March 15, 2005


Don't Fear the Shiites (Reuel Marc Gerecht, The American Enterprise)

In the fall of 2003, when American diplomats in Baghdad first realized that Shiite clerics would be the most important political players in American-occupied Iraq, it was not a happy discovery. Most Western diplomats (and journalists) in the Middle East were used to dealing with either Westernized Sunni elites or thoroughly secularized Shiites from exile organizations. The deeply religious Shiite clerics--who exhibit little personal warmth, are inclined to talk elliptically or dismissively to foreigners, and are endowed with the hubris of accomplished lawyers--were not exactly backslapping partners.

Indeed, many U.S. officials charged with rebuilding Iraq found the ulama--the Shiite religious authorities--to be frustrating allies. They insisted on more democracy sooner than the Provisional Authority believed safe. They resisted approving an interim constitution which checks the majority power of the Shiite community.

Yet Iraq's Shiites and their religious leaders have become the most important players in the Middle East. The senior clerics in the shrine city of Najaf will be the driving force behind any American success in Iraq. And it is precisely because they seek to blend politics and faith into a system where government is the servant of the commonweal that Iraq may be able to serve as the catalyst for serious democratic change all across this troubled region.

The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini shook the world with his violent Islamic revolution of 1979. Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani is superficially similar--he is also a Persian-born Shiite divine who stands at the center of a climactic political transition. Yet Sistani is in many ways the antithesis of Khomeini, and it is quite possible he will have a far more profound influence on Muslim religious politics and the fate of the Middle East.

Okay, it's horrifying that we didn't realize that the Shi'a clergy were going to determine Iraq's future until Fall 2003. But what Khomeini brought together Sistani is putting asunder, which is why Iraq terrifies the Iranian mullahcracy. Especially worrisome for them is that Sistani's message is consistent with Shi'ism, while Khomeni's was not.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2005 12:22 PM
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