What is behind Sistani’s silence?

What is behind Sistani’s silence?

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has always been a leader of few words, but his current decision to be silent carries a message for Iraq’s Shias, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has always been considered the main force behind the Iraqi Shias’ rise to power following the collapse of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.

It was Al-Sistani’s insistence on direct elections for an Iraqi legislature in 2005 that undercut the US occupation authority’s attempts to delay the elections and led to Iraq’s first legitimately elected Shia-controlled government.

The empowerment of Iraq’s majority Shias, however, has been met with mounting resistance by the country’s minority Sunnis, who had ruled over Iraq since it became an independent state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Over more than ten years, the Iranian-born cleric has remained a powerful force for millions of dedicated Iraqi Shias. His picture hangs on walls, shops, police checkpoints, and cars throughout Iraq, a constant reminder that he is Iraq’s most influential religious leader.

Yet the octogenarian Al-Sistani has stayed out of the limelight and shied away from interfering in government affairs. Al-Sistani’s political messages have largely been written and disseminated by aides during Friday prayers.

In this regard, Al-Sistani’s role has remained crucial in arbitrating Iraq’s future. But despite being a Shia spiritual leader, Al-Sistani has also thus far been a moderating power in Iraqi politics. He has blamed the sectarian violence in the country on foreign forces and urged reconciliation between Iraq’s communities.

After Sunni militants bombed one of Shia’s most holy sites in Samarra in 2006 in an act that precipitated the country’s civil war, Al-Sistani swiftly urged Iraq’s Shias to refrain from responding in kind to attacks from Sunni extremists.

As the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq, Al-Sistani has remained the “legitimate defender of the sect,” which leaves him in the position of being a wildcard in Iraq’s politics.

In the summer of 2014, Al-Sistani issued a decree to “all able-bodied Iraqis” to defend the country, days after the Islamic State (IS) terror group had captured the city of Mosul and advanced south towards Baghdad.

Across Iraq, young men from Shia communities began to mobilise in response to his call, galvanising a remarkable movement from within Iraq’s Shia population. Critics, however, say that his fatwa, or religious edict, may have exacerbated the sectarian tensions that have plagued the country since the 2003 US-led invasion.

But Al-Sistani has not always thought that all was going well in Iraq. When it turned out that the Shia-led government did not work well after all and that the country was becoming dysfunctional, Al-Sistani did not hesitate to show his dismay and anger.

Last week, Al-Sistani decided to stop delivering regular weekly sermons about political affairs that for years have been a source of guidance for his followers. Al-Sistani’s aide, Ahmed Al-Safi, who delivered the message, did not give a reason for suspending the sermons, which have lately focussed on the government’s battle against IS militants and anti-corruption efforts.

“It has been decided not to continue them on a weekly basis at the present time, but only as demanded by events,” Al-Safi said in a televised speech from the southern shrine city of Kerbela. He said Al-Sistani’s opinions “will be publicised whenever there are new developments and if it is necessitated.”

In recent months, Al-Sistani has been showing increasing signs of frustration with the Shia political class over rampant corruption in the country and the government’s incompetence. He has blamed the government for depriving Iraqis of basic services while undermining government forces in the battle against IS insurgents.

After a wave of protests swept across Iraq last summer, Al-Sistani demanded that Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi become serious about tackling corruption and urged the parliament to support the reform measures.

Al-Sistani even pushed Al-Abadi into “striking with an iron fist” against corruption and scrap sectarian and party quotas for state positions and reopen graft investigations. He also called on the Iraqi parliament to focus its anti-corruption campaign on improving the judiciary and security forces. He called judicial and police reform “one of the most important aspects of the reform process”.

 In an unprecedented warning to the government, Al-Sistani said last month that the country was facing dire consequences, including possible partition. Al-Sistani has also showed his dissatisfaction with malpractices and abuses by the country’s Shia militias.

When some 26 Qatari hunters were abducted by what were believed to be Shia militias from their camp in the desert near the Saudi border in December, Al-Sistani was quick to denounce the kidnappings and call for the release of the group.

Last month, Al-Sistani condemned the bombings of Sunni mosques in the town of Al-Muqdadiya in Diyala Province, placing full responsibility for the protection of the mosques and the prevention of further attacks on the government security forces.

He reminded his followers of his fatwas to the effect that volunteers should refrain from indulging “in acts of extremism” and “be attentive to the sanctity of the lives of those who do not fight”.

