Category Archives: Iraq-Sistani

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.

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani helped put the Iraqi Shia in power, but can he save Iraq from the scourge that has besmirched their leaders, asks Salah Nasrawi

It was Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s most scathing criticism of the Shia-led government in Baghdad since he helped the Shia to gain political power in Iraq after the US ousted the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Al-Sistani’s warning that the country faced dire consequences, including possible partition, if real reform was not carried out reflects Iraq’s top Shia cleric’s increasing frustration with the government’s efforts at fighting unbridled corruption.

The call also comes as the Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitary units struggle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group from the large swathes of territory its militants captured during a major offensive in summer last year.

“If real reform by fighting corruption relentlessly and if social justice on all levels are not achieved, the situation could get even worse and might, God forbid, push [Iraq] to partition which no nation-loving Iraqi would like,” Al-Sistani said in a written response from his office to questions from the media posted on his website.

“Without rampant corruption in government institutions, in particular the security forces, and without the abuse of power by officials, the Daesh (IS) terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of Iraq’s territory,” Al-Sistani said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

Al-Sistani’s stern warning came as thousands continued to protest in Baghdad and in the Shia-dominated south of Iraq as they have done for several weeks, calling for reform and actions to be taken against corruption and the lack of services, especially poor electricity supplies.

Since the demonstrations started in late July, Al-Sistani, who has unmatched clout among the Iraqi Shia, has made several calls for reform that have played a major role in driving prime minister Haider Al-Abadi to launch a reform programme.

On 7 August, Al-Sistani gave an unexpected boost to the protesters’ demands through one of his senior aides by calling on Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption, saying the “minor steps” he had announced the week before were insufficient.

The following week, Al-Sistani called, through another senior aide, for reform in the country’s judiciary which many Iraqis believe is deeply corrupt and has failed to fight graft and strengthen the rule of law and human rights.

Apart from the protests, Al-Sistani has been showing signs of concern about the incompetence and greed of the Shia-led government and has spoken out in a political perspective about the need for change.

He has repeatedly called on Shia politicians to think of Iraq’s interests, not their own. Last year, he urged the leaders to refrain from clinging to their posts after a government crisis triggered by former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki who was seeking a third term in office despite his failure to muster enough support in parliament.

Since the overthrow of Saddam, the Iranian-born Al-Sistani, who is revered by millions worldwide, has played a key role in the emergence of Shia power in Iraq. The Shia had always perceived themselves as excluded under Sunni-led governments since Iraq’s independence from Britain in 1921.

Al-Sistani was keen that Iraq’s Shia majority would not be marginalised in the new political system. Shortly after the US-led invasion, he declared that an elected assembly should convene to write a new constitution and prepare the country for general elections.

Thanks to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Al-Sistani for the Shia to cast their ballots in Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections, the Shia groups came well ahead of Sunni and Kurdish rivals and gained a majority of seats in the new 275-seat parliament.

Last year, Al-Sistani took the unprecedented step of issuing a call to arms after Sunni-led insurgents seized more towns in Iraq. In his fatwa, Al-Sistani said that all citizens who were able to bear arms should volunteer to join the security forces to fight the terrorists, defend their country, their people and their holy places.

Thousands joined the Shia militias which played a crucial role in the defence of Baghdad and the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf as well as in retaking Sunni-populated cities and towns from the militants.

Now many Iraqis believe that without Al-Sistani’s call for “minor” jihad, most of Iraq, and probably the capital Baghdad, would have been lost to the IS terror group.

Today, however, the Shia-led government that Al-Sistani has supported with vigour and near-religious zeal is showing signs of a total slump, bogged down in dysfunction and infighting. There are fears that the damage done by the government is irreparable and could threaten the entire country’s future.

The situation has reached the point that most of those who have been protesting against the government are Shia. In many demonstrations, protesters have been shouting slogans against the religious Shia groups and their leaders who have created Iraq’s post-Saddam ruling oligarchy.

Al-Abadi has ordered cuts in cabinet and government posts and in the number of personal guards for officials. He has also ordered the reallocation of the funds budgeted for the positions and proposed cutting vacancies.

Still, to many Iraqis, Al-Abadi’s reforms seem unsubstantial and even cosmetic. Some believe that they are too little, too late. Others say that a major gap remains between statements and implementation.

The increasing public frustration with Al-Abadi’s foot-dragging could transform the peaceful protests into a more broad-based social and political revolt that would pit the demonstrators against the Shia ruling oligarchy, probably in a violent battle.

On Monday, the government deployed the army to quell a large sit-in the mostly Shia-populated city of Hilla south of Baghdad after police failed to disperse protesters who wanted to storm the governor’s offices.

A day earlier, protesters demanding jobs closed roads in many southern cities, including by blocking access to Iraq’s main commodity port in Um Qasr. In Karbala, demonstrators stormed government buildings and clashed with security forces.

The escalation of the protests will put Al-Sistani in a frustrating dilemma: a reclusive religious leader who avoids being engaged in politics is finding himself publicly handling one of the most serious crises that has faced Iraq since the US-led invasion.

There are daunting challenges that Al-Sistani will have to face if the protests in Baghdad and in the southern Shia provinces develop into a large-scale protest movement, or even an uprising against the Shia-led government.

Many protesters are accusing Al-Abadi of being weak and scorning him as being incapable of resisting the Shia political groups, including his own Dawa Party, which benefit from corruption and even from prolonging the war against IS.

These protesters believe that even with Al-Sistani’s backing for reform, the entrenched and corrupt Shia political leadership will make changes extremely difficult.

This is even more daunting because it means that Al-Sistani will have to work hard to ensure that the Shia oligarchy and the religious groups do not continue to take advantage of his standing at the expense of the moderate and secular Shia who are behind the current wave of protests.

There are signs that the protests have been creating a new cross-sectarian secular culture and a dynamic of citizenship that the Shia Islamic-oriented political leaders who feed on the Shia-Sunni divide fear will put their power at risk.

It is not yet clear just how far Al-Sistani, who has been carefully shielding the hard-won Shia power in Iraq, is prepared to go in support of the protesters, especially if they escalate their demands and call for dissolving the government, the parliament and the constitution.

One thing is crystal clear: the gulf that has opened up between Iraq’s silent Shia majority and its rulers has been highlighted by the recent protests and any misstep in handling the crisis will perhaps create greater dangers.

Al-Sistani, however, can seize an opportunity from the crisis by taking bold steps, including by isolating the entrenched Shia oligarchy which has been emboldened by the support of religious groups and encouraging the role of the secular Shia and their civil organisations in power.

This will also help to ease the sectarian polarisation in the country and facilitate a national rapprochement by isolating radical Sunnis and building bridges with moderate Sunnis who feel excluded by the Shia predominance.

How Al-Sistani will handle the crisis will be crucial not only for the Shia but also for the future of Iraq.