Bill Maher Is Wrong about Ayatollah Sistani

Since this ISIS debacle happened, Ayatollah Sistani’s name has been heard again in the international news. On last Friday and the Friday before that, Bill Maher mentioned him and ridiculed him, as if he’s a sectarian Shiite fundamentalist. But that is not true, in the extremely fucked up atmosphere of Iraq, Sistani has been a very positive influence and not a negative one.

In the first week Maher mocks Sistani’s call for jihad against ISIS, saying that his declaration is a sign that Shiites are fighting the sectarian war (they are, but not because of that), and that he’s the crazy Ayatollah behind these tensions, and last Friday he mocked Sistani’s call for unity government, picturing it as if it was a surprise and most probably hypocritical.

I write to make sure my western readers have a correct view of this cleric’s role in Iraq.

Maher had had his fun with Sistani before, and the last time he deserved the mocking, because Maher was mocking his extremely traditional and conservative views. And yes, Sistani does have extremely traditional and conservative views on issues like abortion, sexuality, music, and chess (he thinks they are forbidden), and one can easily mock him for those views, but ultimately those are the views of all major Shiite clerics, it’s not like he should be singled out as the only one holding these views. Here you can see the video in which he ridiculed Sistani’s views from years ago:

All major (and minor) Ayatollahs have these Q&A sections (the very job of an Ayatollah is to clear these things up for people), and on all of these things Sistani supports the majority view. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the ridicule Maher heaps on him here, but still it doesn’t define his role as a political player.

What you need to remember is that Sistani is the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, has been advocating the right policies for Iraq. First of all, he doesn’t support theocracy in the Iranian style. While he’s by no means a secular, still opposing the Iran type form of theocracy means Iraqis could have a much better chance at democracy because their greatest religious leader doesn’t Iranian-style theocracy, and this reduces the influence of Iran in the religious institutions such as Najaf school, which is a big deal and good for Iraqis. And true to his beliefs, he has not used his power to shape Iraq’s politics unless in extremely urgent times.

But more importantly Sistani has always been an advocate for Sunni-Shiite unity, in words and action. He has spoken many times about this issue, for example he has said “There is no real difference between Shiite and Sunni beliefs, and I am the servant of all Iraqis”, and that “Shiites should defend Sunnis’ social and political rights before defending their own rights, and we call [everyone] for unity…. As I have said before, Shiites should not call Sunnis their brethren, but their ‘souls”. He has used his influence to mitigate dialogue between the two sects, and he has functioned as the middle man many times.

He also advocated the exactly right positions for Iraq today. While he calls for jihad against ISIS (and he should, because they are very dangerous), he also puts the correct blame on Maliki and his extremely Iran-influenced and sectarian government, he implicitly has asked for Maliki to step down and for a national reconciliation government to be formed, and that is the political solution that this crisis needs. Via NPR:

Then, possibly because that was seen as too sectarian, Sistani had more to say Friday. “Our call last Friday was for all Iraqi citizens, not for a particular sect,” the edit stated.

Then Sistani appeared to focus on the Shiite leadership, widely criticized for marginalizing the minority Sunnis. He called for the leaders to adhere to the schedule required in forming a new government after the April parliamentary elections. This government, he wrote, should “avoid past mistakes and open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.”

Of course, this is not because was deemed too sectarian. Sistani’s record is clear to everyone who has followed Iraqi policies; he’s always been a non-sectarian voice.

As an atheist living in Iran, I hate few things more than Shiite orthodoxy. Sistani deserves scorn and ridicule for his reactionary orthodox views. But as a powerful force in Iraqi politics his record is commendable, and deserves respect on that front.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Raging Bee

    Question: Isn’t that terrorist/insurgent group officially named “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant?” I ask this because there seems to be a heated dispute over their name, and US media are accused of calling them ISIS instead of ISIL just because they’re lazy assholes looking for a catchier name. Your thoughts?

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Heh, I was actually unaware of what ISIS stood for, because I rely on the Arabic word myself.

      They call themselves “Daa3esh”, which translates to “The Islamic State of Aragh (Iraq) and Shaam”, and Shaam is actually Levant in English. I assumed ISIS stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam”, but it turns out they meant “Isamic State of Iraq and Syria”. Levant included Cyprus, parts of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. So simply calling it Syria downplays their enormous ambitions. ISIL seems to be more accurate.

      • Raging Bee

        THANK YOU for that clarification. One reason I’m harping on this is that I have several polytheist friends who worship the ancient Egyptian goddess named Isis (that’s the Roman name actually, I’m told the original name was Ausset). And we’re all mightily upset that this goddess’s name is being used to label an army of murdering bigoted pond-scum, who would probably hack off the head of anyone who showed any signs of worshipping Isis/Ausset.

        PS: Is the number “3″ really in their name, or is that some sort of ASCII error?

        • Kaveh Mousavi

          The number is used to indicate how it’s pronounced.

          • Raging Bee

            Sorry, but the “ayin” character you refer to look like a backwards “3″. I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey, but using the number “3″ here just doesn’t work. Unless you’re saying the Arabic name of ISIL is pronounced “Daa-three-esh?”

          • Kaveh Mousavi

            Number 3 is the way ayin is transliterated. It is an arbitrary convention.

  • IncredulousMark

    Everything you wrote about Sistani indicates to me he is absolutely deserving of the ridicule Maher has heaped upon him. Being slightly less vile than the worst of the clerics is nothing to be respected.

    • Raging Bee

      One step in the right direction is better than zero steps. If this guy is really trying to fight off ISIL, then that deserves respect and support.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I feel you didn’t read my post very carefully. Maher acts as if Sistani is a source of problem in Iraq’s situation, while he’s a major part of the solution: he’s the most influential Iraqi religious leader (a Shiite Pope, if you will) who strongly advocates for Sunni-Shiite unity, peace, and a national reconciliation government. Which is what Iraq needs. Which makes him a very important figure in the current crisis.

      You can ridicule him for his orthodox views as I have said already, but it’s very wrong to consider him a bad player in the current crisis. If you compare him to Moqtada Sadr or Hakim family, you will see that in the context of Middle East this is a very big deal.

  • EricJohansson

    Wasn’t it Sistani who also nixed the attempt by the Bush admin to install Ahmed Chalabi as president shortly after the Iraqi invasion, as a U.S. puppet. In other words, Sistani was the one attempting to foster something like democracy (at least as close as it gets in the region) in opposition to America’s desire to set up another client state. Correct me if I am wrong.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Sistani’s opposition to Chalabi was definitely a big factor, but you have to consider Iran’s opposition to him as well, which caused Hakim family to also oppose him, basically rendering the whole Shiites against him. But you’re right that Sistani’s motivations were much more honorable than Iran’s in opposing Chalabi.

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