December 18, 2004



Although his pictures show him as a stern, frowning and terribly serious authority figure, Sistani is actually a really nice guy. Image in public life is everything, and the marji’ya, or Shia religious establishment, goes for the austere, long-suffering look. A narrow and wellguarded alley through Najaf’s rundown Old City takes you to a nondescript home with an outer courtyard and an outer waiting room called the barrani, which also serves as classroom and town hall. Tea is served as elderly graduate students bearing the distinctive Mongol features of Afghani Shias sit around leafing through voluminous texts preparing for that day’s lecture. You are then led to an inner room with faded blue-green walls that are lit up with white fluorescent tubes. Sistani struggles up to meet you and it is customary to make a show of kissing his hands,which in a sign of humility he denies by quickly jerking them back. With his eyes twinkling mischievously, Sistani articulates witty and light-hearted nuggets of wisdom and political savvy in a heavy Iranian accent while stroking his long, bushy beard.

Anyone hoping for success in Iraq should thank their lucky stars for the existence of a man like Sistani at this historical juncture.

Sistani and the marji’ya in Najaf are a pillar of Iraqi civil society. They do not wield political authority or seek it, but they have immense influence on those who do, perfectly in line with the very essence of the Iraqi perception of civil society institutions. The pope sitting in the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church do not run Italy’s customs offices, but they certainly carry clout and can make themselves heard in the same manner as the socialist-controlled trade unions. Understanding the intricacies of marji’ya and how it works may be too much to ask of Western journalists and stringers sniffing around for stories in liberated Iraq, but they can see the marji’ya in action when even a hint of Sistani’s opinion on a certain matter can send hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrating peacefully on Baghdad’s streets.

And Sistani wants them to demonstrate and support the vision he shares with the Bush administration: a peaceful, democratic, and just Iraq. This vision is anathema to the fellows running the insurgency, or in other words, the Sunnis. Their power structure and monopoly of all facets of the state, inherited from their role as flunkies for the Ottoman Empire and then on from their role as willing “collaborators” with the British occupation post–World War I, has totally collapsed. They found themselves in a world that they cannot understand. Their surnames,Tikriti, Rawi, Aani, Duleimi and their earlier versions, Pachachi, Kaylani, and Al-Sadoun, no longer ring of authority.

But the concept of power is undergoing a paradigm shift in the Middle East, and Iraq is the first Arab incubator for this newborn revolution. Power now is all about votes and voter turnout.

The Arab Shias of Iraq are the majority sect in their country, whatever the Sunnis claim to the contrary.And not for lack of trying; the Sunni sectarian apartheid regime deported hundreds of thousands and experimented with outright genocide to bring down Shia numbers. This particular fear of the “Shia majority” is precisely why the Arab Sunnis are terrified of elections à la the new American promises of democracy. The Sunni agenda is thus muddled and riddled with confusion and a sense of shock at losing power. It is an agenda rooted in fear of the future and that fear turns them into hesitant and resentful partners in a new and democratic Iraq, an Iraq they do not recognize and, as yet, understand.

The Shias have sighted the Promised Land of democracy over the horizon and, shepherded by Sistani, are ready to subscribe to P. Diddy’s dictum of Vote or Die. Of course, they can also get to power through the short-cut of civil war and its evil logic of killing more of the other side and winning. The Sunnis, in desperation, have tried to lure the Shias into that time-buying gambit. What happened during the religious commemoration of Ashura within the holy shrines of Kazimayn and Kerbala last year was an event as traumatic and dangerous as September 11, 2001, from the perspective of Shias worldwide. It is as if a terrorist blew up the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Were it not for a fatwa from Sistani calming people down and instructing them not to take out their justified anger on their Sunni brethren, then that event would have been the spark of a civil war that would have seen the Sunnis evicted from Baghdad and witnessed the consequential dismemberment of Iraq. Recent fatwas against vigilante action in the newly-labeled Triangle of Death north of Babil province, where Sunnis and Shias live side by side, have also averted a disaster.

One hopes that, unlike Moses or Martin Luther King, the Ayatollah gets there with them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2004 8:30 AM

It would be nice if the 'regular press' gave Americans a reasonable profile of Sistani.

Most people probably think he is some kind of a cross between Bin Laden and Khomeini, just based on his appearance.

But maybe that's what the MSM thinks, too.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 18, 2004 10:09 PM

I draw your attention to this article:
Abd al-Majid al-Khoei was perhaps Sistani's closest advisor, and was killed because the assassins couldn't get to Ayatollah Sistani.

Al-Khoei wrote: "Surely the crucial element in this dispute is the actual opinion of the Iraqis themselves...." That seems to be Sistani's opinion as well. He has not issued a fatwa, telling the people who to vote for. But he has told them to vote.

Sistani undoubtedly deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. That is why he will never be considered for one.

Posted by: J Baustian at December 20, 2004 3:25 AM