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The Imam’s Citizens - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A news item grabbed my attention recently; it reported on the health of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the prime marja for Shia, and how he, this spiritual guide, invited reporters to his home in order to dispel any rumours about his ill health or loss of consciousness. He said, “Praise be to God, I am in good health and everyday I meet dozens of citizens from all over the world,” as reported in Asharq Al-Awsat recently.

I believe that the elderly Shia cleric did intend to use the word “citizens” since he is actually leading a “nation” of believers who are living under his faithful and religious protection and who are the citizens of this sentimental religious state that is not restricted by borders or by geography and that is intangible and has no national identity card or passport.

They are citizens of a state of faith and religion and Sistani is the head of this state.

The interpretation of this invisible bond − a bond that breaks through barriers and borders − is easy. The bond, and those who represent and protect the eternity of this bond, is given precedence over any other bond whatever it may be, to the extent that to an observer it would seem that in our Islamic world there are no states, professional bonds, unions, artistic interests or cultural fraternities along this vast area from Bali to Tangier and from the Bosporus to Bab El Mandeb. There is only one bond; the bond of belief along with, to some extent, the subordinate tribal or ethnic bond. It is subordinate because it usually gives other bonds their ideological significance, given that both bonds stem from a collective feeling that is based on safeguarding identity from any external influence. They are both unparalleled traditional affiliations.

What makes an Iraqi, Lebanese or Iranian cleric capable of instigating the citizens of another country politically according to his own understanding of the interests of the “religious nation” without the slightest consideration for the contradiction between the interest of a citizen of the state on the one hand and the interest of the “citizen” of the religious nation on the other?

The answer to this determines the future of the concept of state and citizenship in our part of the world.

This is cross-border political influence at the hands of Sunni Sheikhs and turbaned Shia Sayyeds upon citizens of countries external to their own.

In fact, there has been huge increase in the role of religious scholars, whether they are traditional or active clerics, in influencing political activity, setting trends and defining priorities. We are facing a religious benchmark that governs all political players and which cannot be surpassed.

Let us look at Iraq; Sayyed Ali al Sistani’s model is a clear example of what we are talking about. With his blessing, the ruling Shia bloc in Iraq [United Iraqi Alliance] was established and his blessing is sought by the secular Kurd Jalal Talabani for important turning points of the Iraqi political process. Al Sistani decides whether to give his blessing to this or that party. Of course, there are those who believe that a group like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council headed by Abdel Aziz al Hakim misleads others into thinking that the spiritual guide lends his support to it whilst the guide may not support it as much as it makes people believe. But these details are pointless; perhaps it is indicative of the power of political influence that the religious authority has to the extent that the largest political Shia party in Iraq clings on to the religious authority’s cloak.

Even though in March 2005 former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned against the increasing role of Iraqi clerics in the political process and set conditions in place for participating in government including eradicating clerical influence within government, the role of clerics only intensified even amongst the Sunni party through the emergence of the Association of Muslim Scholars and Harith al Dari, the [Sunni] religious equivalent of the politicized Shia turban.

The role of professional politicians was dwarfed in favour of the Sunni cloak or the Shia turban in an astonishingly harmonious manner. Both sides, the Shia Sayyed or Sunni Sheikh, do not practice political activity directly and they declare their disdain for it even though they are simultaneously practicing it by approving or disapproving of this party or that, which is at the heart of politics.

Muqtada al Sadr seems to have a good understanding of the rules of the game; it is common knowledge that everything is acquired through education! He is now preparing himself religiously in Qum to return to Iraq with a “new look” that has a streak of religious sainthood with which he can practice politics.

According to one of Muqtada al Sadr’s assistants, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat, Muqtada has recently dedicated himself to studying to acquire a high religious degree. His studies in Qum are preparing him for assuming a position in Iraq similar to that of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Al Sadr is aiming to obtain this degree by 2010 as a way to compete with the prime Shia authority Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Al Sadr is being supervised in Qum by both Ayatollah Kazem al Haeri and chief of the Iranian judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi.

Who knows whether brother Muqtada will be successful in his endeavour? In 2010 will he have what is required of him in the field of religious sciences or at least give off that impression to the public and his opponents? But what we do know however is that this direction that he has taken is an indication of great intelligence that should be credited to whoever turned Muqtada towards this direction where he fully understands the nature of this phase and the tools of political action at least in Iraq and even Lebanon; we know nothing about other eligible arenas.

Why should we reject the cleric’s wish to practice politics in this way or not allow his role to increase to such extent? It is because when a cleric descends the throne of general morality and broad spiritual guidance, he transforms from a source of spiritual power and morality for society into a “political activist” among scores of activists, and turns into just another party that might be subjected to political decay or amputation. He will not become a spirit that derives its immortality from the energy of eternal light.

Preachers and clerics distort themselves when they engage in politics to this extent, however, the truth is that most of the blame lies with those who give room to clerics and transform them from spiritual and moral guardians into tools to be used in the political conflict. Over time, this conflict has transformed into a game that attracts new players and only requires a turban or a cloak, a few slogans and some one-upmanship for the public to chant for the “pure” politician!

In any case, the decline of Arab political activity to such an extent, which will only deteriorate in the near future, is conclusive evidence that the situation is very bad and that politicians have failed to bear the burden of political activity to the point that it has weakened immunity and has people like Muqtada, whether Sunni or Shia, enter into politics and rally the chanting masses. This is the declaration of mental death in our confused Islamic world.

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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