Sunday, March 20, 2005

Shi'ism Triumphant in Iraq

An edited and updated version of an op-ed that originally ran in the February 14, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

The official results from Iraq’s first truly democratic election in decades, which was held on January 30, were announced in February. Ignoring threats from Tawhid wal Jihad, the terrorist organization led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and allied to al-Qaeda, millions of Iraqis headed for the polls on election day, as sporadic violence broke out across the country. The message to the insurgents, and particularly al-Zarqawi’s terrorist brigades, who have murdered scores of Iraqis, beheaded dozens of foreigners, and been tentatively tied to the assassination of Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (left) in August 2003, was clear: the majority of Iraqis denounce your tactics and your days are numbered.

As many analysts had predicted, the United Iraqi Alliance, a bloc of candidates supported by Grand Ayatullah Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni as-Sistani (right), who heads the marja’iyya, the council of Iraq’s senior Shi’ite clerics, won just under 48 percent of the approximately 8.456 million votes cast. This bloc includes the country’s two most powerful Shi’ite religious political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) headed by ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (left) and Hizb al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya, also known as the Da’wa Party. The rebel seminary student Muqtada as-Sadr, who led revolts against Coalition forces and the Iraqi interim government in April and August 2004, declined to actively take part in the elections, but did not rule out future participation in politics.

For more on Sayyid as-Sistani, see: and

Coming in second was an alliance of Kurdish parties, who received 2.175 million votes or 26 percent, ensuring that the Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, a place in future Iraqi governments. Trailing a distant third was slate of candidates allied to Iraq’s current Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the brusque secularist and former Ba’thist backed by the U.S., which received only 1.168 million votes.

Because the UIA failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to form a government, it will be necessary for them to form a national unity government with other factions, presumably Kurdish and Sunni groups from outside the Shi’ite community. However, despite this, the election marked the first time that Iraq’s Shi’ites have been able to translate their numeric majority into the political power that should come with it. Under the Ottoman Turks, who were avowedly Sunni, then the British colonial government, followed by an artificial monarchy and then the Ba’th Party, Iraqi Shi’ites have long been kept out of the political process.

Last month, that all changed. Since they made up at least 60-65 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million, the Shi’ites were the natural frontrunners in any national, democratic election. Despite the opposition of a as-Sadr’s militant Mahdi militia (right), the vast majority of the country’s Shi’ites heeded the calls of the marja’iyya and particularly as-Sistani to participate fully in the elections. In fact, the senior cleric issued a religious decree or fatwa that declared it a religious requirement for Iraqi Shi’ites to participate, and with the official results in, it seems that his call was heard.

Although Grand Ayatullah as-Sistani has stated that any new Iraqi government had to recognize the preeminence of Islamic culture and values within the country, since the overwhelming majority of its population is Muslim, he has also rejected the idea that a theocracy such as that that exists in the Islamic Republic of Iran should be established. With this, as-Sistani seemed to be upholding the traditional role of the Shi’ite clergy as the protectors of Islamic values in the public sphere, but not as the actual temporal rulers of society.

Although he has called for the new Iraqi constitution to recognize the role of Islam in the country’s history and society, as-Sistani also made clear his support of the democratic process in choosing a new government. Some have argued that as-Sistani’s desire for a fully democratic election is solely based on his recognition that the Shi’ites are by far the largest group in Iraq, such criticism does little to discredit the senior cleric’s positions. In other words, his desire to ensure a prominent role for Iraq’s Shi’ite community, for the first time in the nation’s history, does not really lessen the significance of his support for the democratic process. In reality, most sectarian groups in democracies around the globe rest at least part of their support for the institution of a democratic form of government on their desires to achieve some representation for their own constituencies. As-Sistani’s desire to achieve the same does not differ significantly from theirs.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq in the spring of 2003 and the subsequent forcible transition to democracy stewarded by the CPA, Iraqi Shi’ites were presented with their first opportunity at real political power. Throughout late 2003 and into the first half of 2004, as-Sadr (left) and his radical Mahdi militia (right), who supported the immediate establishment of an Islamic republic, presumably like that which exists in Iran, received a good deal of support. As-Sadr challenged the traditional Shi’ite hierarchy, presenting himself as an action-oriented alternative. However, it was the moderate voices in Iraq, led by the country’s senior Shi’ite clergy, headed by as-Sistani that have since reestablished their authority. As-Sistani and his allies in the mainstream Shi’ite Iraqi clergy have been steering a much more pragmatic course toward the recognition of Shi’ite political power in any new, democratically elected government.

After decades of being prevented from actively participating in the national government and nearly a quarter-century of violent suppression of their community by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority has flexed its muscles and spread its wings. However, despite being on the brink of newfound power, they also appear to be ready and willing to share the reigns of power in what may become the world’s newest democratic nation. Indeed, the Shi'ites seem poised to fill the prime minister's position, with Da'wa Party leader Ibrahim al-Jafari (left), and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani (right) will most likely get the presidency.

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