Talisman Gate

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tea, Sympathy and Sistani

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 16, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1340 words

HEADLINE: Tea, Sympathy and Sistani

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is all for democracy, since he himself was "elected" to the top Shia post. Last week, Iraq's Electoral Commission received a list of 228 candidates called the "Unified National List" that has also been unofficially dubbed as the "Shia List" or the "Sistani List." The names were picked by a six-member committee assigned to this task by Sistani through harried last-minute negotiations with the major Shia-heavy political parties. The top 150 names on the list are virtually guaranteed a seat in Iraq's next parliamentary vote in the last week of next January because the Grand Ayatollah wants it to be so.

And what the Grand Ayatollah wants, the Grand Ayatollah gets. This is a fluid phenomenon that has been 1,000 years in the making. Over the last millennia, the world of Shia Islam has come up with its own version of democracy: the faithful vote with their wallets for whoever is perceived as the most knowledgeable top cleric.

One becomes a top cleric, or marji', through a protracted effort spent studying classical Greek-rooted concepts of logic and rhetoric, and applying them to Muslim religious texts. Some natural talent for mysticism and improvisation is also a plus. At one point, such clerics have to publish their own interpretations of the holy texts and come up with answers to today's everyday challenges and problems. If the lay person likes these answers, then he or she is required to set aside a fifth of their unspent incomes (or a 20% flat tax rate) and hand it over to their favorite guy in a black (signifies genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammed's family) or white (anyone else) turban.

As the money pours in from hundreds of millions of Shia faithful in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the ex-Soviet Republics, India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, all places with sizable Shia populations, a sizable fortune accumulates. This money is supposed to be spent, in our modern times, through a trust that subsidizes more religious schools, proselytizing, and a network of charities, each bearing the cleric's stamp of approval. At this time, there are seven recognized Grand Ayatollahs (four in Iraq, and three in Iran) who sit atop their seven respective empires of faith and patronage. Once in a while, among the top clerics, one emerges as the uber-Grand Ayatollah, and this time around, it is an Iranian-born scion of a respected scholarly family who moved to Najaf in Iraq in the mid-1940s to further his education at its most prestigious schools. His name is Ali Sistani.

Although his pictures show him as a stern, frowning and terribly serious authority figure, Sistani is actually a really nice guy. Image in public life is everything, and the marji'ya, or Shia religious establishment, goes for the austere, long-suffering look. A narrow and well guarded alley through Najaf's rundown Old City takes you to a nondescript home with an outer courtyard and an outer waiting room called the barrani, which also serves as classroom and town hall. Tea is served as elderly graduate students bearing the distinctive Mongol features of Afghani Shias sit around leafing through voluminous texts preparing for that day's lecture. You are then led to an inner room with faded blue-green walls that are lit up with white fluorescent tubes. Sistani struggles up to meet you and it is customary to make a show of kissing his hands, which in a sign of humility he denies by quickly jerking them back. With his eyes twinkling mischievously, Sistani articulates witty and light-hearted nuggets of wisdom and political savvy in a heavy Iranian accent while stroking his long, bushy beard.

Anyone hoping for success in Iraq should thank their lucky stars for the existence of a man like Sistani at this historical juncture.

Sistani and the marji'ya in Najaf are a pillar of Iraqi civil society. They do not wield political authority or seek it, but they have immense influence on those who do, perfectly in line with the very essence of the Iraqi perception of civil society institutions. The pope sitting in the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church do not run Italy's customs offices, but they certainly carry clout and can make themselves heard in the same manner as the socialist-controlled trade unions. Understanding the intricacies of marji'ya and how it works may be too much to ask of Western journalists and stringers sniffing around for stories in liberated Iraq, but they can see the marji'ya in action when even a hint of Sistani's opinion on a certain matter can send hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrating peacefully on Baghdad's streets.

And Sistani wants them to demonstrate and support the vision he shares with the Bush administration: a peaceful, democratic, and just Iraq. This vision is anathema to the fellows running the insurgency, or in other words, the Sunnis. See, Iraq's Sunnis are in a bind. Their power structure and monopoly of all facets of the state, inherited from their role as flunkies for the Ottoman Empire and then on from their role as willing "collaborators" with the British occupation post-World War I, has totally collapsed. They found themselves in a world that they cannot understand. Their surnames, Tikriti, Rawi, Aani, Duleimi and their earlier versions, Pachachi, Kaylani, and Al-Sadoun, no longer ring of authority.

But the concept of power is undergoing a paradigm shift in the Middle East, and Iraq is the first Arab incubator for this newborn revolution. Power now is all about votes and voter turnout.

The Arab Shias of Iraq are the majority sect in their country, whatever the Sunnis claim to the contrary. And not for lack of trying; the Sunni sectarian apartheid regime deported hundreds of thousands and experimented with outright genocide to bring down Shia numbers. This particular fear of the "Shia majority" is precisely why the Arab Sunnis are terrified of elections a la the new American promises of democracy. The Sunni agenda is thus muddled and riddled with confusion and a sense of shock at losing power. It is an agenda rooted in fear of the future and that fear turns them into hesitant and resentful partners in a new and democratic Iraq, an Iraq they do not recognize and, as yet, understand.

The Shias have sighted the Promised Land of democracy over the horizon and, shepherded by Sistani, are ready to subscribe to P. Diddy's dictum of Vote or Die. Of course, they can also get to power through the short-cut of civil war and its evil logic of killing more of the other side and winning. The Sunnis, in desperation, have tried to lure the Shias into that time-buying gambit. What happened during the religious commemoration of Ashura within the holy shrines of Kazimayn and Kerbala last year was an event as traumatic and dangerous as September 11, 2001, from the perspective of Shias worldwide. It is as if a terrorist blew up the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Were it not for a fatwa from Sistani calming people down and instructing them not to take out their justified anger on their Sunni brethren, then that event would have been the spark of a civil war that would have seen the Sunnis evicted from Baghdad and witnessed the consequential dismemberment of Iraq. Recent fatwas against vigilante action in the newly-labeled Triangle of Death north of Babil province, where Sunnis and Shias live side by side, have also averted a disaster.

The American-led and now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority circulated a memo dated February 18,2004,whereby one of its staff, identified as "Mehran Riazaty, Iran Analyst," sought to correlate Sistani's activist statements with those made by Ayatollah Khomeini prior to taking power, seemingly hinting that history is about to repeat itself. Khomeini, though, modeled his Vilayet-el-Faqih concept of power on divinely-inspired totalitarianism, whereas Sistani is inspired by his own democratic rise to prominence.

Americans scrambling for a new Iraq should again thank the heavens for having a nice guy with democratic leanings like Sistani as their partner.