Iraqi Freedom's Friend
December 01, 2003
New York Post
THOSE making Iraq policy in Washington appear to have found an easy way to explain, and explain away, whatever snag that their changing and contradictory plans may hit at any given time. It consists of one phrase: the Sistani logjam.
This refers to Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi'ite clerics in Najaf.
The day the war started, Sistani issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis not to hamper the progress of the Coalition forces. Immediately after liberation, however, he was blamed for the decision to halt town-hall style consultations about a new constitution. In July, he got the blame for the failure of the Governing Council and the Coalition to provide a timetable for the transition. In September, the grand ayatollah was blamed for the Coalition's failure to fix a framework for creating a constituent assembly.
And now we hear voices blaming Sistani for what look like hitches in the latest plan to transfer power to an interim government by next June.
Such a blame game is unlikely to do anyone any good. Worse, it could harm what should be the central goal of both the Coalition and the Iraqis: the creation of a people-based system in the liberated country.
Blaming Sistani for the mistakes and failures of others is easy for two reasons.
First, Sistani does not appear on television, and grants no interviews. Nor does he have a party through which he can play the power game. This is because he believes that mullahs should not play politician.
Second, blaming Sistani is an indirect way of sustaining suspicion against the Shi'ites who form a majority of the Iraqis.
Self-styled experts on American TV claim he is seeking power and/or wants to set up an "Islamic" republic, whatever that means. Anyone familiar with Sistani's life's work, however, would know that this is the opposite of what he wants.
Sistani belongs to the quietist school of Shi'ism that has always opposed mixing theology and politics. This is why he has refused to meet officials from more than a dozen countries, including the United States and Britain, who have applied to meet him.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, decades that witnessed a great Shi'ite political debate, Sistani opposed other Najaf clerics (notably the late Muhammad Baqer Sadr and Ruhallah Khomeini) who wanted mullahs to seize power in the name of the Hidden Imam. (In doing so, Sistani continued the tradition of such scholars as Allameh Hilli, Abol-Hassan Isfahani, Muhsen Hakim-Tabatabai and Abol-Qassem Mussavi Khoei.)
What has Sistani been demanding right from the day Saddam Hussein went into hiding? He has told the mullahs to stay clear of political posts and, when there is a power vacuum, only act as advisers to non-clerical administrators.
Instead, Sistani has been calling for elections. The surprise is that Washington, rather than welcoming this, sees it as a hostile demand.
After all, Saddam was overthrown so that Iraqis could choose their form of government and the people they want to run it. Hasn't President Bush said repeatedly that he wants Iraq to become a model of democracy? Can there be democracy without elections?
Some claim that Sistani is so keen on elections because the Shi'ites, being a majority, could win a dominant position in a future government.
That claim is based on an "essentialist" view of politics that is seldom borne out by reality. If it were, all American Catholics would vote the same way in every election, and all Hindus in India would back the same party all the time.
Sistani is calling for elections precisely because he does not want the politics of new Iraq to be based on ethnic and sectarian divisions. Such considerations are paramount in forming selected, not elected, bodies. (For example, the Governing Council, appointed by the Coalition, has a Shi'ite majority.)
If there were elections in Iraq today, we would see the Shi'ite vote split among at least three broad groups: moderate Islamists, the left and the liberals (liberals in the European, not the American, sense).
Each of these has allies in other parts of Iraq, including the Kurdish areas. Thus any future parliament, rather than reflecting sectarian divisions, would reveal the relative strength of the various political movements that have marked Iraqi life for the past eight decades.
Iraqi Kurds, divided into two big blocs and several smaller ones, do not all vote the same way. Nor could anyone claim that Iraq's Sunni Arabs constitute a single bloc. So why assume that the Shi'ites are an exception?
By asking for elections, Sistani is, in fact, pulling the carpet from under the feet of those who wish to play sectarian politics.
Right now, the leadership of the biggest Shi'ite parties, often returning from decades of exile, are committed to positions that include a dose of sectarianism. This is understandable. Under Saddam, Shi'ites were persecuted because of what they were, not what they did. Their natural reaction was to become more of what they were, de-emphasising the importance of what they did. In an election, however, they would have to offer political, rather than sectarian, programs.
Another reason why Sistani wants elections is to see a leadership that is not almost entirely constituted of returning exiles. This need not be seen as a slight against the exiles, many of whom have heroic histories of struggle against tyranny. But the new Iraq needs a better leadership mix, with individuals who have a more direct experience of life and struggle under tyranny.
Sistani does not want an "Islamic" republic, and loathes the system created by Khomeini in Iran. He is calling for elections because he knows that a majority of the Iraqis will choose a pluralist system in which Islam, while providing the context of the nation's ethical existence, does not dictate its politics.
Finally, Sistani wants the break with the past to be legitimized by popular will. The Coalition brought political liberation. Elections would provide moral liberation.
Provided the Coalition has the will, reasonably free and fair elections could be held in Iraq. It is not Sistani's business to show how. He is not a politician. He is offering his reading of the situation. It is up to the Coalition and the Governing Council, who will get the praise if there is success, to decide whether or not what he says makes sense.
One thing is certain: Sistani knows that he would be dead if Saddam, or anyone like him, were to come to power. He also knows that any attempt at imposing a Shi'ite regime would mean civil war, which, in turn, would spell the end of his quietist brand of the faith. Thus he shares the Coalition's strategic goal in Iraq.
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