by Juan Cole
published by Informed Comment
The Republican Party spin machine was bouncing around the airwaves like an overloaded washing machine on Sunday attempting to obscure from the American public that they had by their actions managed to install a Shiite religious ruling class in Iraq. The New York Times even lead with a headline, "U.S. Officials Say a Theocratic Iraq Is Unlikely." This headline is probably wrong, but in any case it begs the question of what a "theocracy" is.
If it means a clerically-ruled state, then I agree with Vice President Dick Cheney that a) you have to look at what Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani wants, and b) that Sistani does not want clerics to rule the country as in Iran. But the main goal of political Islam in the past few decades hasn't been clerical rule. It has been the replacement of civil law with shariah or Islamic canon law. This was done by the non-clerical government of Sudan, e.g. And that is where Iraq is headed. The only question is how wideranging the substitution will be. Will it just be personal status law (marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, etc.), or will it be in commercial law and other spheres of society?
Even as Cheney was pooh-poohing the notion of Iraqi theocracy, Sistani's close colleague Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad said, "We warn officials against a separation of the state and religion." Then Sistani's spokesman came out and said that the Grand Ayatollah Sistani "wants the source of legislation to be Islam."
A lot of Americans believe whatever Cheney says, though I cannot for the life of me understand why, since he lies to them relentlessly. He is the one who tried to link Saddam and al-Qaeda operationally. He even once said he knew exactly where Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were. Most people will only remember that Cheney said there wouldn't be an Iraqi theocracy, but won't bother to actually read the newspapers on Monday to see the news I'm reporting below.
Although George Orwell/ Eric Blair wrote 1984 as an anarcho-syndicalist socialist critique of Stalinism, it is becoming increasingly clear that it was also prophetic about the direction of Late Capitalist societies characterized by corporate media consolidation. In such a society, Cheney can substitute himself for Sistani and speak for Sistani, erasing the real Sistani just as the Republican pundits have erased the real Iraq. "Ignorance is strength."
Another little-noticed development is how well followers of Muqtada al-Sadr are doing in some provincial elections. They seem likely to dominate Maysan Province in the south and to have a strong influence in several others. The Sadrists are all about puritanism and implementing Islamic law. A senior British official conceded, "We will have to live with it."
At the national level, the Shiite religious parties have begun making it clear that implementing Islamic law is among their highest priorities.
The four grand ayatollahs in Najaf are jointly called "the Source" (al-marja`iyyah), i.e. the source of authority that must be blindly obeyed (taqlid) on religious issues. Shaikh Ibrahim Ibrahimi, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, issued a suprise communique, according to AFP. Al-Fayyad is originally from Afghanistan, but came to Najaf at the age of ten many decades ago.
I was originally going to quote the AFP translation of the statement, but found it wrong in a couple of places and have made my own:
"All the clerics and the sources of authority, and most of the Muslim Iraqi people, emphatically request the state and the national parliament that Islam be, in the permanent Iraqi constitution, the sole source of legislation in Iraq, and that any article or law be struck from the permanent constitution if it contravenes Islam . . . [this matter] is non-negotiable . . . [we warn against] changing the face of Iraq or separating religion and state, for therein lie dangers that will bring unfortunate results, which is rejected by all the clerics and high religious authorities . . . [We warn against] the dangers of undertaking derisory actions that hurt the feelings of Muslims, such as conscripting Muslim girls and publishing their pictures with foreign military trainers in magazines and daily newspapers . . . That has a negative influence on the government, which stands, today, in the most urgent need of popular support."
The four grand ayatollahs of Najaf may have internal disagreements, but it is unlikely that al-Fayyad had this statement issued without getting a consensus of the other three first.
AFP put in parenthetically:
' A source close to Sistani announced soon after the release of the statement that the spiritual leader backed the demand. "The marja has priorities concerning the formation of the government and the constitution. It wants the source of legislation to be Islam," said the source. '
Rod Nordland and Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek have a fine profile of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani this week. The allegation they quote from Hussein Shahristani, a Sistani spokesman, that the grand ayatollah wants to be uninvolved in picking the new government, however, is probably untrue. His views are being actively sought on who the new prime minister should be.
Another AFP article adds concerning Sistani:
" While Sistani is taking a harder line on the constitution, a source close to him said he does not oppose a secular-led government. “He sees no problem with a prime minister who is secular, because the current phase means that it must be a politician with experience and this is not taught in Koranic schools,” said the source. The source said Sistani “does not want Iraq to be an Islamic republic like Iran because the “velayat e-faqih’ is not an established tradition in this country.” Velayat e-faqih was the ruling principle of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led Iran’s Islamic revolution, and put clerics at the heart of all decision-making."
The article goes on to speculate that Sistani will stay out of the process of writing the constitution. I very much doubt that!
Let's listen to someone close to Sistani who would actually know about this issue:
‘‘What he [Sistani] wants is influence over the constitution-writing process,’’ said Mowaffak Rubaie, a prominent Shiite politician. ‘‘He wants to be sure it’s done right.’’
So much for Mr. Cheney's fantasy of a non-intrusive Grand Ayatollah unconcerned with politics who wants a separation of religion and state. Cheney was only right that Sistani doesn't want to rule directly. Nothing else he said on the subject is true!
Al-Hayat reports that Adnan al-Zurfi, the American-appointed governor of Najaf province, has issued a decree allowing the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr to resume their Friday prayers at Kufa. The people of nearby Najaf are afraid that this move may presage the return to their city of Mahdi Army militiamen. Al-Zurfi's list lost in Najaf provincial elections, and people are afraid that he is creating a poison pill for the next provincial government, which is made up of religious Shiites.
The implementation of religious law could have a deleterious effect on Iraqi women. Bush likes to parade Iraqi women at his official events, trying to imply that he has rescued them from Arab male chauvinism. But Bush is likely to have been responsible for the biggest roll-back of women's rights in the Middle East since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.