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.