Iraq Diaries: Ayatollah As Breath Of Fresh Air For West

The Iranian revolution and the captivity of 52 Americans crystalized dormant Islamophobia with ubiquitous Khomeini at its center decades before the US invasion of Iraq put another Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani under the global spotlight for entirely different reasons

The Iranian revolution and the captivity of 52 Americans crystalized dormant Islamophobia with ubiquitous Ayatollah Khomeini at its center

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shortly after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the popular revolution that ousted monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a group of students stormed the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took 52 Americans as hostages. The hostage crisis would last 444 days and crystalize dormant Islamophobia in the West.

The live TV coverage of the crisis stoked fear with ubiquitous Khomeini in a black turban at its center. It made Khomeini, writes Khaled A Beydoun in American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, a new antagonist in ‘a civilizational standoff between good and evil.’

Islamophobia would reach a crescendo with the 9/11 attacks over two decades later. The American invasion of Iraq, meanwhile, put another Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 92, under the global spotlight for entirely different reasons. Sistani emerged like a breath of fresh air for many in the West as someone who was unlike Khomeini.

Ayatollah Sistani’s rare but authoritative interventions on issues such as democratization helped positively shape Iraq after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. His 2014 fatwa urging resistance against ISIS triggered the most spirited fightback ever against terrorism and played a key role in the terror group’s territorial decimation in 2019.

Sistani’s views, particularly on the role of clergy in government, drew attention in the West. In January 2004, Susan Sachs wrote in The New York Times that Ayatollah Sistani’s teachings ‘have always reflected what is often called the quietist school of thought in modern Shiism, one that says that clerics should not run governments.’ 

Iran, which the US has been unable to tame despite backing the longest (Baghdad-Tehran) war of the 20th century estimated to have killed around a million and subjecting it to decades of crippling sanctions, has a diametrically opposite system. The system allows clerics absolute political and legal authority. Iran’s Council of Guardians clears new laws and parliamentary candidates.  

Unlike Khomeini, Ayatollah Sistani renounced power but stepped in whenever Iraq felt the need for leadership as the head of the school of thought, which does not believe in interfering with politics. The school respects divergent views and disagrees with the idea of a supreme leader that Khomeini propounded. 

In 2015, The Economist noted Sistani stands between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his aspirations to become the supreme leader of the world’s 200 million Shias. It added Sistani has refused to recognise either the legitimacy of Iran’s theocracy or the qualifications of Khamenei to be Shia Islam’s chief faqih, or jurist. 

The Economist quoted an unnamed aide to Ayatollah Sistani, saying the Iraqi spiritual leader is emphatic and does not want a religious but a civil state. It noted Sistani has repeatedly sought to roll back Iranian influence and thwarted the third term of Nuri al-Maliki, considered close to Iran, as Iraq’s prime minister after the 2014 elections. 

Sistani declined Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hizbullah’s demands for a decree backing its campaigns. He opposed intervention on behalf of the Shia Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government and the idea of supporting the Iran-backed Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime. 

Western capitals too, noted The Economist, look on ‘Sistani as one of the country’s few positive post-2003 constants, and a buttress against the country’s sectarian slide.’ Thank God Sistani is here, it quoted a western diplomat in Baghdad as saying.

Sistani has played a key role in bridging the sectarian gulf, which the American invasion widened. He urged the Shias against retaliating to sectarian attacks on mosques and civilians. 

In 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman likened Sistani to Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev and sought the Iraqi spiritual leader’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Friedman referred to Mandela’s instincts and leadership in keeping the transition to black rule in South Africa nonviolent, which helped President George Bush I’s administration in the 1990s and its allies bring that process in for a soft landing. ‘And it was Mr. Gorbachev’s insistence that the dismantling of the Soviet Empire, and particularly East Germany, be nonviolent that brought the Soviet Union in for a soft landing.’

Friedman wrote in international relations, as in sports, ‘it is often better to be lucky than good. And having the luck to have history deal you a Mandela, a Gorbachev or a Sistani as your partner at a key historical juncture—as opposed to a [Palestinian leader] Yasir Arafat or a Robert Mugabe [of Zimbabwe]—can make all the difference between US policy looking brilliant and US policy looking futile.’

Friedman argued ‘if some kind of democracy takes root’ in Iraq, ‘it will also be due in large measure’ to the top-most ranked Iraqi cleric’s instincts and directives.’ 

Friedman’s endorsement came in the backdrop of Sistani’s insistence on a direct election in 2005. Sistani rejected the original proposal for regional caucuses.’ He most recently backed citizens’ rights while calling for maintaining the constitution and the electoral system’s sanctity during the 2019 anti-government protests. Sistani did not let the polls be postponed in 2005 amid a violent response to the US occupation. 

Friedman credited Sistani with contributing to the efforts to democratise the Arab world. He wrote Sistani built ‘his legitimacy around not just his religious-scholarly credentials but around a politics focused on developing Iraq for Iraqis.’ 

Middle East expert Stephen P Cohen wrote Sistani built his politics without ‘negating someone else.’ Saddam, argued Friedman, built his politics around negating America, Iran, Israel, and Arafat by negating Zionism. 

Friedman put Sistani in the league of the late Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri and Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, saying they rose ‘to power by focusing on a positive agenda for their own people, not negating another.’ 

Friedman praised Sistani for putting the people and their aspirations at the centre of Iraqi politics, ‘not some narrow elite or self-appointed clergy (see: Iran).’ In doing so, Friedman added, Sistani has helped legitimise people’s power in the region. 

Friedman noted Sistani ‘brings to Arab politics a legitimate, pragmatic interpretation of Islam, one that says Islam should inform politics and the constitution, but clerics should not rule.’ Friedman wrote chances for success in the process of democratising the Arab world ‘are immeasurably improved’ with ‘partners from within the region who are legitimate’ and have ‘progressive instincts. That is Mr. Sistani.’ 

Friedman added Lady Luck has shined on them by keeping alive Sistani. He wondered how someone with his (Sistani) instincts and wisdom could have emerged ‘from the train wreck that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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