Ayatollah Sistani. Demotix/Ali Saad Malik. All rights reserved.
After the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s blitzkrieg of major Iraqi cities and towns earlier this month, the organization’s spokesperson released an incendiary audio recording designed to incite an all-out sectarian war akin to that which raged from 2006 to 2007. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani pledged to transform Iraq into a living hell for “the Shi’a and other heretics” before threatening to settle scores “not in Samarra or Baghdad but in Karbala al-munajjasah [the defiled] and Najaf al-ashrak [the most polytheistic]”. ISIS’s promise to storm Shi’i Islam’s most revered cities that house the tombs of the third Shi’i Imam, Hussein Ibn Ali, and the fourth rightly guided caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, elicited its intended reaction: widescale mobilization of Iraqi Shi’is. And Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani played right into ISIS’s hands.
Ayatollah Sistani, regarded as the highest religious authority for many Shi’i believers worldwide, responded to ISIS’s caustic provocation by issuing his most interventionist fatwa to date. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, Sistani has repeatedly urged his followers to exercise restraint even in the face of the attack on the al-Askari Mosque in the Shi’i holy city of Samara. But not this time.
A fatwa was posted to Sistani’s official website on 11 June. It was a call to arms - a collective responsibility for Iraq’s able-bodied to protect religious sites. The fatwa immediately grabbed headlines as a critical development in the unfolding events set in motion by ISIS’s expanding offensive. The western media overemphasized the fatwa’s sectarian character, construing it as an effort to mobilize Iraqi Shi’is against the country’s restive Sunni population. The following day, the Chatham House expert Hayder al-Khoei met with Sistani, who clarified that he was calling upon all Iraqis to stand with the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) against ISIS and fortify all of Iraq’s religious sites. On 12 June, one of Sistani’s representatives appealed to Iraqis and emphasized the nationalist sentiment of the fatwa.
Despite the call for all Iraqis to shore up the IAF, a predominately Shi’i mobilization campaign ensued with political and religious leaders, including some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s fiercest opponents, taking to the podiums. Donning military fatigue, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ayatollah Ammar al-Hakim, encouraged Iraqis to flood the hastily erected volunteer recruitment centers. Muqtada al-Sadr called for the formation of new units to defend Iraq’s religious sites and his followers staged a display of force in military parades throughout state-controlled cities a week later.
Sistani’s nationalist credentials
Sistani’s fatwa was widely understood in the Middle East as an escalation of the Iraqi and regional sectarian conflict. Astute observers of Shi’i politics condemned media outlets for simplistically framing the fatwa as a sectarian call to target Sunnis and for omitting the nationalist essence of Sistani’s statement. Sistani’s representatives worldwide went on the defensive, reaffirming the fatwa’s nationalist message. They emphasized that the marja‘iyya (the religious establishment) will never promote sectarian divisions and that the call was to fight the takfiri foreigners within the legitimate framework of the IAF, not militias that operate outside of the law. They also discouraged foreign Shi‘i fighters from coming to Iraq. Indeed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has declared that he would send five times the forces that he sent to Syria, demonstrating that the potent fatwa could draw fighters from beyond Iraq’s borders and shift the center of Shi’i militancy from Syria to Iraq.
Khoei’s prominent Twitter feed criticized the western media’s flawed and sensationalist reporting of the fatwa, and various outlets rushed to correct their reports. Although Khoei correctly makes the case for Sistani’s nationalist credentials and track record of promoting Iraq’s national unity from the earliest days of the post-Saddam era, it was not just the western media that got it wrong. The need for Sistani’s representatives to repeatedly clarify his call to arms and reiterate the nationalist character of the fatwa indicates that it was understood by many Iraqis just as the western media framed it: a call for Iraq’s Shi’is to prepare for defensive jihad against ISIS and the local Sunni insurgents who are facilitating the organization’s advance. To be sure, other influential religious and political figures have conflated Sistani’s fatwa with the need for defensive jihad and have continued to galvanize Shi’i communities.
