October 15, 2004


Iraq's New Power Couple: The Americans, and the interim Iraqi government, would do
well to stop seeing Moktada al-Sadr and Ahmad Chalabi as enemies and work with them to build a free Iraq. (BARTLE BREESE BULL, 10/15/04, NY Times)

Moktada al-Sadr's headquarters in Najaf is in a tiny alley next to the city's famous shrine of the Imam Ali. As the fighting between American forces and his Mahdi Army wound down in August, I went there with two of his men, who showed me a piece of paper bearing two seals: one belonged to their boss, the other to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the ultimate Shiite religious authority in Iraq. Below the seals were the five promises of Mr. Sadr's cease-fire, including his commitment to "participate actively in the political process" and to "work cooperatively" toward Iraq's January elections.

At the time, many observers scoffed at the deal, citing Mr. Sadr's previous broken promises and the failure of his men to turn over their arms after the Najaf siege. Yet two recent developments - one covered in the international press, the other unnoticed - show that such skepticism may have been misplaced.

The first is Mr. Sadr's stated intention to form a political party; the second is the behind-the-scenes rejuvenation of Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile leader and longtime favorite of the Pentagon who so notoriously split with his American sponsors in May. Mr. Sadr's commitment is for real, it represents momentous progress for the democratic project in Iraq and it signals the emergence of a broad and powerful Shiite front - with Ahmad Chalabi at its center.

The weapons handover in Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum named after Mr. Sadr's father, is just the latest promising sign. Mr. Sadr's people told me in confidence after the Najaf uprising about plans to start a political party for the upcoming elections. They had planned to call their political organization the Mahdi Party, in homage to a 12th-century imam whose return, Shiites believe, will bring Iraq's majority group its era of justice. Now they have gone public with their electoral plans and, in a sign of growing political sophistication, they have chosen the more accommodating name of the Patriotic Front.

It is precisely their millenarianism that makes Shi'ites--like Christians and Jews--so well-suited to liberal democracy. Since the governance of men will not be perfected until the imam comes, the governments of men will be imperfect things. It is the loss of that perspective that made secular Europe so susceptible to utopian visions in the 20th Century and brought them murderous dystopias instead, as men tried to perfect society themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 15, 2004 5:53 PM

Please explain why this marvelous cult has yet to even start setting up any sort of representative free government anywhere on any scale

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 16, 2004 3:33 AM

Iran and Iraq are both well under way.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2004 8:29 AM

But what happens when the Shia decide that the Imam is no longer hidden? That's what happened to Iran thirty years ago.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 16, 2004 9:51 AM


No, it's not. The Ayatollah was not a messianic figure but one who imported statist heresy from France into Shi'ism:

"The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to God Almighty. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator. It is for this reason that in an Islamic government, a simple planning body takes the place of the legislative assembly that is one of the three branches of government. This body draws up programs for the different ministries in the light of the ordinances of Islam and thereby determines how public services are to be provided across the country."
Islamic Government (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini)

The heretical nature of the regime is why it proved so unpopular.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2004 9:56 AM

Slate Diary (Reza Aslan, 9/8/04):

Inside the complex, the floor is littered with scraps of paper on which supplicants have written their entreaties to God. The sick and elderly clutch desperately at the metal grate encircling the tomb. The mausoleum is built so that those who kneel in prayer are obliged to face Khomeini's tomb as they do so.

Suddenly, it dawns on me. This is not the tomb of a political leader but the shrine of an imam—the semidivine "saints" of Shiism who can intercede on behalf of God, heal the sick, and grant forgiveness of sins. There are 12 Shiite imams, beginning with Imam Ali in the seventh century and ending with the "Hidden Imam," who went into occultation in the ninth century; it is said that he will return at the end of time as the messianic restorer known as the Mahdi.

I remember when Khomeini first returned to Iran, people whispered furtively that the Mahdi had finally arrived. This was an intolerably heretical statement, though Khomeini never bothered to disabuse people of the notion. Indeed, he eagerly consented to the title "Imam" while he was alive and relished the messianic symbolism of the term. Now, in death, that symbolism seems to be fixed for all time. I am visibly ill at ease when, as I collect my shoes to leave, an old man touches my shoulder and cheerfully says, "May the Imam deliver your prayers!"

The revolution was wildly popular when it happened. It is unpopular now because it hasn't delivered and is a dead end. The idea that Khomeini was the hidden Imam was commonplace in Iran at the time, and while Khomeini never said he was, he never said he wasn't either. (It is, hah, much like the Lubbavitchers and their Rebbe.) In the mean time, Khomeini explicitly assumed the powers of the hidden Imam as his regent, ruling on Earth under Allah until the hidden Imam's return -- sort of a John the Baptist figure, except with secular power and, unfortunately, a different fate.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 16, 2004 10:24 AM

The 12th Imam can't have a tomb.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2004 10:31 AM

The Shi'ites and the Future of Iraq (Yitzhak Nakash, July/August 2003, Foreign Affairs)

Unlike Sunnis, who in theory are expected to obey their rulers and even tolerate a tyrant in order to avoid civil strife and preserve the cohesion of the Muslim community, observant Shi'ites recognize no authority on earth except that of the imam. The twelfth imam is believed to be hidden from view and is expected to return one day as a messianic figure, the Mahdi. In his absence, there can be no human sovereign who is fully legitimate. This ambivalence toward worldly power has resulted in different interpretations within Shi'ite Islam regarding government accountability and the role of the clerics in state affairs. Khomeini's concept of the rule of the jurist is only one among several competing views.

The collapse of Saddam's regime has given Shi'ite debates on the meaning of a just government in the Iraqi context a greater urgency. There are constituencies, including some elements of the Daawa Party and its offshoots, that advocate an Islamic government in Iraq. They have conflicting visions, however, of what an Islamic government should be, ranging from Khomeini-style rule of the jurist to an Islamic government run primarily by laymen -- a form generally more in tune with the modern experience of Sunni Islamists. Some members of these groups are prepared to pursue their goals through violence.

Nevertheless, the large majority of Iraqi Shi'ites probably have no desire to mimic the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are aware of the situation there and do not want to move from a secular totalitarian system to an overbearing theocracy. Iraq's political culture and social makeup, moreover, are very different from those of Iran. Quite apart from the existence of Sunnis, Kurds, Chaldeans, and Turkmen in the country, the Iraqi Shi'ite community is itself diverse. There are secularists (including liberals and communists) and various religious groups, urban and rural dwellers, rich and poor, Shi'ites who have never left Iraq and those who have spent decades in exile. There is no single leader who can speak for all Iraqi Shi'ites, let alone oversee the transformation of postwar Iraq into an Iranian-style Islamic republic.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2004 10:38 AM

Exactly. The Shi'a are a good base for a reformed Islam sharing power with a secular democratic state, unless they decide that some half-educated lunatic is the hidden Imam, in which case all bets are off.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 16, 2004 12:24 PM

Non-responsive. Answer the question, Orrin

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 16, 2004 3:05 PM

What question?

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2004 3:16 PM

Why this thirst for democracy (or self-government or whatever you want to characterize it as) was entirely absent for 1,300 years.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 17, 2004 5:12 PM

Shi'ites were most often a minority, but 1300 years is record time for democracy to arise in any culture.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2004 5:39 PM