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Sistani and Maliki: Towards a More Active Role for Najaf?

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)
29 April 2006

 

On 27 April 2006, the Najaf office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani released a pronouncement or bayan which may be of greater import than any other document issued by Sistani since October 2004.

The new pronouncement, published after a meeting held with prime minister designate Nuri (aka Jawad) al-Maliki, may mark an end to a long period of silence from Sistani. After an interval of active involvement from June 2003 to November 2004, the Najaf ayatollah has in the subsequent period been distinctly hesitant with regard to direct interference in Iraqi politics. His pronouncements have been few and reluctant (as in the case of the October 2005 referendum on the constitution), or related to greater issues involving the Shiite faith and its holy precincts rather than the question of designing a new political system for Iraq (a tendency seen in his pronouncements on the caricature drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, and in the aftermath of the February 2006 terror attacks in the Shiite shrine city of Samarra.)

To a large extent, the new document covers familiar ground. Sistani’s insistence on giving the national army a monopoly position echoes his remarks on this subject from the autumn of 2003.(1) Similarly, the emphasis on meritocracy instead of making concessions to party interests or ethnic and sectarian considerations are well-established features of Sistani’s discourse. Other specific suggestions are non-controversial or rehearse familiar themes, like combating corruption in government, improving the provision of electricity and drinking water, restoring national sovereignty with the aim of bringing an end to the occupation, and entertaining good relations with neighbouring countries while at the same time guarding against foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. But the document is exceptional in that Sistani for the first time links his pro-state attitude to a specific government (or to a prime ministerial candidate), and there is a general sense of active involvement reminiscent of his campaign for democratic elections in the first year after the fall of the Baathist regime.

The breaking news from Najaf can be found in the final section of the document. Here, Sistani indicates that he could once more become more involved in Iraqi politics: the religious leadership will “watch”, “keep an eye on” or “monitor” (the Arabic verb raqaba in form III) governmental performance in the future. This is quite unprecedented in Sistani’s scholarship. Sistani has earlier signalled attachment to ideas similar to those of the Persian constitutional revolution before the First World War, when Shiite clerics fought to acquire a supervisory role which would allow them to scrutinise the Islamic legitimacy of legislation passed by parliament. This, on the other hand, may indicate a possible extension of jurisdiction, to the point where direct criticism of the executive becomes theoretically possible.(2)

What is the explanation for this apparent resurgence of political activity on the part of Sistani? In early 2006, he kept silent during the divisive internal Shiite struggle over who should be the United Iraqi Alliance premier candidate. This seemed to suggest that he considered the matter to be outside his proper sphere of activity; indeed, had he wished to impose a candidate of his own he could easily have done so and the fractious Shiite alliance would have avoided a very public embarrassment and a delay in the political process that played directly into the hands of anti-Shiite forces and terrorists. But now, even though Sistani has increasingly sought to keep a certain distance from the United Iraqi Alliance, matters may have reached a point where he deems the deteriorating security situation to be a direct threat to the reputation of his religious leadership.

The statement reaffirms Sistani’s view that the clergy has a role in ensuring the Islamic integrity of Iraq’s political system. At the same time, it is a strong message in defence of the integrity of Iraq as a nation, with national “unity”, not divisions on the basis of sects or ethnicity, as the leading principle. The open challenge to militia rule is in many ways a daring venture, for Sistani knows well that his religious leadership to some extent is threatened by Muqtada al-Sadr (whose followers maintain the Mahdi Army) and that militia disarmament may prove unpopular with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (which includes many members who look to Iran’s Ali Khamenei rather than to Sistani for guidance). As such, it could indicate that Sistani is now trying to reach out to the large masses of Iraqi Muslims, rather than to the leaderships of the political parties. His professional interests as a cleric dependent on large numbers of followers may have prompted this, but it may also be a gamble and an attempt to be proactive, with Sistani staking his reputation on a mix of Islamism and Iraqi nationalism. All in all, there are obvious parallels to the period 2003–2004, but also some interesting new features in Sistani’s latest message.

NOTES

1. Reidar Visser, Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism? (Oslo: Nupi, March 2006), available as PDF at http://historiae.org/sistani.asp, p. 27 n. 101.

2. This point should be considered in conjunction with Sistani’s views on wilayat al-faqih, see Visser, Sistani, pp. 13–16. The issue is potentially problematic vis-à-vis the Sunnis. Cooperation in the field of legislation should in theory be perfectly possible for Sunni and Shiite Islamists, for their schools of Islamic jurisprudence have more in common than is often thought. But the Sunnis may react with unease at the prospect of ad hoc interference outside the legislative arena, because they do not recognise the Shiite hierarchical thinking which puts Sistani in a privileged position and which could enable him to exert a disproportional influence if he should decide to become more active.



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