Al-Sistani also warned his followers against condemning “others for heresy” or accusing them of “blasphemy, which could lead to their deaths.” He also warned against committing abuses such as “stealing,” “disrespect for the corpses of the enemy” and violating “the sanctity of their women and houses”.

So, what lies behind Al-Sistani’s new decision to be silent?

Historically, a Shia marja, or “religious reference,” the highest level of religious authority in Shia Islam, has resorted to silence or seclusion as a means of expressing his disenchantment or to protest against both the government and the public.

In certain circumstances, silence has a power that no other action has, and it can be used by a moral authority to address certain issues, provoke responses, and get the people to think and to act. In this tradition, it is as if the congregation, or even the entire nation, is duty bound to guess the spiritual leader’s thoughts and to heed his instructions.

In Al-Sistani’s case, however, the cleric seems to be using the power of silence to distance himself from the Baghdad government’s failure to deliver on its promises to carry out badly needed reforms.

In recent weeks, the reclusive religious leader has been under fire by many Iraqis who blame his vigorous support for the government for the dismal performance of the Shia political class and their government’s dysfunction.

These Iraqis believe that by not being vocal about the government’s shortcomings, Al-Sistani has provided cover for unscrupulous Shia politicians and for their poor leadership in resolving the country’s conflicts.

For the time being, Al-Sistani’s silence may serve as a stern warning to the same Shia politicians whom he had earlier helped with vigour and religious zeal to bring to power.

It might also create a new awareness within the broader Iraqi Shia community about the dangers they face due to the folly of their rulers and the dire need to bring in a new leadership.

With the situation in Iraq reaching a tipping point that threatens the country’s future, it is not sure that Al-Sistani will remain silent for long.

Al-Sistani has promised that he will make public pronouncements on his political views whenever he deems it necessary. If the country’s Shia politicians fail to interpret the message behind Al-Sistani’s tactical silence, it may well not be too long before the Shia leader goes public and begins to name names.

Heikal, Egypt’s most famous journalist, dies at 92

Heikal, Egypt’s most famous journalist, dies at 92

Muhammad Hassanein Heikal was well-recognised for his distinguished career in journalism and political experience.

Salah Nasrawi

Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, a leading Egyptian journalist, author, television celebrity, politician and a noted authority on modern Middle East whose work brought him worldwide fame and influence, died on Wednesday, aged 92.

Egyptian state television said Heikal, a heavy cigar smoker, died following a short period of illness.

As Egypt’s, and probably the Arab world’s, oldest active and most celebrated intellectual, Heikal was perceived by critics and admirers as a towering figure who had continued to attract attention until his death.

Above all, Heikal was one of the most trenchant defenders of Nasserite Egypt and its pan-Arabism trends.

Heikal was born on September 23, 1923, to the family of a wheat merchant in the Nile Delta province of Qalyubia. His father thought that Heikal, as the eldest son in the family, should join him in managing his business. Instead, Heikal decided to pursue his education.

Educated briefly at the American University in Cairo, Heikal became a crime reporter for the Egyptian Gazette in 1943. The paper which catered to the needs of expatriates living in Egypt had among its writers famous British authors such as George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell.

The following year, Heikal joined the staff of Rose El-Youssef, an opposition political satirical weekly.
Heikal first won public attention as a war reporter covering the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and then briefly the Korean war of 1950-1953.h the military coup in 1952 which brought Gamal Abdul Nasser on the helm of army officers who ruled the country after overthrowing the British-backed King Farouk.

As Nasser’s friend since they first met during the war with Israel, Heikal became a staunch supporter of the coup and helped in drafting Nasser’s manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution, which outlined his outlook for post-monarchy Egypt.

Heikal’s place in journalism was quickly recognised in 1953 when he was hired to serve as editor of Akhir Sa’a, an illustrated Arabic-language weekly published by Akhbar Al-Youm House.

In 1956 and 1957, Heikal served as editor of Al-Akhbar daily, a sister publication owned by media tycoons Mustafa Amin and his twin brother Ali, who are widely considered to be the fathers of Western-style modern Egyptian journalism.

A year after Nasser became president of Egypt in 1956 he installed Heikal as editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, the semi-official newspaper, and in 1959 made him chairman of the board of Al Ahram Establishment. During his tenure, Heikal improved Al Ahram’s coverage by subduing the sensationalism that had characterised Egypt’s media and taking it to the level of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most prestigious paper.

