Foreign Affairs September 2004

Ayatollah Democracy

Arrogant, dogmatic, and anti-American, Iraq's Shiite clerics are the last people enlightened Westerners want to see in power. Let's hope they prevail

Najaf, the holy center of Shiism in Iraq, sits on the edge of a desert, parched and plain. Two-story plaster and concrete houses compose most of its historic quarters. Nowhere does one find the palm trees, the grass, and the mud that accompany the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the double spine of Mesopotamian civilization. The town's largest open square is a sprawl of dirty khaki-colored tents. In the market, frequented by locals and religious pilgrims, there are no exotic smells, and no music; for sale are only pilgrimage trinkets, small household appliances, cheap clothes, Korans, religious commentaries, and the basic necessities of daily life. From early morning until late at night pedestrians and cars clog the streets. Traffic jams are Volvo junkyards, and even among the most devout the town is known as the "village of Volvos"; Saddam Hussein flooded Najaf with them during the Iran-Iraq War, hoping to buy the loyalty of Shiites, who made up the bulk of his Sunni-led army. Everywhere in Najaf, too, one can sniff the dead. From the golden-domed shrine of Caliph Ali, where the faithful carry their deceased loved ones to bless and commend them, to the town's enormous graveyards, where for centuries hundreds of thousands of lucky Shiites have been buried, a pilgrimage for the dead endlessly repeats itself. The faith envelops one in Najaf.

The political future of Iraq may be determined here. The town is home to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric and the man who, on June 29 of last year, issued a fatwa that almost instantly unraveled America's go-slow planning for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The fatwa asserted that the United States had no legitimate role to play in determining Iraq's new political makeup—an announcement that made international headlines and exerted a profound effect on Iraqi public opinion. Yet almost no observer has pointed out what was most remarkable about the fatwa—namely, that despite its having been issued by a powerful religious leader who has devoted his life to the study of Islamic law, it was a flawlessly secular proclamation that clearly and concisely established "the people" as the final arbiters of Iraq's political system.

Sistani's fatwa is worth quoting.

The Occupational Authority in no way has the authority to choose members for the drafting committee of a Basic Law. In no way does any authority exist for such a drafting committee to represent the lofty interests of the Iraqi people or to translate into law the wishes and basic identity of the Iraqi people, the pillars of which are the glorious faith of Islam and society's values. The current [American] plan discussed is fundamentally unacceptable.

Accordingly, popular elections are necessary so that each Iraqi who is of voting age can choose his representative for a constituent assembly. And then any Basic Law written by this assembly must be approved by a national referendum. It is incumbent upon all believers with their utmost commitment to demand this, and asserting the truth of this path is the best way that they can participate in this process.

In Islamic history this opinion is unprecedented. Its references to Islam verge on the pro forma. It makes no allusion to any duties that man owes to God (huquq Allah), which is a theme common in both traditional and modern fundamentalist thought. Instead it speaks the language of inalienable rights: one man, one vote; and a constitution written by elected representatives and approved by popular referendum. In this one bold stroke Sistani managed to launch, and garner popular support for, a project that Muslim progressives have only ever dreamed of: establishing a democratic political order sanctioned and even protected by the clergy. The critical moral imperative in Islamic history—"al-amr bil-maruf wa al-nahy an al-munkar" ("commanding right and forbidding wrong")—appears in one shape or another eight times in the Koran; for modern Islamic militants it has become a war cry. It justifies the morals police in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, and the neighborhood bands of young men who harass "improperly" attired Muslim women in Baghdad and Marseilles. But by seeking to blend politics and faith into a rational system in which government is clearly the servant of the commonweal, and by advancing the idea that Muslims have the right to determine the nature of the government over them, Sistani and his colleagues have transformed a commandment previously confined to holy law into a pillar of a new democratic order. This brings to the fore an uncomfortable truth: traditional Shiite clerics, often dismissed as dogmatic medievalists intent on building a theocratic state, may well represent Iraq's best hope for a successful transition to democracy. As such, they have become perhaps the most important actors in modern Middle Eastern history.

When the Coalition Provisional Authority realized, in the fall of last year, that Shiite clerics would be politically crucial in U.S.-occupied Iraq, it wasn't a happy discovery. American diplomats and intelligence agents in Baghdad were used to dealing with highly Westernized Sunnis in the Iraqi elite or thoroughly secularized Shiites in exile. And most journalists who have spent time in the Arab world have done so in the company of Sunnis and Christians, the parents of modern Arab nationalism. Shiite clerics often aren't much fun face-to-face. They tend to exude far less personal warmth than their Sunni counterparts, who are more egalitarian and informal. Inclined to talk elliptically or dismissively to foreigners, and endowed with the sort of hubris that comes easily to accomplished lawyers, they are for many U.S. officials enormously frustrating partners in rebuilding Iraq. By insisting on more democracy sooner than the Provisional Authority believed was safe, they failed to act according to plan. They resisted approving an interim constitution—the Transitional Administrative Law—that checks the superior power of the Shiite community at the ballot box, and they have now stated that they may not honor the version of that constitution signed by the members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including its Shiites.

Presented by

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists.

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