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Thread: Sistani and the Democratization of Iraq

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    Default Sistani and the Democratization of Iraq

    USIP, Jun 07: Ayatollah Sistani and the Democratization of Post-Ba'athist Iraq
    Summary

    • Since spring 2003, Sistani has become the preeminent and best financed of the grand ayatollahs remaining in the city of Najaf—and by extension, in Iraq. He remains one of the most powerful figures in Iraq and he brings the Shi‘is closer together across the greater Middle East.

    • Since 1997, the Internet has increased the size and the prestige of Sistani’s social organization to an astonishing degree on a global basis.

    • Like his father, Sistani is an adherent of a democratic Shi‘i tradition that dates back to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1911 and continued with the Khatami reformist movement (1997–2005).

    • As the general representative of the Hidden Imam, quietist Sistani can remain totally aloof from all political matters, while at times of perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.

    • Sistani’s religious network is increasingly becoming an important source of local governance in southern Iraq, where many Iraqis are hired and at times agree to conduct duties that are usually carried out by the state.

    • Sistani’s insistence on recognizing Islam as a fundamental component of the Iraqi constitution is not intended to make Iraq an Islamist state based on juridical sharia strictures, but rather to limit the total secularization of the constitution, which would deprive a Muslim country of an “authentic” national identity based on its Islamic heritage.

    • Sistani could contribute to reducing sectarian tensions by working with other Sunni and Shi‘i religious leaders (including tribal leaders) to organize a National Reconciliation Initiative in order to display a united, powerful Sunni-Shi‘i front with an emphasis on common Islamic ideals; to express condemnation of anti-Shi‘i Wahabi extremism and anti-Sunni Shi‘i radicalism; and to form communal solidarity through the ceremonial process of intersectarian group gatherings.

    • Sistani remains a key religious figure who has influence as a peacemaker and mediator among various Shi‘i factions and ethnic groups in Basra and Kirkuk that are competing for economic and territorial dominance in the northern and southern regions of the country.

    • As long as the state army is unable to independently fight off the Sunni insurgency and Shi‘i militias, it is highly unlikely that Sistani will call for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

    • Sistani is mainly concerned with maintaining stability in the region while rejecting any form of U.S. military adventurism that could seriously endanger the integrity and autonomy of Muslim countries in the greater Middle East.

    • Although Sistani is still a powerful figure within Iraq, his influence has diminished since the bombing of the Shi‘i shrine in Samarra in February 2006 and the ensuing increase in Sunni–Shi‘i violence. Washington should recognize that until the sectarian warfare subsides, there is no effective way for Sistani to become involved in the Iraqi political process. However, Washington should engage Sistani now, because of the positive role he would have in the democratization of Iraq if the sectarian tensions subside.

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    Council Member Armchairguy's Avatar
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    Default Agreed

    Sistani has always seemed to be the most reasonable voice in Iraq (in my opinion) and we probably could have undermined Sadir by heavily backing Sistani from the start, using his knowledge and influence to help Shia and gain their support. Given that we can't change the past Washington should definitely engage him now.

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    Default Sistani

    Thanks, Jedburgh--a useful piece. It is a shame it doesn't devote more explicit attention to this issue:

    Although Sistani is still a powerful figure within Iraq, his influence has diminished since the bombing of the Shi‘i shrine in Samarra in February 2006 and the ensuing increase in Sunni–Shi‘i violence.
    ...which the author raises in the executive summary but doesn't really explore in the report. How much has Sistani's influence diminished? I've read a few items which suggest that he's been sulking because of his declining political weight, but it would be interesting to hear from someone who has looked at the issue from a closer perspective.

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    Council Member MattC86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Armchairguy View Post
    Sistani has always seemed to be the most reasonable voice in Iraq (in my opinion) and we probably could have undermined Sadir by heavily backing Sistani from the start, using his knowledge and influence to help Shia and gain their support. Given that we can't change the past Washington should definitely engage him now.
    The potential problem here is that it seems to me the track record (in terms of popular support and legitimacy) is for clerics backed by the United States to suddenly and precipitously lose popularity.

    If we threw our weight behind Sistani, like any other cleric, he would be caught in a difficult position between US support and the relative anti-US opinions of his constituency.

    I have a hard time imagining Sistani going down a path virtually guaranteed to make him a collaborator in the eyes of his constituents.

    Matt
    "Give a good leader very little and he will succeed. Give a mediocrity a great deal and he will fail." - General George C. Marshall

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    Council Member Armchairguy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MattC86 View Post
    The potential problem here is that it seems to me the track record (in terms of popular support and legitimacy) is for clerics backed by the United States to suddenly and precipitously lose popularity.

    If we threw our weight behind Sistani, like any other cleric, he would be caught in a difficult position between US support and the relative anti-US opinions of his constituency.

    I have a hard time imagining Sistani going down a path virtually guaranteed to make him a collaborator in the eyes of his constituents.

    Matt
    From what I understand Siatani doesn't want a political position as this would interfere with his job as a spiritual leader. I was thinking more on the line of helping in the areas where Sistani says a difference could be made. Perhaps in support of his social programs listed on his website http://www.sistani.org/local.php?modules=main
    This would be an indirect way of helping him and raising his influence without branding him as a collaborator.

    At the same time could always get photos of americans getting chummy with Sadir (preferrably handing him a bag of cash).

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    Council Member ali_ababa's Avatar
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    I have a lot of respect for Sistani because he does not get religion involved with politics.

    Furthermore, because of his organisation he created the ceasefire which ended the uprising by Sadr's men in 2004.

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    Well, there are also huge ramifications for the geopolitical situation in the Islamic world if a semi-stable Iraq emerges that would benefit Sistani greatly. People forget that Najaf is a much older more traditional center of Islamic religious authority in the Shia world than Qom. If Iraq stabilizes, and Najaf with its traditionally quietistic brand of Shiism can regain its pre-Saddam supremacy, that will undermine the religious authority of the Iranian regime.

    Sistani is not someone we can wield as a weapon to end fighting in Iraq. We need to be looking at his power in more of a geostrategic sense.

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