Ahmedinijad in Baghdad and Global Shi'ism
This is my
last post for about three days or so, I head to a conference in Seattle where I
speak on Friday on Religious Pluralism in Islam. I'll try to blog Friday
if I'm not exhausted by the end of it. Otherwise Sunday. I leave you with a long post until then, so that you don't miss me too much.
There has been much talk recently of Ahmedinijad's visit to Baghdad, his official welcome, the red carpet and warm reception, etc. In typical Arab hyperbole, Sunnis saw it as the coming Persian occupation, the rise of King Abdullah's paranoiac, bigot-infused "Shi'a crescent", and the Shi'a saw any concerns over Iranian influence necessarily illegitimate and in fact arising out of fealty to the former and now thoroughly discredited Ba'ath regime. Clueless Americans wander around wondering why the Shi'a controlled government with officials who spent time in Iran, who view the Iraq Iraq war as perhaps the greatest disaster in Iraqi history, who know Iran will be next door, as will Turkey, long after America leaves, want to know why the Iraqi government isn't shunning Iran out of gratitude to the United States. Some of this is so foolish, it's hardly worth talking about. (One example of this sort though--George Stephanapolous, to demonstrate the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, mentioned that when you call a hotel in Najaf, they answer in Farsi. Umm, yeah George, and if you call a Prague hotel in the summer, they answer in English. All that means is the city is overrun by drunk English having bachelor parties, it doesn't mean England is taking over the place.)
But polemics and ignorance aside, what precisely is the relationship of Shi'i Iraqis to Shi'i Iranians? In answering this question we may find both the advantages and limitations of reference to the shari'a to understand the complications of life in the Middle East, and Iraq in particular.
The legal and political shari'a infused theory that dominates Iranian Shi'ism is known as wilayat al faqih. It demands that the true government, the one government, the only moral government until Shi'ism's Messiah, the Hidden Imam Mahdi, returns, is one run by the juristic community "deputized" in his absence, the marja'iyya. The most knowledgeable of these jurists is the Supreme Leader, he's got twelve jurists underneath him known as the Council of Guardians (or maybe Experts, I always get it confused), and so on. There are the institutions of a nation state in operation within the confines of the juristic limits, a parliament, a judiciary, an executive, but it would be a mistake to view this system as anything but a theocracy, where the rulers are the Mahdi's deputies, and some limited forms of more familiar forms of government beneath them. So it's modern, not medieval, but theocratic, meant to unite all of Shi'ism under one political roof.
Iraqi Shi'ism seems to be of two minds about this. clearly Shi'ism is just as international, clearly the jurists accept that the jurists from Qom are equally legitimate, and that lay Shi'i, in picking the jurist whose rulings they follow (as each Shi'i is required to do) can select an Iranian, an Iraqi, a Lebanese, an anything no matter where they are. But on the question of whether these jurists should be involved in state matters, there was a debate.
Some of the most honored Shi'i jurists in Iraq, most notably Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, were firmly in the political rule for jurists camp. But the more senior Iraqi jurists belonged to the camp that has been called "Quietism"--you wait for the Mahdi to establish political rule. In the meantime, you listen to the marja'iyya, but on how to live your life, not set up the ideal state on earth. Prayers, commerce, etc, they'll show the way. As for the state, it's hard to know what the jurists really think of it in any detail, because they ignore it. Anything from an epiphenomenon from which the believer is alienated, to a perfectly legitimate, if flawed institution that is just sort of there.
So long as Saddam is around, this sort of works. Political jurists are killed, Quietists ignore the state, Saddam leaves them be, in Iran political juristic theory controls, there's war, and the Iraqi Shi'a jurists (after the political ones have been killed) just sort of do nothing, we can safely assume they despise Saddam but are clearly not comfortable with Khomeini-ite juristic rule. Some argue that this is just tactical, they were scared of Saddam, but the Quietists were Quietists long before Saddam and to Khomeini's frustration, they never switched.
But once Iraq is freed of Ba'ath rule, what result? Quietism hardly seems to be an acceptable answer anymore in Iraq, this country needs guidance and if religious leaders are going to continue to tell people how to perform ritual washing before prayer and nothing else with all the chaos about them, they will soon become irrelevant (it was precisely these concerns that animated Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr in the 1950's and 1960's). But if the answer is juristic rule, then there is no sensible basis on which to suggest the existence of a separate state called Iraq, it would have to join with Iran.
