February 08, 2005

Sistani 'not seeking Islamic law' (tip to Pejman)

In contrast to the barrage of under-informed 'analyses,' conveniently applied leftist critiques and the general negativity on the issue, Grand Ayatollah Sistani is not seeking to put the shari'a into Iraqi law. He is deferring to the elected representatives to decide on that task, in yet another example of the wave of democratic exuberance washing over Iraq.

To understand why the references of the hair-pulling left to an Iranian revolution in Iraq are overblown, one has to understand Islam. I have a brief, superficial tutorial of Islam on my website, here, under the issue articles section. There is a strong dual spirit in Shi'i Islam. First of all, it's a strong minority of Muslims, and has been for some time, somewhere around and maybe less than 10% of all Muslims worldwide. Of these, the Twelver Shi'i (a reference to Twelve holy Imams or spiritual leaders) represent the bulk. As a direct result of this, Shi'i religious leaders have seldom held temporal power and only in a few places have they even been the dominant religion.

The Shi'ites have the dual values of activism and quietism. They idolize Imam Husayn, who led a popular insurrection in 7th-century Iraq against the Sunnis. He fought and died valiantly, giving rise to the Shi'a activist streak that we saw most recently in Hezbollah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, after this point the Shi'i clergy never again held real, temporal power. They had to accept this fact and so they withdrew into an abstract, ivory-tower view of their religion. They accepted the imperfections of their rulers, often Sunnis but sometimes rather vulgarized Shi'ites, and they did not expect anything good in this life.

Tied into this dual personality inherent within Shi'a Islam is the Twelfth Imam. The Twelve Imams, starting with the fourth Caliph Ali and his children by Fatima (Mohammed's favored daughter), were the leaders of Shi'ism in the early years of the branch. The Twelfth Imam was lost to some unfortunate event, and is supposed to be in hiding until the time when he can again rule on Earth. This occulted Imam takes on messianic aspects. The quietist line is that just rule by government is impossible without the return of the Twelfth Imam, so even participating in government is a wasteful (perhaps immoral) activity. The activist line is that the Shi'i faithful can prepare for the coming of the Twelfth Imam by setting the foundations for just governance.

In Iraq, Sadr roughly represents the activist tradition - fight the imperialists, fight the infidels, fight Saddam, fight the Americans, fight for their spiritual and moral values to bring about conditions where the occulted Imam might return to reign on Earth. Sistani, who is of higher rank in the clergy than Sadr, is of the quietist tradition - point out the wrong, point out injustice, cooperate with authorities to some degree, compromise to keep stability, don't wage physical struggle for a perfect government that cannot come without the Twelth Imam.

Now, is it more complex than this? Yes, very. Is it more multifaceted, more subtle, more gray than this? Yes, all of those. There are a great deal of Shi'a sects - Seveners/Ismailis, Fivers/Zaidis, Druze, Alawites and so on. There isn't a formal identification between the the quietists and the activists - there's more of a formal differentiation between Democrats and Republicans than Shi'i quietists and Shi'i activists. However, there is a distinction in there methods.

What's great for us is that a) Sistani is the highest ranking Shi'i clergyman in Iraq, a quietest who has chosen to respect both the reconstruction and the democratization of Iraq, and b) the US is cultivating a positive relationship with Sistani by acceding to his requests on some large points of the Reconstruction. This news story is just an affirmation of previous trends,

Sistani accepts the reconstruction, the elections, the constitution and now he won't even push for shari'a to be explicitly adopted.

On a related note, the election list using his likeness includes a number of secularists, moderates and many non-Shi'a politicians. With the main Shi'a groups, including Sadr's forces, supporting the elections and even assisting in them (Sadr's guys gave street security in Shi'a-heavy cities) and with the Kurds and the Sunnis being generally more secular in orientation, there's very little real grounding in the fear that an Iranian Revolution would come to Iraq.

When Iran had a revolution, there were five main political identifications - 1) those working for or supporting the Shah and his crackdowns and modernization program (which was ineffective for several reasons), 2) the nationalists and liberals who believed the Shah was an ineffective and backwards ruler that couldn't make Iran the independent power it ought to have been, 3) the religious activists who wanted a more theological and moral government, 4) the leftists and Marxists who decried the exploitation of Iran's oil reserves by the UK, the US and others, and 5) the religious leftists who combined religious and socialist principles of self-rule, anti-imperialism and revolution. Ayatollah is somewhere in the last group, using anti-imperialist and related arguments in service of a religious goal.

Since the Shah was so unpopular to all the last four groups and the Ayatollah became so popular when exiled by the Shah (making Khomeini look a little bit like the occulted Twelfth Imam - a wise one in exile), it was easy for Khomeini to combine the four opposition groups into one movement. They put aside their wider disagreements and followed Khomeini because he played to so many of their goals.

Iraq does not have a similarly arrayed political field, does not have a similar figurehead to rally behind, and does not have the boiling frustrations Iran did. Iraq is in a period of hope and expectation, and all of the most famous and influential leaders - Shi'i, Sunni, Kurd, Turkman - have endorsed the elections. Further, though there were likely irregularities in their elections (we still have irregularities here, and we've been doing it for centuries) yet in a reluctance to spoil the mood or appear selfish and subversive to their countrymen, no major party has contested the results. The drive for unity behind the democratic elections is constantly underestimated by outsiders - out of caution, out of skepticism, out of fear, out of observation, out of all sorts of sources Westerners have looked at Iraq and predicted a strong current of instability and disunity.

Why wouldn't they? They've been fighting with each other, killing each other, murdering their children, fighting off their religious and moral beliefs, and disputing the right of representation for each other. It's easy - and very reasonable - to look at those facts and think Iraq is a powder keg. With our extensive experience of the Balkans conflicts, another tripartite religious and ethnic struggle lasting centuries, Americans are skeptical that the three main groups in Iraq could mesh together so well now.

Well we were wrong, it appears. There's still much more to do and observe, but it looks very likely as though the disparate groups want to work together through a democratic process, one that is a mix of secularism and faith. Many of the election lists were multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The parties and lists have all said they plan to include the views both of each other and even of the Sunnis, who, because of violence on election day, are proportionally underrepresented in the electoral results. This pledge reflects the Iraqi spirit: national unity, burgeoning democratic values, and a commitment to compromise between the various ethnicities.


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