Under his leadership the paper provided a platform for Nasser’s nationalist and pan-Arab policies. Heikal’s widely read Friday column in Al Ahram, “Bi-Saraha” [or “Frankly Speaking”], in which he used to convey Nasser’s messages and explain the government’s stances, became the barometer of Egyptian policy.

The column prompted the Washington Post to describe Heikal’s writings as “the voice of Egypt” and “the outside world’s window on that secretive regime”.

One of Heikal’s outstanding acts was to establish Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies as a think-tank that provided Nasser and the government with updates and feedback on regional and international affairs.

As happens with the intelligentsia under totalitarian or populist regimes, Heikal had probably failed to draw a clear demarcation between his role as a journalist and as an outspoken advocate of Nasserism.

In 1968, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union, Nasser’s ruling party. In 1970, Heikal became minister of National Guidance and briefly an acting foreign minister.

Heikal had a rocky relationship with President Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Heikal remained editor of Al Ahram and adviser to the new president. He even helped Sadat to get rid of Nasser’s remnants in the government whom Sadat accused of conspiring to remove him from power.

Later Heikal fell out with Sadat over his domestic and international policies, prompting Sadat to relieve him of his duties in 1974. The disagreement culminated in Heikal’s opposition to the 1979 peace treaty Sadat signed with Israel.

At one point, Sadat accused Heikal of opportunism and betraying the national interests. A smearing campaign in the government-run media also denounced Heikal as a tool of the Soviet Union and linked him with unsubstantiated scandals.

In 1981, Sadat ordered Heikal to be jailed, together with hundreds of political leaders, writers and intellectuals who were opposed to his peace overture with Israel and his alliance with the United States.

Heikal was released a month later by former President Mubarak, shortly after he took office following Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. Mubarak, however, did not bring Heikal to his entourage or let him return to Al Ahram, and he was shunned away from writing in the Egyptian press.

Because of his prominence and his passion for journalism and writing, Heikal spent the following years freelancing for papers abroad. During this period he also wrote some of his most famous books, including Autumn of Fury, about the assassination of Sadat in which he condemned not only the former president’s policies but also his personal life through negative and even racist themes.

In the 1990s, Heikal resumed writing in Egypt. His pieces started appearing in Wijhat Nadhar, a monthly magazine that features essays and book reviews and is modelled on the London Review of Books. Some of his writings were controversial and even sessional.

On his 80th birthday in September 2003, Heikal said he would retire. In an article entitled “An Excuse for Departure” which appeared in Al Ahram, Heikal explained that he felt he had reached his “expiry date”. It was too good to be true.

In 2007 Heikal began hosting a series of weekly programmes on regional and world events on Al Jazeera Arabic Channel. Among the topics he discussed in the “Ma’a Heikal” [or “With Heikal”] show were US-Middle East policies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab divisions. As it was expected, Egypt under Nasser came up in several programmes.

The Thursday night peak-hour show furnished Heikal with a greater platform, turning him into a household celebrity across the Arab world, and made him climb the media ladder to even greater heights.

In the second episode, Heikal told his audience that Al Jazeera gave him “a real opportunity to talk to people without censorship on a wide range of issues”.

In recent years, Heikal was a regular host on Egyptian privately owned television networks. His discussions were mostly pegged to the 2011 Arab Spring and the turmoil it had triggered in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Even though some of the TV shows were conducted in a Q&A style, Heikal remained faithful to his old style, delivering a monologue on the themes of his choice.

Heikal had admirers as much as he had critics and enemies.To many of his disciples, El-Ustaz [or the Master] Heikal was an inspiration whether for his distinguished career in journalism, his intellect, his political experience or his prominence that earned him international recognition and friendship of powerful and influential people all over the world.

He had fans among Westerners, too. “His mind like a razor, that of a veteran fighter, writer, sage, perhaps the most important living witness and historian of modern Egypt,” wrote Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East reporter for the British newspaper The Independent, in February 2011.

Detractors, however, accuse Heikal of being guilty of treason by being apologetic to Nasser and his long-time propagandist.

That was especially noticeable following the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 when he coined the word Naksa, an Arabic word for setback, as a euphemism for the Egyptian and Arab armies’ bitter defeat by Israel.

For many Arabs, the conflict not only resulted in their losing the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights to Israel, but it was also behind all political tragedies that have occurred subsequently in the Arab world.

Critics also noted that Heikal had never revised his views on Nasserism, even though it had become clear that it had its great share in many of Egypt’s political, economic and social woes.

