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Al Sistani Fears the Distance - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Leading figures from the Iraqiya List – most prominently Iyad Allawi – walked out of their latest meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia Marja in Iraq, making the same old statements. They repeated the same phrase, “Al Sistani is keeping an equal distance from everyone. He doesn’t favour one Iraqi political party over the other.”

As for Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al Sistani who is present amid all these complications and the overlapping between religion, politics, history and interests, it would be wise on his part if he continues to keep his distance from everyone and avoids any imbalance in that respect.

Rafi al Issawi, who is a prominent figure in the Iraqiya List, warned the Iraqi political parties that claim that they are favoured by al Sistani, as he said, “Al Sistani expressed no explicit support for anyone.” Two days earlier, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the Shia attempt to close ranks had succeeded with little encouragement from the Grand Marjas in Iraq and Iran.

In order to be accurate, Talabani considers this positive because reducing contention and closing ranks is definitely for the common good of Iraq. Here he talks about an instructional and moral role to be played by Grand Shia religious Marjas, just as he stated in the interview he gave to Maad Fayad for this publication.

It is clear that the Shia Grand Marjas headed by Sayyed Ali al Sistani carry a lot of weight in Iraqi political life and struggles today. This fact might be appealing to some and not to others, either out of a secular conviction or a Sunni sectarian one. The crux of the matter here is that this role exists and is strategically vital. Otherwise, secularist Iyad Allawi would not have rushed to the Hawza (religious institution) in Najaf accompanied by two Sunni Arabs to find out the exact position of the highest-ranking Shia Marja Ali al Sistani and the stance of three other Shia Marja icons (Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ishaq al Fayyad, Grand Ayatollah Bashir al Najafi and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al Hakim, though they [the politicians] did not meet with the latter).

During a conversation with a specialist in Shia political ideology, he told me that the position of Sayyid Ali al Sistani was somewhat different to the position of the other three Grand Shia Marjas mentioned above. Al Sistani is the most tolerant among them and the closest to sharing the logic of the modern state. He is also very well read and is up to date with the times. According to the expert, the most that al Sistani hopes for is that the modern constitution that has been agreed upon by the Iraqis will be adhered to without violating it in any way. Al Sistani is pleased with this constitution and considers it sufficient to set things right in Iraq. In other words, he is not preoccupied with establishing a state according to the guardianship of the jurist system, as he does not agree with the general Khomeinist theory in that respect. Al Sistani’s vision of this concept is confined to the religious matter, the fatwa and particular guardianships. Meanwhile, the other three Grand Shia Marjas are more inclined towards endorsing the existing [establishment] which further represents the religious discourse. The more this or that Shia political current is attached to the vocabulary of the religious discourse and the more it vows to Islamize the state, the more support it would receive from those Grand clerics. This explains their endorsement of the National Iraqi Alliance and of al Hakim and the Islamic Supreme Council in particular.

Ironically, the expert on Shia political ideology told me that Nouri al Maliki, who won the largest amount of Shia votes in the last parliamentary elections, does not religiously follow any of the aforementioned Grand Shia Marjas. Being members of the Islamic Dawa Party, al Maliki and Ibrahim al Jaafari religiously follow the famous Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah for purely historical reasons and because of the well-known context in which the Dawa Party was founded. Therefore, the political weight, rather than the numerical figure, is not in the favor of Nouri al Maliki compared to al Hakim’s council or even to the Sadrist current which is openly in disagreement with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid al Sistani.

What counts here is that the position of the most important Shia cleric in Iraq, Ali al Sistani, is not a bad one and can be built upon and utilized in order to create a national political discourse. It is as if Grand Ayatollah al Sistani wants to say: party platforms and names of heads do not concern me; my battle was on the major front i.e. the constitution. Al Sistani certainly was active and effective during the preparations for re-writing the Iraqi constitution. However, after that his detailed political activity decreased, especially during this stage in which internal discord erupted within the Shia camp itself between al Maliki and the rest of his rival Shia parties.

