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
Since Khomeini announced the principle of the Walayet al-Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurists] (that was objected to by one of the world’s most important Shia authorities at the time, Al Sayyed al Khoei), the philosophy of governance in Shia doctrine has entered a new and unprecedented stage. While Sistani refrains from declaring his real opinions regarding many political conflicts in countries with Shia academies, other jurist schools adopt explicit methods and clear practices and exercise pressure for this purpose.
Recently, I had dinner with the renowned American thinker (of Iranian descent) and author of the bestseller ‘The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future’, Vali Nasr. Even president Bush himself was familiar with the book. The book considers that the Iranian project is imprisoned by the sectarian project; therefore, the Iranian project is not supported in a region that is characterized as being highly sensitive and suffering from a state of disparity and sectarian differences which kill off any aspirations for development in various forms and methods. Projects that were promoted by the Baathists, Nasserists or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party were essentially secular projects (with the recognition and acknowledgment of disastrous aspects, tyranny and abuse of the approach associated with these ideas). Today, Iran has turned to expanding the influence of its religious authority in light of the traditional conflict between the Hawzas of Najaf and Qom. Given the enormous financial resources that it had reaped from the major oil boom and in the absence of concrete political stability in Iraq where the Hawza of Najaf is located, Iran resorts to modern technology in an attempt to steal the show from the traditional Hawza of Najaf which was, without doubt, the supreme authority for more than 85% of the world’s Shia. Iran is doing so by launching numerous satellite channels, websites and virtual hawzas to cover the greatest number of demands possible and to expand the presence of religious authority in the large Iranian political project.
Until now, Sistani, with all his influence, has not allowed issues to go overboard in a frightening or shocking manner. What should be looked at is the stage that will follow Sistani since the (conditional) Iranian political project will continue to expand and increase fears and mistrust. The greatest fear remains that such rivalry between the two schools of thought would transform into a bloody conflict in which innocents would pay the price. Islamic history is full of examples that support this assumption.