Wednesday, November 26, 2003

...and an ayatollah shall lead them

Since last week, the Iraq invasion has always been about establishing democracy. Only a churl and an unamerican could even think otherwise. And only an unamerican churl would draw any kind of link between the timing of the US presidential elections and the spontaneous desire to give Iraqis a whole lot of democracy right now or whatever it takes to get them off our hands.

However, other influences have been at work.

The religious edict, handed down in June by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, called for general elections to select the drafters of a new constitution. He dismissed U.S. plans to appoint the authors as "fundamentally unacceptable."

His pronouncement, underestimated at first by the Bush administration, doomed an elaborate transition plan crafted by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer that would have kept Iraq under occupation until a constitution was written, according to American and Iraqi officials involved in the process.

While Bremer feared that electing a constitutional assembly would take too long and be too disruptive, there was a strong desire on his own handpicked Governing Council to obey Sistani's order.

With no way to get around the fatwa, and with escalating American casualties creating pressure on President Bush for an earlier end to the occupation, Bremer recently dumped his original plan in favor of an arrangement that would bestow sovereignty on a provisional government before a constitution is drafted.

Bremer's unwillingness to heed the fatwa until just a few weeks ago may have delayed the country's political transition and exacerbated popular anger at the occupation, Iraqi political leaders said.

"We waited four months, thanks to Bremer," said one council member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We could have organized this [transition] by now had we started when Sistani issued his fatwa. But the Americans were in denial."

People familiar with the discussions among U.S. officials about the fatwa said American political officers were too isolated to grasp the power of the edict right away, assuming that secular former exiles backed by the U.S. government would push Bremer's plan. Even when Sistani's clout became clear, they said Bremer remained reluctant to rework his transition plan right away. "He didn't want a Shiite cleric dictating the terms of Iraq's political future," one U.S. official with knowledge of the process said.

How much clout does Sistani have? prof Juan Cole explains

Just so the CPA knows, here is how Shiite Islam of the Usuli school (which predominates in Iraq) works. Ideally, every Shiite should follow the most learned and the most upright jurisprudent in his rulings on how Islam is to be practiced. He rules only on subsidiary matters about which the laity might have some questions, not about fundamentals like the 5 daily prayers. Typically the most respected and most learned of the ayatollahs at Najaf is considered the marja` al-taqlid or "Object of Emulation." Laypeople without a seminary training must obey his rulings implicitly. The laity also get some say about which Object of Emulation they want to follow (in this respect Shiism is less like Catholicism than like the Baptists, where congregations hire their preacher. But it is more like Catholicism in having a hierarchy.)

The system has become quite hierarchical. At the lowest level, a seminary graduate is a mujtahid or jurisprudent, able to derive the law from the sacred texts with the tools of juridical reasoning he learns at seminary. Muqtada al-Sadr is said to be on the verge of attaining this level. Mere mujtahids in theory really can only interpret the law for themselves. The next rank is Hujjatu'l-Islam or Proof of Islam. The next highest rank is Ayatollah. Then the really senior ayatollahs are Grand Ayatollahs.

Sistani is a Grand Ayatollah. Someone like Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, who serves on the Interim Governing Council, is much junior to him. He is just an ayatollah or maybe even a Hujjatu'l-Islam. Typically the clerics with large followings are Grand Ayatollahs, and they are Objects of Emulation.

Anyway, Bremer's hope that he could have people like Bahr al-Ulum overrule Sistani would be like hoping a bishop could overrule the Pope. Even 5 bishops could not. And then Bremer's hope that he could put pressure on Sistani to change his mind was also in vain. A jurisprudent is bound by his juridical reasoning as long as he doesn't see new evidence or come up with a new argument. It would be seen as completely corrupt to change a ruling merely on pragmatic grounds, and at the behest of the Americans or of more junior jurists! A Grand Ayatollah gives, rather than taking, marching orders.

Sistani is apparently politically quietist, but other Shia organisations have different ideas, according to Professor Cole's assessment here

Both the Sadr II bloc and SCIRI sought a clerically dominated Islamic republic in Iraq, though with different announced strategies. Muqtada was plain-spoken about the goal and refused to cooperate with the United States in attaining it. SCIRI, in contrast, thought in terms of a two-step process. Badr Corps commander Abdul Aziz al-Hakim articulated the process in a television interview, saying that Iraqis would first choose a pluralistic government, but in the long term the Shiite majority would opt for an Islamic republic. This plan resembled the machinations of Communist parties in the early 20th century who collaborated with the national bourgeoisie to establish postcolonial states but aimed for ultimate Communist dictatorship.

The destruction of the Baathist regime did not end the longstanding fights among its opponents. SCIRI, the Sadr II Bloc, al-Da`wa, and followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani conducted an underground war against one another, struggling for control of key symbolic spaces. Chief among these were the shrine of Imam Husayn (martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) in Karbala and the shrine of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) in Najaf. Sadrists fought followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for the right to preach sermons at the mosque of al-Husayn....

....In removing the Baath regime and eliminating constraints on Iraqi Islamism, the United States has unleashed a new political force in the Gulf: not the upsurge of civic organization and democratic sentiment fantasized by American neoconservatives, but the aspirations of Iraqi Shiites to build an Islamic republic. That result was an entirely predictable consequence of the past 30 years of political conflict between the Shiites and the Baathist regime, and American policy analysts have expected a different result only by ignoring that history.

Throw Sunni insurgents and Kurdish peshmerga into this and you have the makings of a lively demos.