At first, I said that some might see this lavish spiritualism of the iconic figure in post-Baathist Iraq as a bad sign. However, I believe that Allawi and his comrades did well to try and snatch this sacred trump card from the hands of their political rivals, as if they were saying to them: don’t involve the Grand Shia Marjas, who are of moral significance, in the political rivalry and struggle going on between us.

This is the current situation in Iraq; everybody is sharpening the knives and releasing the trump cards, sacred and non-sacred, in order to mount the throne of power. This is not to say that I am encouraging and supporting Allawi’s bloc and the Iraqiya List. My aim goes far beyond that and has to do with exploring the major political role that religious figures play in the Muslim world.

In order to close the chapter of the Iraqi story, we must also say that Muslims of all denominations in Iraq – whether Sunnis, Shia or Kurds – claim that they are against sectarianism and that they favour a unified Iraq and encourage patriotism. These are nothing but empty words with no firm foundation in reality. No matter how positive a sign it is that Iraqiya secured the largest number of votes across Iraq, we are still far from achieving accord between slogans and reality in terms of ending sectarian and ethnic discrimination. But we must praise the Iraqiya List for advocating an Iraqi state transcending sectarianism and ethnicity; a state calling for an equal civil Iraqi identity for everyone. Though the backbone of Allawi’s list is mainly formed of Arab Sunnis, the attempt by the Iraqiya bloc is a step in the right direction.

Is the role of religious icons in the Arab political sphere useful or not? Who attracts who? Do Arab politicians turn to religious figures and use them to overpower their rivals or to pass certain policies related to the masses? Or do religious figures deliberately engage in politics and try to influence politics by passing judgments, supporting one party against the other and creating clever loyal conversationalists? In other words, do religious figures intentionally turn themselves into political activists? Who leads who into the political arena?

These endless questions branch off one another. But before trying to answer them, we need clear-cut definitions of the terms and words used here. How do we define the term “religious figure”? What is the difference between that and the term “Muslim intellectual”? What is the definition of “politics”? What is the difference between that and the term “public service” which might overlap with politics at some point or another?

I will stop at the definition of the word “religious figure.” Briefly, and perhaps simplistically, I would say a religious figure is a man who has devoted his life to religious learning and to safeguarding the perpetuity of that learning by passing it down from one generation to another. In a nutshell, he is more of a “mediator of time” who conveys the testaments and teachings of our ancestors and forefathers to modern-day generations. He is a man who addresses the religious concerns of believers and their social problems at times. He might also try to contradict those who question uncontested facts according to his own belief.

Bear in mind we are talking about the role of religious figures without tackling the radical transformation that occurred in their vocation in modern history. In the past, the religious figure used to include being a Mufti, a judge, a social reformer, a political orator, a state advisor, a professional teacher and maybe even a psychological therapist among other things. That was before the founding of the modern specialization and the establishment of the secular and semi-secular state, or to be more accurate, the modern state. Ever since the introduction of the modern state, the role of religious figures has begun to diminish steadily. An entire independent science called “psychology” has come into existence, not to mention “sociology,” “political sciences” and modern education. The state concept has become far more complicated today than what the previous contemporary religious figures had witnessed in their times. So how can religious figures accustom themselves to these changes?

Some religious figures preferred to lead a secluded life and confine themselves to religious learning and the issuing of fatwas. Others decided to fight any new concept or perception that was detrimental to their influence. This reaction is quite natural and not limited to religious figures. It is common behaviour by anyone who loses their influence. Meanwhile, a third group of religious figures managed to sharpen their oratorical and interpretative skills in a manner that guarantees the continuation of their former role as scholars leading society and sharing the ruling of the country along with the politicians but in a somewhat new fashion.

Is this a good thing? It doesn’t matter whether it is good or not. The important thing is that it exists. It would be just as good as or as bad as the degree of tolerance, patriotism and state of law observed in the discourse of the new form of religious figures, provided that it bears no resemblance to state of law coalition headed by Nouri al Maliki.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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