Church and State

Bill Roggio reports that the party of Prime Minister Miliki has changed its name and a key element of its platform from the Qom School to the Najaf school of Shia Islam:

On the political front, the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest Shia political party, has changed its name and shifted its center of political and religious support from the Qom school of thought, led by the Iranian Ayatollah in Iran, to the Najaf school of thought, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This would “mark a shift from SCIRI’s current platform, which says the group gets its guidance from the religious establishment of Welayat al Faqih, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran,” Reuters reported on Friday.
SCIRI has renamed itself the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, dropping the “Revolution” from the name. While the source stated the name change was due to Saddam’s overthrow, the change is far more significant. The term revolution is closely associated with Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979 and the radical change Khomeini introduced in Shia politics.

The critical difference from my perspective between the two schools is that the Qom school teaches the primacy of religion over government and therefore encourages Mullahs to be directly involved in politics and government. Hence the ‘mullocracy’ in Iran. The Najaf school teaches that government is the province of politicians and Mullahs should not directly involve themselves in politics. That is why, for example, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is the head of the Najaf School, strongly urged Iraqi Shiites to vote in the Iraqi elections but discouraged Mullahs from running for office. Likewise when he was asked if Iraq should be partitioned he said that it was not up to him but a matter for the politicians to decide.

This attitude contrasts sharply with the totalitarianism of the Iranian Mullahs or Sadr, their main adherent in Iraq. The Najaf school’s attitude allows separate roles for church and state which opens the way to a balance between the two where government can focus on modern concerns such as economic development, infrastructure, or foreign policy separate from religion. In Iran the state is subordinated to the concerns of religion and ends up being an enforcer of religious orthodoxy. In this Boston Globe piece Ann Barnard reports changing attitudes among merchants in Iran:

Haamed Hussein Warraqi, another merchant, contrasted the different ways in which Sistani and the Iranian religious authorities deal with overly exuberant revelers on Arbayeen, an important Shi’ite holiday. In Iran, he said, riot police line the streets to rein in men who cut their scalps with knives — a show of mourning that the Iranian government and some religious scholars deem Islamically incorrect.

In contrast, “Sistani uses the authority of his word,” said Warraqi, 27. “The domain of Sistani is in religion, and he is obeyed by the people. Here they want to rule according to politics. That’s why they have to use the riot police.”

“Any time religion is imposed by the government,” Ghaie added, “there is a bad reaction.”

Looking at Iran from the outside, I would argue that part of that ‘bad reaction’ is that we see a religious regime is working to get nuclear weapons to keep itself in power and threatening to wage nuclear religious war against Israel. By contrast the Iraqi regime is moving away from this path. Barnard continues:

But now, in Iraq, Shi’ites are witnessing a new alternative: They can defend their rights at the ballot box, without establishing a religious state.

“We believe that politics is separate from religion,” said Iraq’s ambassador to Iran, Mohammed Majid al-Sheikh. “Of course there are debates about this. If Iran wants to take on these debates, it will benefit. And I could say that the experiment of Iraq will ripple throughout the Middle East.”

Nor is the flow of new ideas all running in one direction.

But influence is a two-way street, especially between two countries whose shrine cities and capitals have been tied by trade and pilgrimage for centuries. About 1,500 Iranians go to Iraq on pilgrimage every day, Sheikh said. The Ghaie brothers went recently and were impressed to see the parade of Iraqi politicians visiting Sistani’s modest house in Najaf — voluntarily — for advice.

And it involves money:

In Tehran’s storied central bazaar, an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric — rather than to clerics closer to Iran’s state power structure, said Jawad al-Ghaie.

So I think the name change of the SCIRI to SIIC signals a clear decision of the most significant Shiite party to opt for a balance between church and state and therefore a state equipped to carry out the functions of modern government. Because the Shia are the majority in Iraq, my primary concern before the US invaded in 2003 was the consequences of empowering this long persecuted and volatile group. Particularly after we left them to Saddam’s mercies after the First Gulf War. So I think we are seeing Iraq’s Shiites realizing that they have an opportunity to control their own destiny. They have in the Najaf School a basis within their own religious tradition to move forward that is radically different from the path taken by Iran. Coupled with the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council and similar groups in the central Sunni area this overt recognition by the largest Shiite party of a separate role for government opens the way for both sides of the sectarian divide to support the government against the religious extremism of both al Qaeda and Sadr. In fact, the political deadlock between Sunni and Shiite seems to be disolving as both appear to be getting serious about working together. Bill Roggio in the same report as linked at the beginning of this post reports:

Also, on the Sunni side of the political equation, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has backed down from a threat to withdrawal from the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered to give a greater role to Sunnis in securing their regions. “One Sunni Arab politician, Omar Abdul-Sattar, said 11,000 volunteers from Sunni areas west of the capital have been waiting for months to hear news about their applications to join the army,” The Associated Press reported. This comes as Prime Minister Maliki stated that an unspecified amount of additional Iraqi troops would be sent into Diyala.

If both sides keep cooperating, Iraq has a real chance of becoming a prosperous and peaceful place. The Kurds have gotten much further down this path which cannot be entirely lost on the rest of Iraq. The china shop mentality – you broke it, you own it – that characterizes much of the criticism of the war in Iraq ignores that Iraq was already broken. What I have learned following the war closely since 2003 is that the West alone cannot fix it because we don’t own it – the Iraqis do. And for the the war to succeed they must want to build something better than a new tyranny. Some, like the Kurds, were ready. Others are taking some time, but the key all along has been the Shia. They are the majority and they must find their way to a workable solution from within their own world view. Perhaps I make too much of it, but I think that small change of name by President Miliki’s party signifies a critical turning point.


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