The reputation of Iraq’s ayatollahs has been in sharp contrast to those in neighbouring Iran, who have since Ayatollah Khomeini-led 1979 revolution personified bogeymen in the West
When the United States invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, it pushed the country’s grand ayatollahs into an unexpected role of post-war state and nation-building. Their progressive interventions prioritizing social and economic stability would prove decisive in salvaging the situation in the face of sectarian strife and civil war.
In her book Patriotic Ayatollahs: Nationalism in Post-Saddam Iraq, Caroleen Marji Sayej argues that ‘contrary to standard narratives about religious actors’, ayatollahs have been ‘the most progressive voices in the new Iraqi nation.’ The book explores the contributions of Hawza or the Shia Muslim religious establishment to state and nation-building since 2003.
Drawing on hitherto unexamined Arabic edicts, communiqués, and speeches of the ayatollahs, the book shows how their pronouncements and narratives shaped public debates after 2003. The book traces the transformative position post-2003 of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the ‘guardian of democracy’.
Sistani most significantly frustrated American plans for caucuses that would have excluded many Iraqis from the state-building process. The reputation of Iraq’s Sistani-led ayatollahs consequently in the West has been in sharp contrast to their fellow clerics in neighbouring Iran.
Iranian ayatollahs have since the Ayatollah Khomeini-led 1979 revolution and the captivity of 52 Americans personified bogeymen in the United States and Europe. In an August 2022 piece in The Guardian, Simon Tisdall description of Khomeini‘s successor Ali Khamenei exemplified this.
Tisdall wrote that the black-turbaned ayatollah Khamenei’s ‘bigoted, blinkered outlook has been poisoning the well of Iranian politics and society since he first took power in 1989.’
In a March 2021 article, Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow with Brookings’s Foreign Policy Programme, noted in every situation it was confronted with, Sistani-led Hawza prioritized the maintenance of law, order, and stability.
In different periods, wrote Alshamary, and under the leadership of different Grand Ayatollahs, the Hawza viewed itself as a guardian of society and a safety valve during crises. She cited a review of Hawza’s political involvement and argued the institution’s importance is under-appreciated.
She wrote Hawza’s involvement in anti-government protests throughout Iraqi history shows the clerical establishment has ‘reacted in much the same way regardless of whether protestors were protesting a colonial, totalitarian, or democratizing state.’
Alshamary cited Hawza’s history, and the rhetoric by contemporary clerics and added they suggest that Sistani is not an outlier among Najafi clerics. In his measured interference, she added, ‘Sistani typifies the average elite cleric produced’ in Najaf:
Moreover, the social structure of the Najafi Hawza, the rigorous academic training it imposes, as well as the personal demands it places on its students socializes its members into a specific mold. By the time they are ready to assume leadership positions in the Hawza, most clerics have adopted a particular perspective that prioritizes social and economic stability. In my interviews with elite clerics who are the likely inheritors of the religious establishment, I was struck by the uniformity of both their political views and their presentation of them.
She noted there is no reason to believe that if an equally qualified and trained colleague of his was in his position, Iraqi history would have progressed differently. Alshamary wrote more importantly, there is also no reason to believe that Sistani’s successor will differ widely in views or disposition from him. She called the Hawza hierarchy self-preservationist and wrote it is based ‘to an extent, on more fluid and contested understandings of clerical authority.’
The Hawza has historically spoken for non-Arab ethnic Kurdish minority rights. Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Al-Hakim, one of Sistani’s predecessors, issued an edict in 1966 forbidding the killing of Kurds following a military offensive against rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Hakim also issued an edict for the defense of Christians in Northern Iraq in the 1960s. In 2006, Sistani rejected calls to issue a fatwa for jihad after the Shia Askari Mosque bombing in Samarra that escalated sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. Sistani issued a decree seven years later prohibiting particularly the Sunnis blood.
In his meeting with Pope Francis in Najaf in March 2021, Sistani’s office said the grand ayatollah stressed that Iraq’s Christian citizens deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.
Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, thanked Sistani for raising ‘his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted.’ In its report on the first such meeting, The New York Times emphasised: ‘…in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’
The pope walked a few hundred metres to reach Sistani’s house for the 40-minute meeting as Rasool Street, where the grand ayatollah lives in Iraq’s Najaf, was not big enough for his bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz car.
White doves were released in a sign of peace as Francis entered the doorway, where Sistani stood to greet the pope in a rare honour. The pope took off his shoes before entering the austere meeting room.
Francis cradled the ayatollah’s hands in his own at one point in the meeting when Sistani leaned in speaking as the two religious leaders sat on wooden chairs to discuss what they can do to stop violence in the name of religion.
The meeting underlined a growing recognition of Sistani’s role in unifying a deeply-divided country, the positive results of which were visible for everyone to see when Iraq declared victory over ISIS on July 10, 2017. Civilians took to the streets and chanted slogans for the Shia-Sunni brotherhood on Mosul’s streets as the victory was announced.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who visited Mosul to make the announcement, underlined the country was now more united than ever. Amid hopes for a new national unity, airplanes dropped three million leaflets on Mosul with each showing a map of Mosul in Iraqi red, white, and black colours.
‘Mosul has been returned to the bosom of Iraq,’ said the message on the leaflets that littered Mosul, where the fighting had left much of buildings flattened and tens of thousands displaced. Iraqi state television played patriotic songs all day long as Abadi declared a national holiday the next day as part of the victory celebration.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide