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Sistani’s shadow role in Iraqi politics set to grow

Prominent Shia cleric Ali Al-Sistani [Facebook]
Prominent Shia cleric Ali Al-Sistani [Facebook]

Predictably the Iraqi political process has muddled along slowly and chaotically following May’s closely contested parliamentary elections. However, the appointment on Sunday of Muhammad Al-Halbusi as parliamentary speaker is a positive step in so far as it breaks the deadlock, albeit temporarily.

But Al-Halbusi’s appointment also came as a surprise as the Sunni lawmaker is known for his pro-Iranian views. Indeed, Al-Halbusi is sponsored by the Conquest bloc led by Hadi Al-Ameri. Moreover, the appointment of Hassan Karim as deputy parliament speaker, also came as a surprise.

Karim was not regarded as a prominent member of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sairoon (Forward) bloc. Moreover, he is also known for his mild outlook on the Islamic Republic. From a political perspective, the appointment of these two men ensures at least the partial domination of the Iraqi parliament by pro-Iranian elements.

But whilst Iraqi politics is in constant flux, with blocs entering into and out of alliances constantly, at a deeper level there are more structural and stable forces at play. The most important is the Najaf-based Marjayeeat (Shia clerical establishment) whose undisputed leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, plays an important behind-the-scenes political role.

Read: Iraq’s Al-Sistani survives assassination attempt

Whilst the Marjayeeat can help maintain the stability of Iraq’s post-Baathist polity, it remains to be seen as to whether it will stick its neck out to lobby for a genuine fight against corruption and inefficiency.

A vital institution

Since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 the Najaf-based Marjayeeat has striven to play a stabilising role in Iraq’s turbulent post-war politics. It has tried to perform this role by observing two inter-related principles: first, to remain or at least maintain the appearance of political neutrality and second to project an image of pan-sectarian unity and inclusive Iraqi patriotism.

The success of the Najaf-based Shia clerical establishment in achieving its aims can be gauged by the grudging respect it elicited from the most unlikely quarters, notably the US occupiers of Iraq. Whilst the Marjayeeat was officially opposed to the American-led foreign military presence in Iraq, in reality the Shia religious establishment tried hard to make the occupation as tolerable as possible for Iraqis.

In practice this translated above all to opposing paramilitary-style “resistance” efforts, and to that end the Marjayeeat was opposed to military mobilisation by the working-class movement led by the then fiery Muqtada Al-Sadr. The divide between the mostly old men of the clerical establishment and Al-Sadr’s army of teenagers and twenty something militiamen widened in the aftermath of the “Battle of Najaf” in April 2004 when the so-called Mahdi Army fought ferocious street battles with occupying US forces.

Read: Iraq’s Abadi arrives in Basra in bid to contain popular protests

In the political sphere, contrary to its stated position, the Shia clerical establishment has not been entirely quietist. The Marjayeeat encouraged participation in Iraq’s first post-Baathist elections in January 2005, an intervention which helped Shia-rooted political parties to do well, especially as the major Sunni parties decided to boycott the elections.

This was to prove a consistent position for the Marjayeeat, and specifically Ayatollah Sistani, who again urged Iraqis from all backgrounds to participate in the 2010 parliamentary elections, whilst taking care not to appear to be influencing the outcome of the vote. To that end, Sistani has never endorsed any political party or coalition.

Najaf versus Qom?

From the moment of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, many so-called experts tried hard to construct a narrative around a “divide” between the Shia religious establishments in Najaf (Iraq) and Qom (Iran). The central argument of these experts is that Najaf subscribes to a quietist jurisprudence and resulting worldview whilst by contrast Qom is driven by a politicised theology as demonstrated by the political-religious theory of Velayat-e-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisconsult).

The relentless drive to contrive a division between Najaf and Qom has less to do with scholarly research than the pursuit of distinct political goals. The ultimate objective is to argue the case for the de-politicisation of the Shia clergy by holding out the so-called “quietist” clerics of Najaf as the authentic sources of emulation.

In terms of Iran-Iraq relations, the aim of the “division” narrative is to sabotage the cross-pollination of ideas, plans and innovations between Najaf and the Iranian seminaries. This strategy takes aim at the entire spectrum of Iranian-Iraqi relations as the religious dimension defines the essence and the potential of this relationship.

Read: Iran army penetrates Iraqi territory, controls strategic mountain

This strategy will not succeed as it is not based on strong empirical foundations. First, it indulges in over-simplification: not all Najaf-based senior clerics are quietists and by extension not all the Iran-based grand Ayatollahs are proponents of Velayat-e-Faqih. Whilst there are differences between Najaf and Qom, nevertheless there is sufficient structural and ideological alignment, as well as a deep sense of common destiny, to ensure the continual free flow of ideas and people.

This free movement of ideas and people has been a feature of the Shia clerical establishment for centuries. Not even the harsh regime of Saddam Hussein and the Baathists was able to fully stop it. Moreover, recent history, including the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, has shown that the Shia clerical establishment can withstand even the most dramatic and far-reaching geopolitical shifts.

The biggest issue

But going back to domestic Iraqi politics, whilst Ayatollah Sistani and the Najaf-based clerical hierarchy have demonstrated the ability to reinforce the cohesion of the Iraqi polity in the face of centrifugal political crises, including Kurdish irredentism and Daesh terrorism, they have yet to effectively intervene in Iraq’s deteriorating socio-economic crisis.

The recent street protest movement in Iraq, which is in part spontaneous and in part orchestrated, has exposed the extent of disenfranchisement in the country, particularly in the Shia-majority south. The corruption and inefficiency which has triggered these protests is now arguably the greatest threat to Iraq’s fragile sovereignty.

Ayatollah Sistani can and should use his clout with the emerging new government in Baghdad to call for a serious and sustained effort at regaining public confidence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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