Surely the strategists in Sistani’s office could have anticipated these reactions. It is true that ISIS’s threat to storm the holy cities represents an existential threat for Iraq’s Shi’is, but one could argue that al-Qaida’s indiscriminate attacks on Shi’i civilians instilled similar fear during the period from 2006 to 2007. So why the sudden turnaround?
It seems that Sistani could not afford to stand by idly as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iranian-backed militias allied with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took the lead in demonstrating commitment to the defence of Iraq and Shi’i holy sites. Droves of Iraqi Shi’is have answered the call and it is fair to assume that many would not have done so had Sistani not urged them to confront ISIS. But the remobilization of Shi’i militias in Iraq has been long under way and Adnani’s ominous message was sure to fuel the mobilization, regardless of Sistani’s fatwa. Prior to ISIS’s capture of Mosul, a host of Iran-backed militias allied with Maliki and redeployed from Syria to Iraq; new units and committees have sprung up in Iraqi cities to repel the ISIS threat. Sistani’s inaction might have risked a slide toward obsolescence at a time when there are clear signs that the religious establishment’s influence is on the decline.
Maliki easily emerged from the April parliamentary elections as the most popular politician despite unprecedented criticism emanating from the powers that be in Najaf. Since the outbreak of indigenous peaceful demonstrations in the Anbar province in December 2012, Sistani has rebuked Maliki’s handling of the crisis. He consistently acknowledged the legitimate demands of the protests and called on Maliki to build a “civil state” anchored in the principle of equal citizenship. Among many other expressions of his disapproval of Maliki and his allies’ sectarian motives, Sistani supported the (failed) legislative effort to confine Maliki’s tenure to two terms. Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, one of Iraq’s four leading ayatollahs, delivered a scathing attack against Maliki and urged voters to select an alternative candidate days before Iraqis headed to the polls.
Tensions between the religious establishment and Baghdad have been mounting over the past few years but never has the fissure between the figureheads of political Shi’ism and religious Shi’ism been so manifest. Nevertheless, Maliki’s shrewd politicking allowed him to survive the clerics’ contempt, suggesting that Najaf might not wield the same degree of political influence it once enjoyed.
Sistani’s calculus also probably took into account the prospect of Iran ramping up its role in Iraq. Leaving the protection of Najaf and Karbala exclusively to Shi’i militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps would have legitimized further Iranian interference in Iraq. This would undermine Sistani’s assiduous efforts to thwart Iran’s penetration of Iraq, particularly in the religious sphere. Iranian influence in Iraq is an undeniable reality, but allowing Iran to take the lead in the struggle against ISIS would have enduring consequences that could enfeeble the religious establishment.
In a Friday sermon delivered in Karbala, Sistani’s representative Sayed al-Safi reiterated the core message of Iraqi nationalism that motivated Sistani’s fateful words. Safi urged adherence to the deadlines for forming a new government. He criticized the haphazard organization of the recruitment centers, called on the government to do more to help the internally displaced and exhorted food traders to refrain from capitalizing on the conflict through price gouging. Safi conveyed Sistani’s desire to see a “new effective” government of national unity formed quickly; namely one that does not include Maliki.
It is worth remembering that prior to ISIS’s assault, Shi’i leaders were in negotiations to revive the defunct Shi’i umbrella political organization and present an alternative candidate that would be acceptable to Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and at least restore the veneer of national unity. It is too soon to tell if the ISIS offensive will have the unintended effect of unifying the fractured political echelons or even the Shi’i political bloc.
Sistani’s potent fatwa might have been misconstrued as an attempt to mobilize Iraqi Shi’is against ISIS and the Sunni insurgency, instead of a call for all Iraqis to defend their homeland and its various religious sites as intended by its author. But its real significance lies less in the gravity of ISIS’s threat to Iraq and more in its reflection of the profound divisions that plague Iraq’s Shi’is.