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Rethinking Ayatollah al-Sistani’s Power in Iraq

For better or worse, one cannot overstate the role of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Marja’ or religious authority to millions of Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and around the world, in the country’s post-2003 politics. His supporters have praised al-Sistani’s apparent embrace of moderation and restraint in the country’s politics. In contrast, his detractors have accused him of impeding the emergence of a more democratic Iraq. The cleric’s role in Iraq is perhaps overstated. Although generally believed to be safeguarding Iraq, his role in some of the country’s key political developments has clearly been exaggerated, and his advocacy has sometimes failed to yield the intended results.

Moreover, while no one doubts the significant status of the Shi’a clergy within the sect, some analysts have attributed to them extraordinary political and social power – a perception not matched by reality. Even within Iraq, there are dozens of Marja’ within Shi’ism with different levels of religious authority. One also finds many different political trends within the Iraqi Shi’a community, e.g., divisions between secular and the religious Shi’a. In this sense, it becomes evident that the role of the clergy within Iraqi society is exaggerated – especially, as we will see, with regard to its support of democracy in Iraq.

Selective Adherence

It is evident that the wishes and directives of the Grand Ayatollah, at some points, do not lead to tangible change. Despite several statements by the Grand Ayatollah over the years urging the government to fight corruption, no meaningful progress has taken place. Iraq is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and has been for many years, with the situation only deteriorating since 2003. This fact has not gone unnoticed by al-Sistani, and he has made it very clear that fighting corruption should be a priority of the Iraqi government. In 2015 he called on Haidar al-Abadi, Iraq’s then-Prime Minister, to take a tough stance against corruption and shame those that stood in the way of reform. On another occasion, the ayatollah said that senior officials of the government suspected of corruption should be persecuted and their stolen funds should be repossessed. Three years later, prior to the formation of the government, he again urged the political establishment to tackle corruption and poor services. In 2019, al-Sistani reiterated his statements calling on the government to take clear steps on anti-corruption, and in 2020, he urged the government to investigate major corruption cases. Finally, he also asked for more to be done to curb rampant corruption prior to the 2021 elections. Yet in each case, these statements did not bring about any change whatsoever to the level of corruption, one of the most chronic and insurmountable problems in Iraq. This is clear evidence that, regardless of al-Sistani’s revered status within Iraq, he remains unable to enforce meaningful change – or, at least, that his followers are selective in adhering to his directives.

It is clear, then, that Ayatollah al-Sistani’s words have sometimes gone unheeded. In other cases, his guidance has been misconstrued to fit the interests of those interpreting his directives. In 2014, as the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) swept through Iraq taking advantage of Baghdad’s misgovernance and Sunnis’ grievances, al-Sistani issued a fatwa in June 2014, or religious edict, calling upon all able men to take up arms against the new rising terrorist threat. Specifically, the grand ayatollah mentioned that the new volunteers should join the Iraqi security forces (ISF). In response to his fatwa, and with a desire to protect their homes and families, many of his followers joined the fight. Although some accounts suggesting that millions of Iraqis heeded the fatwa are clearly exaggerated, there is no question that his call boosted the morale of the Shi’a fighters against ISIS. At some point, however, the vast majority of the Shi’a recruits joined the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) instead of joining the Iraqi security forces. It is estimated that 75 percent of the volunteers between 18 and 30 years old enlisted in the PMF, largely owing to grave mistrust of the ISF’s past practices. Today, the PMF is an uncontrollable force in Iraq, tens of thousands of loyal, trained fighters fill its ranks, and al-Sistani did not retract his fatwa.

Moreover, Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister at the time of al-Sistani’s 2014 fatwa, used it to give official sanction to armed groups that he supported with state funding, forcing al-Sistani’s office to issue a clarification as to his intentions. The PMF was originally intended as a temporary force to put down ISIS before returning to civilian life, and al-Sistani himself called for its disarmament without success. In 2015, Iraqi journalist Mustafa al-Kadhimi, speculated that the PMF would “be dissolved when the battles are over, and security will be under the purview of the National Guard, a military force more heavily armed than the police but less than the Iraqi army.” In 2022, in his new role as the nation’s Prime Minister, Kadhimi has had ample time to reflect on the failure of his earlier prediction.

Some Listen, Some Don’t

Finally, al-Sistani has affected the political process with his views that has an impact on the country’s democracy. In the first elections that were held in 2005, al-Sistani’s office instructed the ayatollah’s followers to vote en masse, support religious leaders, and unite the Shia vote – which in practice meant voting on sectarian basis, not on the merits of the candidate. The Shia bloc was so important for al-Sistani that he contributed to the formation of the Iraqi National Alliance that unified the Shia under one political framework. Though he refrained from endorsing specific political parties in subsequent elections, al-Sistani continued to urge his followers to vote – although there are recent indications that his calls are inconsequential. For instance, in the recent elections al-Sistani “called for voting in the recent elections, believing participation to be the safest way to ensure a better future for Iraq” – but only around 43 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots, lower than the prior elections. In other words, while tremendous media attention has been given to al-Sistani’s political positions, a correct understanding of his influence on the social level remains elusive.

This is not to suggest that al-Sistani’s words lack any power. When demonstrations erupted In Iraq in October 2019, protesting the country’s dire living conditions and corruption, Iraqi then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi at first refused to resign, even after hundreds of demonstrators were killed by militias and members of the security forces. He did resign, however, hours after al-Sistani pressured him to do so. Abdul-Mahdi did not heed the calls of the people, but those of an ayatollah.

In a truly democratic state, citizens are equal regardless of their backgrounds, and the influence of a cleric is limited to his followers, not to the entire society. The role that al-Sistani played and continues to play, clearly affects the development of Iraqi society but to an unclear degree. Al-Sistani’s influence on Iraq is sometimes exaggerated or misconstrued. At times, the cleric’s words have divided the country, even though that may not have been the grand ayatollah’s intention. For this reason, al-Sistani’s role in Iraq should be reassessed, with a focus on the concrete results from his words, rather than believing in their wide acceptance by Iraqis at face value.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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