Friday, December 21, 2007

Politics & Religion in Iraq

Before the coming of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Shia Islam followed what is known as the queitest tradition. That refers to the fact that Shia Islam had kept seperate from politics since its inception over a millenium ago. Yet with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the only Shia majority state in the Middle East besides Iran suddenly had to decide its identity. The U.S. would not have allowed a permanent theocracy to form, but there is no indication that one would have. The preeminent cleric in Iraq is the Iranian born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a believer in the quietest tradition. Sistani refused to be drawn personally into politics, but clearly had the role of power broker forced upon him. The result was the emergence of major political movements that defined themselves by their religion - Sadr's and Hakim's parties being the largest.

Now, as security takes hold across Iraq, Iraqis are finding themselves unhappy with their government for all of the other things the government is supposed to be providing but either isin't or is not doing so efficiently, such as electricity, water and sewage service. And, because so much of the government has a formal religious tie, the Shia religion itself is coming under fire. This very good article today from the Washington Post discusses the matter:

Two years after helping to bring to power a government led by Shiite religious parties, Iraq's paramount Shiite clerics find their influence diminished as their followers criticize them for backing a political alliance that has failed to pass crucial legislation, improve basic services or boost the economy.

"Now the street is blaming what's happening on the top clerics and the government," said Ali al-Najafi, the son of Bashir al-Najafi, one of four leading clerics collectively called the marjaiya. Speaking for his father, the white-turbaned Najafi said he wished that the government, all but paralyzed by factionalism and rival visions, was more in touch with ordinary Iraqis.

"We were hoping that it would have been better," he said.

The marjaiya, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, still wield enormous power in Iraq. But if a critical mass of Iraqis stops listening to them, it could hinder efforts toward political reconciliation and strain the fragile unity of the Shiite parties that head the government. The loss of clerical influence could also hurt the political fortunes of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians and America's main Shiite ally, who has closely aligned himself with Sistani.

The marjaiya now compete in the streets with political parties that maintain armed militias and in the seminaries with younger, ambitious clerics. In recent months, the top clerics' aides have become frequent targets of assassination, victims of the fight for power and resources.

In recent interviews in this spiritual capital, the subtle backlash against the marjaiya exposed the depth of popular frustration over the lack of long-term progress, even as violence in Iraq has declined under a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive.

"The momentum of the marjaiya has been reduced," said Abu Gafer al-Zarjawi, head of the Najaf branch of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of a secular political coalition. In Najaf, the party's membership has doubled since the legislative elections of December 2005, although it is still a minor player in national politics.

Muhammad Abu Saif and Sabbah Abu Ali voted for the country's ruling Shiite alliance at the urging of the marjaiya, whose words carry the weight of religious law. Today, the cost of fuel has tripled. Electricity and clean water supplies are erratic. Outside their jewelry store, near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, an open sewer courses past piles of trash.

"We were tricked," Abu Saif said.

"The marjaiya sold us the promise that Iraq is going to be a prosperous country, but that has not happened," said Abu Ali, slim and cleanshaven.

. . . After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the marjaiya emerged as the greatest power in Iraq amid a flowering of religious freedom. Long repressed under Saddam Hussein, the clerics fashioned themselves as the guardians not just of the Shiites but also of Iraq's Islamic identity. They helped restore the luster of Najaf and Karbala, the holiest cities in the Shiite world. Today, Najaf is a center of Shiite political and economic power, rivaling in influence the capital, Baghdad, especially in southern Iraq.

The clerics eschewed taking a direct role in Iraq's government or establishing a theocracy like Iran’s, preferring to provide what they call "advice and direction." But indirectly, the marjaiya, particularly Sistani, played a decisive role.

. . . In 2005, the huge voter turnout and the widespread boycott by Sunni Arabs bolstered the clerics' influence, allowing them to shape Iraq's constitution through politicians. Today, politicians routinely travel to Najaf to seek Sistani's support and often invoke his name to push through policies.

But in 2006, with sectarian strife engulfing Iraq, the marjaiya came up against the limits of their power. Sistani's calls for restraint went unheard as the influence of Shiite militias grew.
"The marjaiya could not control the whole situation," said Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, the son of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, one of the four top clerics. "If we had not intervened, it would have been worse."

But as the violence worsened, Sistani fell silent, reportedly out of concern that his authority would be undermined.

. . . Ayad Jamaldin has long rejected any political role for the marjaiya. Today, the 45-year-old cigar-smoking cleric and legislator says his worst fears have come true. For centuries, Shiite clergy were never rulers, but instead railed against the establishment and "totally disapproved of political Islam," he said.

"The great heritage of the marjaiya was greatly damaged within four years," said Jamaldin, a soft-spoken, brown-bearded man who wears a black turban to signify his descent from the prophet Muhammad.

"We cannot blame the marjaiya," said Najafi, the top cleric's son. "The government did not keep its commitments."

But people such as Najaf merchant Abu Mustafa are disillusioned. On a recent night near the Imam Ali shrine, as dozens of soldiers lined Prophet Street frisking the faithful and the curious, he was looking to the future.

"If I am not happy, will I believe in you?" asked Abu Mustafa, who gave only his nickname. "If you split politics from religion, it will succeed," he added.

"We need to push Iraq toward this," agreed his friend Muhammad Munim al-Saar.

"Next time, I will not participate in the elections," Abu Mustafa said. "My belief has been reduced. Why would I go? If I do vote, it will be for the secular parties."

Read the article here. This is not surprising. Indeed, Iran's theocratic government, kept in place at the point of a gun, has largely resulted in the secularization of Iranian youth because of similar discontent. As to Iraq, the clerics do not have the option of forcing theocratic rule, yet have made the mistake of allowing their names to be tied to ineffective government. It is the worst of both worlds for Iraq's Shia clerics.

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