But that will never happen. Because modernity has made its stamp on the Middle East, we Iraqis are as nationalist as anyone else, the elderly woman wearing the black tent abbaya from which only her face appears dances just as much as anyone else when the Iraqis win the Asia cup, Iraqis do not want a unified polity with Iran, no political leader says it and if he did, he'd lose his position immediately. Friendship to Iran, sure. Kissing the hand of the Iranian cleric, of course. Political union? Never. If they wanted that, they would have revolted during the war in the 80's. They didn't. When did they revolt? In 1991, after AMERICA faced Saddam and defeated him. One three week war, revolt. An eight year war with Iran, no revolt.
Add to that the fact that the Shi'a may dominate by numbers in Iraq, but not overwhelmingly like in Iran. There is a minority to consider, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who aren't going to want any form of juristic rule. Now of course the doctrine isn't going to state any of this, it can't, but neither can it ignore it.
So what comes out is a variation of Quietism that tinges Islamic rule. Iraqi jurists don't control the state, but at the same time, the Shi'a are to be involved in the state and ensure that the state protects both the institutions and authorities of Iraqi Shi'ism. That won't be codifying juristic understandings, the jurists themselves never agree anyway, who would decide among them, and besides, seminary students aren't judges. Also, there are political concerns with Sunnis and Kurds, it'll all be a mess. Instead, the role of the political authorities in protecting Shi'ism lie in just making sure that codes and enforcement mechanisms and rules allow the jurists the ability to more or less control large parts of private law for the faithful (most importantly family law, that's the real issue of concern now) and then let the state handle the broader, affairs, including everything from petroleum laws to international affairs to whatever.
I think that's the best way to understand Sistani. He says that voting is a religious DUTY. He says you sin if you don't go out and vote. He says the constitution of Iraq must be written by an elective assembly. He dismisses certain laws that he thinks don't respect the right of the state to its own self determination. But then when they're trying to pick a prime minister, he tells them to go away and figure it out themselves. And he turns back to the more core doctrinal matters where he understands he has followers from many nations, not just Iraq. So he operates within the state and without it, on two different levels.
Go a bit West, Lebanon's Fadlallah has something similar going on, though conditions in his nation state are different. He's got significant numbers of Christians as well, not just Muslims of two sects. His doctrine then goes a step further than Sistani and starts making reference to a "general law" under which all citizens irrespective of religion are treated equally and all citizens are loyal to that general law and to that state, even as they are loyal to their own religious communities. You'd almost think he was Rawls reading some of it, then you remember he's Hezbollah's spiritual leader, which doesn't seem terribly Rawlsian.
So the doctrine is clearly influenced by political considerations depending the jurist's locale. But two additional, interesting points, that go beyond just that observation.
All of these approaches, save the first, necessarily assume the legitimacy of the nation states as they exist. That is, if you adopted any one of these theories, there is no reason there should be a state of Iraq as opposed to say, Arabia. Yet the jurist doesn't call for that, he develops a political theory within the confines of his own nation-state, responsive to the circumstances of that state (in Iraq, lots of Sunni Muslims, in Lebanon, lots of Christians, in Iran, overwhelmingly Shi'a Muslim) while developing the core of his doctrine in the more traditional, internationalist way, where followers from all sorts of regions listen to the jurist. Sistani's website, with instruction to the faithful on how to live their lives, is in six languages, but whenever he talks politics, he never deigns to tell the nearby Arab Lebanese Shi'a what to do in their elections, for example. Clearly modernity has so stamped national identity onto Shi'i communities that the doctrine ASSUMES that the states are what they are and not seek to disturb that.
And that's where Ahmedinijad's visit gets interesting. Because even HE adopts the nation state paradigm, while adhering to a political theory that hardly countenances it. He's on a STATE visit. Now I guess state visits sort of make sense for him--to France or Italy or even a non-Shi'i state like Saudi. But Iraq? To accept the political legitimacy of this state called Iraq, which is 75% Shi'i outside of Kurdistan (and the Kurds would be happy to go their own way), when your very political theory is that Shi'a are to be united in one state led by the most knowledgeable jurist? How?
Because wilayat al faqih, or rule of the jurists for the Shi'a, as a pure religious concept is dead. It can only exist in conjunction with political realties that are no less real to pious Iranians then their religious identities.
So the point is this--want to understand the Shi'a as a community? To ignore the pure religious doctrine is hopeless. And to ignore the political circumstances in which it is laid, and the modern sensibilities arising from those circumstances, is equally hopeless. It's all one seamless web, law and politics, religious identity and national, local leader and global jurist.
That's the REALITY of Islamic law in our times. Now if they'd only teach it in our law schools. . . ..