February 7, 2005

Ayatollah Sistani and His List

The United Iraqi Alliance will most likely be the winner in Iraq’s election once the votes are all counted. The party (or “list” of candidates) was endorsed by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Sistani.

The nature of this political party is crucial. It can help us determine what the majority of Iraqis really want, as well as the direction the country is likely to take during the next couple of years.

I’m hardly an expert on the United Iraqi Alliance. Far from it. Iraq has as many political parties as it has opinions, and I’m nowhere near being able to keep all of them straight.

On that note, here are a few articles that suggest in broad brushstrokes what we might expect.

The first is an AP article from Hamza Hendawi that appeared just before the election. Much of this is encouraging.
The candidate list endorsed by Iraq's top Shiite cleric is likely to emerge as the dominant political group in Sunday's election. But his followers said Monday they aren't looking to create a cleric-led Islamic state, and expectations are they won't be strong enough to govern on their own.

The bloc backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani probably will have to negotiate a governing coalition with other political groups, including rival Sunni Arabs, a minority that long dominated Iraq's Shiite majority.

At a news conference, politicians running on the al-Sistani-endorsed ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance, sought to ease any fears the bloc wants to install an Iranian-style Shiite state. Hanin Mohammed Qaddou, a Sunni Muslim on the ticket, said the issue of religious government was “not part of the program and it will not be in the near future.”

Humam Hammoudi, a Shiite cleric allied with al-Sistani, said the United Iraqi Alliance has many members who oppose mixing Islam and politics. “Had this been our intention we wouldn't have let them join our list,” he said.

Al-Sistani, whose views are influential with most Shiites in Iraq, is known to oppose the idea that clergy have a right to rule. He is, however, expected to insist that the constitution drawn up by the new National Assembly upholds Iraq's Muslim traditions and not include freedoms or practices violating the faith's basic tenets.

Alliance leaders also vowed not to seek revenge for violence by Sunni extremists, who make up most of the country's insurgency.
Emphasis added by me.

If what the article says is indeed true, our two biggest concerns can be laid to rest. 1) The majority of Iraqis did not wish to establish theocracy. 2) The majority of Shi’ites do not want a civil war with the Sunni Arab minority.

So far so good.

One of the Iraqis I spoke to in Washington last weekend (I’m sorry, but I don’t remember exactly who it was) said he thought Ayatollah Sistani’s endorsement of one list over the others is bad for both Iraq and Sistani himself. That may be. It tells us something useful, even so. Since Sistani endorsed who appear to be the victors, knowing who Sistani himself is tells us something about the likely victors, as well. I think it's reasonable to assume he endorsed people who share his basic philosophy.

Now is a good time to revisit an article Johann Hari published a few months ago in Britain’s Independent.
A democratic ayatollah? At first, the idea sounds preposterous, like a black Ku Klux Klansman, a Jewish Nazi or an intellectual member of the Bush family. The Ayatollah Khomeini is still the West's mental template, a tyrannical theocrat who slaughtered more than a million Iranians and issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

But democratic instincts spring up in the strangest of places. Many Shias insisted that Khomeini was an anomaly, a radical departure from the millennium-old Shia tradition of “quietist” clerics who did not seek personal political power. I was always pretty sceptical, and I'm instinctively hostile to religious authorities - but the behaviour of Sistani since the fall of Saddam has proved them right. From his home in Najaf, Sistani has been an absolutely consistent campaigner for a free and democratic Iraq, while scrupulously avoiding any temptation to seek power for himself.

[…]

Read his book A Code of Practice For Muslims in the West. It is - in Muslim terms - a startlingly progressive text. Sistani stresses the importance of respecting democracy, arguing that Muslims should participate in electoral politics - as voters and candidates - on an equal basis with non-Muslims. This might sound like a platitude, but compare it with the message preached across the Arab world by Islamofascist groups like al-Muhajaroun, who argue, “Muslims must not vote for anyone in elections… It is idol-worship. There is no legislator but Allah, and the only law should be Sharia”.

Before the war, some of us argued that, in a Saddam-free Iraq, democratic strains of Islamic thought would begin to emerge. We were right - but the violence has been so terrible that nobody noticed. Reuel Marc Gerecht, an expert in Shia political thought, says that Sistani's philosophical arguments for democracy are “almost unprecedented in their scope. He speaks the language of inalienable rights: one man, one vote, and a constitution written by elected representatives and approved by popular referendum. Sistani has managed to launch a project that Muslim progressives have only ever dreamed of: establishing a democratic political order sanctioned and even protected by the clergy.” Here are the slow, tentative roots of the Islamic Reformation so badly needed in the Middle East.
Thank Allah for Ayatollah Sistani. I didn’t know what to make of him for some time. But I’ve slowly come to trust him, and he hasn’t let me down yet.

If I were Iraqi I almost certainly would vote for a more secular party to the left of the United Iraqi Alliance. I’m instinctively distrustful of religious parties, even when they’re democratic. Still, Iraq can do a lot worse than having a democratic small-c conservative party like Ayatollah Sistani’s running the show. Iraqis could have voted for war and dictatorship – and they didn’t.

Besides, it’s none of my business how they choose to govern themselves – as long as they really do choose how to govern themselves and don’t opt for anti-American war-mongering tyrants to make the decisions for them instead. It looks like they probably cleared that hurdle, and the case for optimism is now higher than it recently was.

UPDATE: Mary Madigan thinks Sistani might be an Islamist. She cites evidence from her archives (1, 2, 3, 4), but it's all older than what I cited. Hmm. I wish I knew more about him than I do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 7, 2005 6:39 PM
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