Global Policy Forum

Sistani Begins On His True Agenda


By Ehsan Ahrari*

Asia Times
February 8, 2005

As expected, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) is emerging as the dominant party, making its chief mentor and spiritual adviser, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the clear winner of the Iraqi elections of January 30 (see Note below). Only US President George W Bush and his tight-lipped advisers know whether this is the beginning of the United States' nightmare in Iraq. Sistani never had any doubts about what he wanted: use the much-cherished democracy of the US invaders to enable his people - the Shi'ites - to emerge as governors of Iraq, after years of being marginalized by the minority Sunnis. The most dominant question is how Islamic the emerging government of Iraq is likely to be.

The US may not have any problem with Islam as a religion; there is no doubt, however, that the entire notion of "Islamic government" has never been an acceptable proposition in Washington. That was true in Afghanistan after the dismantlement of the Taliban regime, and it has been true in Iraq. US presidents, starting from Jimmy Carter, know only too well how chaotic a system can be created under the rubric of "Islamic government". The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was the beginning of Washington's nightmare. If Carter had to identify one reason why he remained a one-term president, he would readily state: the Islamic Revolution of Iran, under which the US was humiliated by the Islamic cadres of the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Islamic government is once again emerging as an issue of utmost concern for another president, except this time he, Bush, might be the direct reason for the materialization of an Islamic government in Iraq.

Leading Shi'ite clerics in Iraq are reportedly "pushing for Islam to be recognized as the guiding principle of the new constitution". Such a proposal is in stark contrast from the transitional law the US enacted before installing the Iraqi interim government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last June. The US then succeeded in pressing Iraqi politicians to grant equal rights to women and minorities and, above all, "to designate Islam as just 'a source' of legislation". The handpicked secular Iraqi members of the government had no problem with that US preference. However, the Shi'ite clerics are now "advocating for Islam to be acknowledged as the underpinning of the government". In addition, the clerics are demanding that the Americans "stay away from the writing of the constitution".

The Shi'ite clerics might be forced to compromise on the issue of Islam in order to forge a compromise to form a government. How far they would go in formulating that compromise depends on the final number of votes the UIA receives. There is also that likelihood that a strong push for an Islamic government would bring together the Kurds and secular Shi'ites like Allawi as a voluble, even if not a numerically powerful, opposition. Moderate clerics may not want to enhance acrimony as they go through the delicate and intricate process of establishing a government.

Another powerfully divisive issue is that of writing the next constitution of Iraq. The Iranian model of vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the clergy) may not be used, for two reasons. First, it has not resulted in the creation of an effective government in Iran. Second, and more important than the previous one, is the fact that Iraq, unlike Iran, is a multi-ethnic and multifunctional polity, where the vilayat-e-faqih model would only serve as the lightning rod of divisiveness and instability.

Even if a "theocracy" is not established in Iraq in the immediate future, a close semblance of it seems to be very much in the cards. The US never understood the significance of Islam to a Muslim country. Believing that the adage "render unto Caesar what's Caesar's and render unto God what's God's" is (or should be) applicable to the entire world, US politicians have been on a global (secular) crusade to transform the world in the image of their own country. They do understand that such a proposition is not only alien to the world of Islam - most established governments have constantly rejected it. However, the establishment of secular government worldwide has emerged as America's new crusade in the post-September 11 world, or at least that's what Bush wants the world to believe during his second term.

Even when Sistani rejects Khomeini's model of vilayat-e-faqih , he is not proposing the kind of secularism that US or any other Western politicians have in mind. Under the Sistani model of separation of religion and politics, representatives of the grand ayatollahs (ie the marjaiah) would play a highly visible and crucial role in framing the constitution, especially regarding the maintenance of Islamic identity. In fact, it can be argued that the entire involvement of Sistani since the US-led invasion of Iraq has been a perfect example of how the power of the marjaiah has been imposed on the mandarins of the secular superpower. It was Sistani who demanded speedy elections. He knew what the outcome of that election was going to be. When Bush balked about holding elections, Sistani demonstrated his power by calling on his followers to fill the Iraqi streets in protest. It was he who insisted that the United Nations should be brought back to conduct or to oversee the conducting of elections in Iraq. It was Sistani's refusal to condemn the US presence in Iraq that kept the Shi'ite protest a minor problem for the Western occupying forces. Sistani's role in calming the firebrand rhetoric and activities of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr should not be underestimated.

It was Sistani, once again, who issued a religious decree exhorting the Shi'ites to vote as a religious obligation. There is absolutely no doubt that Sistani and other grand ayatollahs will demonstrate the same type of unequivocal and unambiguous resolve to create a government where Islam maintains a powerful presence. It will be a quintessentially Iraqi model, but an Islamic model nevertheless. In all likelihood the marjaiah would insist that "no laws passed by the state contradict a basic understanding of sharia as laid out in the Koran". The issue of equal treatment of women has to be resolved through public debates, and by arriving at a new interpretation of Islam by Muslims of Iraq, not through the "enlightened" insistence of the US. The same goes for dividing family property and other issues affecting Muslims of that country. It is another irony of history that the US is hoping to use the Kurdish or even Sunni Arab voting power to modify the Shi'ite notions of Islamic government in the coming weeks and months.

The Bush administration is also watching Muqtada, who wants Islam enshrined as the national religion and sharia recognized as the new law of the state. Followers of Muqtada have been carrying around a pamphlet that Muqtada's mentor, Ayatollah Khadim Hussein al-Haeri, wrote a while back. It said, "The infidel coalition forces want to make a constitution for our dear Iraq and carry out their infidel agenda through the current government. This is the most dangerous thing for Iraq and Islam. They want to change our identity, habits, morals and Islamic way of life."

The US wanted Iraq to become a democracy. It has indeed started its march in that direction. A democratic Iraq is not likely to be anyone's puppet. It is likely to reflect the will of its own people - except in the case of Iraq, it will be a long time before the modalities of the "will" of its people will finally crystallize. Even with all the uncertainties revolving around Iraq, one can be certain about one thing: a democratic Iraq, as it is emerging at least for now, is not something even Bush had preferred.


With 3.3 million votes in from mainly Shi'ite provinces, Sistani's United Iraqi Alliance has polled 2.2 million or 67%, far ahead of their nearest rival, the group led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Allawi's Iraqi List has 17.5% and the Kurds, who are expected to make a strong showing, have so far scored far fewer votes, with none of the results from the three Kurdish-dominated provinces counted. The Electoral Commission said the count to date represented 35% of more than 5,000 polling centers.

About the Author: Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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