While Sunday's election marked an important turning point in the post-Saddam history of Iraq, it's not clear where the new road will lead. What is certain is that millions of Iraqis especially Shi'a and Kurds, but also courageous Sunnis under threat of insurgents' violent reprisal risked their lives to vote.

Because there was almost no international monitoring presence, the exact figures and distribution of the vote will probably never be known. But the details are less important than the message to the insurgents: Millions of Iraqis reject violence as the path to their country's sovereignty. As for the message to Washington, one thing is certain: Expect an increasingly tough round of negotiations. The desire of most Iraqis to see U.S. troops withdraw is at odds with Washington's wish to keep a permanent if much-reduced military presence and preserve the privatization of the country begun after the U.S.-led invasion.


"Yes, soccer," replied Sheikh Anwar al-Ethari, a rising young Shiite sheikh in charge of seven mosques in Baghdad's teeming slum known as Sadr City. "This is how our neighborhood is defeating the terrorists. Nothing else has worked, but the people now have figured out that if we sponsor soccer matches and other games late into the night, people stay outside and the neighborhood is safe because the terrorists can't sneak in and out of the neighborhood and plant any bombs or engage in any other violence."

Al-Ethari-who has a sociology degree from Baghdad University and eight years of study at the famed Hawza seminary in Najaf-is a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Shiite religious-and thus by default, political-figure in Iraq. His enthusiasm for finding nonviolent responses to insurgency, terrorism, and the occupation that fuels them reflects both Sistani's theological preference, and his political assessment that majority Shiite rule in Iraq can best be secured through democracy rather than violence and sectarianism.

Depending on Sistani's true intentions, the next months could see an unprecedented flowering or frustration of Iraqi-and through it, Middle Eastern-democracy. This in turn will affect the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Since the U.S. invasion toppled the Sunni-dominated Ba'ath party and ended nine decades of minority Sunni domination, observers have speculated about how the country's newly empowered Shiite majority would react. Would they seek to import an Iranian-style Islamic revolution and create a theocratic state? Would they play by the rules being laid down by Washington and its Iraqi expatriate allies and allow a pro-American Iraqi government-with access to Iraq's immense oil resources-to emerge? Or would they chart an independent course?

The Jan 30 elections offer the first opportunity to get an Iraqi answer to these questions, because it is the first time since the U.S. invasion that Iraqis themselves will choose their political leadership. The participation of five groups is crucial to a truly representative result:

The first two are the country's minority Sunni and Kurdish populations. For different reasons-among the Sunnis, the insurgents' threat of violent retaliation, among the Kurds, heavy snowstorms in their territory in northern Iraq-they might not vote in numbers corresponding to their shares of the population.

The third group is Iraqi women, who have been virtually imprisoned in their homes since the invasion because of rampant violence and lawlessness. With the public sphere literally closed to them, they have watched the social freedoms achieved under the Hussein regime threatened by the growing dominance of conservative religious forces.

The fourth group is the significant number of relatively secular Iraqis who dominated the culture until Saddam's post-1991 embrace of Sunni symbols and institutions. Without their participation in Sunday's vote, religious factions will be empowered to draft a more theocratically inclined Constitution-at the expense of women and secular Iraqis.

The fifth group is a loose affiliation of nationalist Iraqis who are willing to put their various visions of a still-to-be-determined post-Hussein Iraqi identity before sectarian or ethnic interests.

Sistani's Pivotal Role

The likelihood that these groups (particularly Sunnis and women) will not participate fully in Sunday's vote has put tremendous power to shape the Iraqi political agenda in the hands of Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the thousands of Shiite religious leaders affiliated with the network of religious seminaries known as the Hawza.

Ayatollah Sistani was born in the northwestern Iranian city of Mashhad, home to its most sacred Shiite shrine. After religious training in Iran, he became a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei in Najaf, Iraq. In an unusual sign of respect, Khoei granted Sistani the right to exercise ijtihad, or independent reason in judging religious questions, at the relatively young age of 31. By the 1980s, Sistani was the designated successor to Khoei, who exemplified the brand of political quietism that remains the dominant position among Iraq's Shiite leaders.

Unlike more publicly engaged ayatollahs in Iraq or Iran, Sistani has kept a relatively low public profile over the last 30 years, even after becoming Iraq's senior religious figure. Few Iraqis know much about him; what they do know is that he is a deeply humble, even ascetic person of supreme erudition and caution-two qualities sorely needed in post-Hussein, Coalition-occupied Iraq. Indeed, as one disciple explains, "If the prophet Muhammad was living today, he would live the same way."

