The clerics of Najaf and politicians of Baghdad

As Najaf, the institution that comprises Iraq's highest-ranking Shia clerics, announces it would stop meeting politicians until Baghdad supplies better services to the people, we see the country's complex tension between its religious and political authorities.

An interesting development is under way in Iraq as the Marja’iyya of Najaf – the institution that comprises the country's highest-ranking Shia clerics – declared last week that it would stop meeting politicians until their broken promises of reform and better services are met.

Although constantly criticising the politicians for their failures, the clerics have never refused to meet them outright until now. The move, spearheaded by Ayatollah Sistani, is the first serious attempt by Najaf to increase mounting political pressure on Baghdad to supply better services to the people.

The report was played down by Prime Minister Maliki’s aide, Sami al-Askari, who stated quite bluntly, 'it is up to the Iraqi people to reject or accept the government, as they are the ones who voted in the general elections'.

The obvious swipe at the clerics did come, however, with acknowledgment that the demand for better performance was a legitimate concern that the government is working hard at trying to achieve. The statement from Askari is ironic given the internal political dynamic between the Shia clerics in Najaf and the Shia politicians in Baghdad. The former almost ensured the latter would come out on top in both the January and December 2005 elections when they implicitly advised millions of their followers to the vote for the main Shia parties.

The move also comes in the light of a classic post-2003 electioneering tactic employed by many politicians seeking more votes. These ego trips entail driving south to Najaf in high-profile visits, meeting the media-shy clerics in the privacy of their offices but then conducting public press interviews on the clerics’ doorsteps and announcing that their political agendas have been blessed by the revered spiritual leaders.

Many in Iraq will welcome the move by clerics to stop meeting the politicians, and indeed, argue that the decision could not have come soon enough. But this also raises the spectre of clerical authority in Iraq which is at least as unaccountable to the people as the government is. In order to understand the Najaf-Baghdad relationship – which varies between cordial and antagonistic – one need only look at the attitude to Najaf of the three most important Shia political parties in the country.

The Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq, influenced in part by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, historically has been at odds with the traditional hawza of Najaf, which remains unchanged to this day in terms of its ideological stance on political Islam. When Dawa’s mentor, Ayatollah Fadlallah, died last year, many party members turned towards Iran-based Ayatollah Shahrudi as their spiritual guide. The move slightly unsettled Najaf due to Shahrudi’s position as the head of the Iranian judiciary from 1999 up until the controversial 2009 presidential elections. A close friend of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei, he is widely rumoured to be preparing to leave Iran to settle back in his place of birth, Iraq.

The Sadrist Movement is also wary of the traditionalist approach of Najaf’s elite. The Sadrist icon Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, infamously distinguished between the vocal/active hawza that he led, and the silent/passive hawza, which is a reference to the quietist school of thought in Shia Islam that distinguishes clerical authority in Iraq from that in Iran.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is different. They are the only political party in Iraq that recognises the Marja’iyya as their spiritual leaders – although whether they follow the Marja’iyya of Iraq or Iran is hotly debated. Whatever their ideology, they remain the closest political party to the clerical establishment in Najaf and familial links strengthen these ties. The party leader, Ammar al-Hakim, is a cousin of Ayatollah Hakim, who along with Ayatollahs Sistani, Fayyadh and Najafi, comprise the Marja’iyya.

The decision by a clique of clerics to stop hosting politicians, until certain conditions are met, may seem like an insignificant cooling of relations, but in the highly charged and tense political atmosphere of Iraq, the move marks a dramatic shift relations.

In Baghdad, politicians also try to gain legitimacy through religion. A good example of this is Prime Minister Maliki's posture towards Ramadhan this year. On Wednesday 29 July , Prime Minister Maliki, also acting Interior Minister, issued a statement to the Iraqi people on the occasion of the holy month of Ramadhan, in which he acknowledged the abundance of blessings during this month and urged Iraq to draw on Islamic principles such as mercy and love to strengthen the unity amongst Iraqis and to reject violence and terrorism.

The statement came with a list of six orders to Iraqi people :

1. It is strictly forbidden to openly break ones fast. Authorities are to take necessary action on offenders.

2. All shops selling alcohol will be shut down.

3. Restaurants will be closed from sunrise to sunset (with the exception of those which cater to factory workers, students, tourists and first-class restaurants in cities)

4. All entertainment activities that are not compatible with the sanctity of this month will be banned after sunset.

5. All public cafes will be closed from sunrise to sunset.

6. Legal action will be taken against violators of this law.

In this current political turmoil, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Iraqi government has far more important issues to deal with than who openly prays, fasts and goes on the Hajj. But it seems the ‘secular’ and ‘nationalist’ politicians cannot shed their Islamist skin so easily, despite the rhetoric they dish out when it comes to campaigning for elections to win votes.

Many people will argue there is absolutely nothing wrong with this law, because Iraq is overwhelmingly Muslim and if people want to break their fast they should do so in the privacy of their own homes where the authorities will not interfere with them. In fact, there are many problems with this ‘law’. Maliki has no constitutional or legal right to issue these Saddam-style ‘presidential’ decrees. During Saddam’s era, local authorities were given the green light to enforce a similar decree but we are no longer living in Saddam’s Iraq. This Iraq is supposed to have a parliament to legislate laws, not a Prime Minister who makes them up on a whim. It beggars belief to think that somewhere in Baghdad a group of men are sitting around playing with their prayer beads and coming up with laws that are more befitting to a theocracy than to an emerging democracy.

About the author

Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the London-based Centre for Academic Shi'a Studies. He is also a research fellow at Forward Thinking, a contributing writer at the British Iraqi Forum and maintains his own blog