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.