Sistani's religious scholarship, which was crucial to his elevation to senior religious leader, is recognized for its strong historical bent. Throughout his career Sistani has sought both to make the actions and sayings of the Prophet accessible to contemporary Muslims, and to establish connections between the Shiite religious establishment and what he calls "contemporary civilization."

Two Shiisms?

Many commentators explain the apparent apolitical bent of Sistani and his followers by arguing that Iraqi Shiism is less politicized than the Iranian variety. But the supposed split between Iraqi Shiite quietism and Iranian Shiite politicization ignores the fact that many Iraqi Shiite leaders, most famously the firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, actually do follow the Iranian brand of politicized Shiism exemplified by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, father of Iran's Islamic revolution.

There is a lot of evidence that Sistani and his disciples are committed to pursuing a nonviolent path toward achieving political power, even in the face of continued Sunni insurgent violence. He has consistently urged Shi'a not to respond violently to insurgent attacks.

Yet it's important not to confuse his relative pacifism with acceptance of the U.S. military presence. Sistani could end the occupation tomorrow, simply by ordering millions of Shiites to stage mass protests until the troops were withdrawn. The world saw a sample of his clout when he ended the standoff between Moqtada al-Sadr and the U.S. forces in August 2004 by calling on Shi`a to make a peaceful mass pilgrimage to Najaf.

Moreover, while Sistani has found strategic advantage in being hard to pin down politically, he has not been politically passive. Although he has issued statements insisting that the clergy play no direct role in politics, he has also weighed in with opinions about the country's political future. He's issued fatwas insisting that delegates to a constitutional convention be elected, and more recently, declaring that Iraqi Shiites are obligated to vote in this week's election. In Shiite cities such as Basra, municipal politics are now dominated by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the core members of the Sistani-"blessed" United Iraqi Alliance.

Sistani's support for a depoliticized Islam does not translate into acceptance of Western-style secular society. In line with most Iranian Shiite and Sunni religious leaders, Sistani views America's "fanatic liberalism" as the greatest threat to Iraq. "There is a grave danger in obliterating [Iraq's] cultural identity, whose most important foundation is the honorable Islamic religion," he says. And while the government must reflect the majority, its values and policies must not "conflict in any of its decisions with any of the stipulations of that religion."

However moderate his political views, Sistani is likely to chart an independent political course for Iraq, in the process using the Americans to destroy the remnants of Ba'athist power, weaken the Sunni insurgency, and curb the power of Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Such a strategy flows naturally from Shi'i principles, developed early in the history of the sect's persecution at the hands of Sunnis, that teach political and religious silence (even hiding their true beliefs) in dangerous times when a militant response is hopeless. When Sistani judges it safe for the Shiite majority to assume political control of the country, he's likely to ask the U.S. to leave-politely at first, more vociferously if the right answer isn't forthcoming.

When Sadrists Come in Handy

Within Iraqi Shiism, attitudes toward secularism and nonviolence are complex and will no doubt evolve in response to the level of violence and overt secularism after the elections. But as Sheikh al-Ethari explained, however much most Shiites remain opposed to the U.S. occupation, "violence can only be the last option, and there are many other options we can and must try first."

For al-Ethari, the elections are absolutely crucial to building an independent Iraqi political culture. "Look, the U.S. may be in control of the country now.but at least Iraqis have gained back about 30 percent of their power under interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. With the elections we'll have perhaps 50 percent, and within a few years we will control our country, regardless of Bush's dreams. But we have to be patient and willing to negotiate. Iraq has lived with death for 35 years. Peace has to win."

Yet in the next breath, al-Ethari recounted a story that sums up the predicament facing Iraqi Shiites. After months of Iraqi government and U.S. failure to provide adequate electricity and water to Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a group of clerics led a convoy to the Kurdish-Turkish border to buy the equipment to bring these essentials to tens of thousands of people.

On their way back, they were attacked by insurgents. Luckily, the delegation included a fighter from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, who managed to kill most of the assailants. As Sheikh Anwar said to me, "Believe me, they were happy they brought along the Sadrist."

On the eve of elections in occupied Iraq, even the most pacifist Shiite clerics understand the value of carrying a big stick.

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