Among harsh criticisms levelled against Heikal is making things up. Critics often claimed he was using quotations attributed to dead politicians which they believed were fabricated to support an argument or serve a political agenda.

Referring to Heikal’s allegedly unchecked facts, Canada-based Iraqi historian Sayyar Al-Jamil, who wrote two books on Heikal; Decomposing Heikal and The Remnants of Heikal, believes that the journalist’s works are mostly “whimsical fabrications or self-serving twisted facts”.

“I do not trust the man’s tales, neither his way of documentation. His writings are aimed at a specific timely political goal or self-serving or to satisfy his admirers in accordance with prevailing circumstances. He has the ability to hide the truth or to kill it,” he wrote in The Remnants of Heikal.

But Sherif Younis, a history professor at Cairo’s Helwan University whose theses tackled Heikal’s works, says the Egyptian author was a source to be reckoned with. “He might not be a historian, per se, but he was there witnessing where history was made,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heikal’s literary production, which spanned more than six decades, covered a variety of political issues. His books on Nasser are The Cairo Documents: The Inside Story of Nasser and His Relationship with World Leaders, Rebels, and Statesmen (1973) and Cutting the Lion’s Tale: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes (1987). In addition to Autumn of Fury, his books about Sadat’s era include The Road to Ramadan (1975) and October War (1980).

His Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations (1996) was considered among the few books that examined the history of covert negotiations between Israeli and Arab representatives which culminated with the Oslo Agreement in September 1993.

Heikal’s books on Iran: Iran on a Volcano (1951), The Return of the Ayatollah: The Iranian Revolution from Mossadeq to Khomeini (1981) and Iran: The Untold Story (1982) made him one of the best Arab experts on Iran.

In his Illusions of Triumph: An Arab View of The Gulf War (1993), Heikal argued that Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was less a challenge to the West and Israel than an attempt by the Iraqi leader to assert his leadership of the Arab world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Heikal’s last book was Mubarak and his Time (2012), which extended his criticism of Mubarak, whom he portrayed as inept and corrupt.

With his death, Heikal leaves a legacy that will most likely be open for debate not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world where he left disciples and enemies.

Heikal was quite aware of his role in modern Egypt’s politics and history. “I lived to see and I told what I had lived,” he once wrote.‏

Heikal is survived by his wife Hedayet Olwi and three sons: Ali, Ahmed and Hassan.

The battle for the future of Iraq’s Sunnis

The battle for the future of Iraq’s Sunnis

As Ramadi is declared recaptured from the Islamic State group and the battle for Mosul looms, the future of the Sunni areas in Iraq remains uncertain, writes Salah Nasrawi

In a surprise move, the United States has announced that it will deploy a new force of special operations troops to Iraq to combat the Islamic State (IS) terror group which has seized swathes of the country and neighbouring Syria.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wrote in the US publication Politico last week that soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division would soon deploy to Iraq to join the fight against IS “with a clear campaign plan to deliver the barbaric organisation a lasting defeat.”

Though Carter did not give details about the deployment, he said the troop mission was to destroy the IS “parent tumour in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centres in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria.”

“Our campaign is to deliver IS a lasting defeat,” Carter wrote.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said “the government of Iraq was of course briefed in advance of secretary Carter’s announcement” and the two sides would work out details about the new deployment.

Joseph F Dunford Jr, the US top military officer, also said discussions between Washington and Baghdad had begun on how American forces would “integrate” with Iraqi military units to take back Mosul.

The move is a sharp departure from US President Barack Obama’s previous strategy that the US would not deploy “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria and would continue instead its current air campaign and military assistance to the Iraqi government.

Baghdad has not yet made it clear if it had agreed to let the US troops into Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has repeatedly said foreign ground combat troops are not needed in Iraq. Leaders of the country’s Shia groups have warned that they will consider such a presence a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

If the statements by top American officials are any indication, the United States is now gearing up for war with IS, including in the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which was captured by the terror group in spring 2014.

Analysts believe that the US-led coalition against IS needs to take back Mosul, a sprawling city of more than two million people, and the US military shift signals Washington’s readiness to engage IS strongholds with ground combat operations.

According to US reports, one key element in the expected revamped US campaign is the severing of IS supply lines between Mosul and Raqqa in Syria.

The US has reportedly established a covert military base in Qamishli in Kurdish-controlled north-eastern Syria, allegedly to step up operations with Kurdish militants in the region. The installation lies within a few miles of Iraq.

