Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over the space of a week, supreme Shi`ite authorities have drawn rare criticism from two members of parliament belonging to different blocs. It is the first such public disapproval since their growing role in Iraq’s political scene that followed the fall of Iraq’s former regime.
Member of parliament Izzat Shahbandar said in a statement that “the religious authorities are trying to seize the position of jurisdiction from the state by attracting people’s feelings.” Shahbandar is in the State of Law Coalition, the political bloc that was founded by prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
Similarly, in a televised statement, Farhad Atroushi, who is part of the Kurdish Alliance bloc, said that Shi`ite religious authority is “not suited to intervening in the political affairs of the state. It must remain in the public… This is unacceptable—we are not a religious state.”
He added that: “The authorities make orders, and the representatives perform [them]. We are a civil state and it is the council of representatives that decides. There are political parties that do not accept this sort of thing, whether it concerns matters of salaries, pensions, or other issues.”
Observers that have been following the role of the Shi`ite authorities in Iraq consider that these statements serve as an indication of popular opinion regarding religious establishments. This is especially true of the political class, which, according to analysts, has begun to feel embarrassed—especially after recent security setbacks.
Popular and political stances against these statements are expected to escalate, which could represent fresh difficulties for the State of Law coalition. In particular, Nuri Al-Maliki had banned Shahbandar from making statements on behalf of the bloc.
Maliki said in a statement issued by the information office for the coalition that, “What Shahbandar said does not represent the National Alliance, nor the State of Law, nor the prime minister, nor the Islamic Dawa Party—it represents his personal opinion.”
Maliki continued to express his “condemnation for the comment by Shahbandar, which insulted the religious authority”. The prime minister added that the “State of Law Coalition policy was built on respect and adherence to the religious authority, and its important role in fundamental issues. Shahbandar must follow those policies”. Al-Maliki gave instructions “to ban MP Shahbandar from making statements in the name of the State of Law Coalition.”
For his part, Haydar Al-Ghurabi, a scholar in Najaf who is close to the supreme religious authority, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the religious authority is the official and legitimate representative of the people, which speaks in their name. All politicians, without exception, went to it from the start when it was given authority in the political process. But now, they have taken their current positions—which would have been inaccessible without the support of the authority—and they have started to deny its favor and have become embroiled in corruption.”
Ghurabi added: “The statements made by some of these politicians, and the practices of other corrupt politicians, prove that, in reality, they do not want to be controlled. They want to share the pie without having any higher authority over them.” He said that the “religious authority can, with one word, drop these politicians and their political process, which had produced a failed constitution, and the thing which will fall with the constitution is the federal system, which Atroushi enjoys today, and which allowed him to take more than his fair share.”
He further added: “Shahbandar won because of Maliki’s votes, Atroushi has no right to talk about the authority, because he is not part of it, and this kind of talk plays into the hands of sectarianism and nationalism.”
Ghurabi said that “anyone who wants to harm the authority cannot do so, for important reasons. Shi’ite rule … was, and still is, the safety valve for sectarian infighting, and has supported everyone, from all sects.”
He added: “The authority does not have ambitions in anything earthly and even Al-Sistani, who is the supreme authority, lives in a rented house. Meanwhile, politicians wonder about where they can hide their money and which palace they should live in.”
For his part, Iraqi parliament independent MP Abdul-Mahdi Al-Hakim, who is close to the authority, demanded that the State of Law Coalition and the Kurdistan Alliance clarify their positions “from these two statements which insult the Iraqi people as well as the Supreme Religious Authority in Najaf.”