Since November, when Kurdish fighters backed by US fire power and advisers retook Sinjar, a key strategic town between the two IS strongholds, Sinjar and the adjacent border area have been under the control of Kurdish fighters from Iraq, Syria and the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Another key element of the new strategy is the deployment of US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams, which have been inserted on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.

On 8 January, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, Saleem Al-Jabouri, disclosed that US special forces, believed to be JSOC teams, had been carrying out raids on IS strongholds in northern Iraq ahead of an offensive planned later this year to retake Mosul.

In addition, the US teams have reportedly made contact with Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the area in preparation for a future assault on Mosul.

While some details of the US plan remain vague, it is clear that Washington has positioned itself to expand its military involvement in Iraq. Moreover, Washington seems to be readying itself to participate in the reshaping of Iraq in the post-IS era.

Last month, Iraqi security forces drove IS militants out of the city of Ramadi, dealing a major blow to the militant group in Iraq. With the liberation of Mosul, the bigger question of the future of the Sunni-dominated towns and cities within Iraq will be opened.

In order to defeat IS, Iraq needs to tackle a complex web of security, social and economic challenges. But victory over IS will depend on whether Iraq’s fractious communities can agree on a new inclusive order.

Given its central role, the Shia-led government needs to ensure a working system that guarantees inclusion within a just state that will deal with all Iraqis as equal citizens.

The government must realise that the only way to accommodate Sunnis is to create a strong Iraq that will serve as a beacon of good governance and economic success.

But also it largely depends on the Arab Sunnis themselves and what system they would like to see in post-IS Iraq. The recapture of Mosul is likely to be the biggest test of the Sunni leadership and unity thus far.

While most Iraqi Sunnis are hopeful that a more inclusive system will emerge after the defeat of IS, divisions within the community have highlighted the challenges ahead.

Several meetings inside Iraq and abroad in recent weeks have failed to resolve disputes over community leadership and representation. Sunni groups in the government seem to prefer a compromise that will improve their status and achieve partnership.

Sunni tribes that have joined the government fight against IS and are vying for power in running their provincial affairs and in the national government prefer closer ties with the Baghdad government.

Still, many Sunni leaders have been contemplating a Sunni federal region within Iraq similar to that already enjoyed by the Kurds. Though the call for Sunni Arab autonomy has been circulating for a while, the idea has been gaining strength in recent months.

Other Sunni leaders have been suggesting that a Sunni autonomous region be created after the liberation of the Sunni-dominated provinces from IS.

In an interview with the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw last week, Osama Nujaifi, head of the largest Sunni faction in the parliament and former vice-president, suggested that semi-independent regions be formed by Iraq’s provinces in order to solve the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions.

Sunni leaders in exile have been touring world and regional capitals, including Washington, and lobbying governments for diplomatic channels that will bypass the central government in Baghdad.

On Monday, the main Sunni bloc, the Alliance of the Iraqi Forces said it had appealed to the United Nations for international protection of Sunnis in Diyala after rise of sectarian tension in the province.

All these moves come as suggestions for the creation of an “independent Sunni state” as the solution to the current crisis in Iraq and have been taking on momentum for months.

American politicians, academics and analysts have been drumming up support for a proposal for an independent Sunni state that would link Sunni-dominated territories in Iraq and Syria on both sides of the border.

Their argument for a Sunni state is based on the assumption that the Sykes–Picot Agreement drawing up the borders of the Middle East by France and Britain a century ago is the main culprit in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts and that the countries cannot be put back together again after so much blood has been spilled.

The alternative, they believe, is that Iraq and Syria be Balkanised into autonomous regions

Last week, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Region, Masoud Barzani, who has been advocating an independent Kurdistan from Iraq for years, acknowledged that his plan for secession relied largely on the idea that the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement no longer made sense.

Last week, Barzani called on global leaders to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot Agreement had failed, and urged them to broker a new deal paving the way for a Kurdish state.

Barzani told the British Guardian newspaper that the international community had started to accept that Iraq and Syria in particular would never again be unified and that “compulsory co-existence” in the region had been proven wrong.

In the 18 months since IS captured vast amounts of territory in Iraq, Barzani’s administration has grabbed tens of thousands of square km of land which has drastically changed the map of northern Iraq.

The emergence of a mini Kurdish state in northern Iraq is another way of inciting Sunnis to break away from Iraq. There is no way that an Arab Sunni minority will stay in a lesser Iraq ruled by a Shia majority allied to Iran.

This article first appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on January 28, 2016