August 1, 2004


The Cleric Who Would Be Rousseau (Juan Cole, Jun 22, 2004,

Sistani's conception of the new Iraq is that it should have an elected parliament, which will represent the will of the Iraqi people. His language on this is almost a translation of Rousseau. The parliament should consist of laypersons, not clerics. And it should be pluralistic and represent politically all Iraqis, including Kurds and Sunnis. This elected, lay parliament is one basic element in the good society according to Sistani.

The other is the approval of parliament and its legislation by the Shi'ite religious leadership. Legitimacy thus has dual roots, in the will of the people and in the approval of the clerics. Sistani expects a majority of members of parliament to be lay Shi'ites, and he expects them to conscientiously heed his fatwas --rulings-- on social issues.

Sistani is not a secularist by any stretch of the imagination. If he gets what he wants, religious law will have a vast influence on Iraqi society and politics and women's rights will be rolled back. On the other hand, Sistani is not a dictator or a Khomeinist. He is much more analogous to Jerry Falwell in the United States -- a major religious voice who wants to move the society in a certain direction through weakening the separation of religion and state, without himself seeking political office.

Sistani has all along been a Najaf pragmatist. He has constantly spoken of the need to assuage the feelings of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He will try to accomplish as much of his vision as seems practicable, and no more. His tools are not militias, guns, and bombs, but persistent persuasion and discourse. Occasionally he may bring peaceful crowds into the streets to demonstrate for some law or policy. It is in that discursive practice that his "moderation" lies.

Sistani's potential influence is generally positive given the situation of contemporary Iraq. It is important for traditionalist and even activist Shi'ites to hear praises of parliamentary governance and communal harmony. His potential impact on social legislation is reactionary, of course. But even he admits that the religious Shi'ites are likely to form less than 50 percent of parliamentarians, and that it is unlikely that he can get everything he wants any time soon.

Basing the republic in faith rather than reason is the opposite of Rousseau, no?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 1, 2004 6:08 AM

Hmmm. I guess his vaunted influcence does not extend to the Shia areas, where the notion of electing non-Shia delegates to the joke confabulation led to riots.

We keep hearing that this guy is so influential, but who, exactly, listens to him?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 2, 2004 12:39 AM

Wasn't he helpful in containing Sadr, and also in keeping the Shi'ites on board with the provisional gov't ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 2, 2004 11:08 AM

>Basing the republic in faith rather than reason
>is the opposite of Rousseau, no?

Has anyone ever considered basing the republic on a balance of both?

Too much faith, too little reason, and you get something like the Taliban, where any evil can be justified because "God Wills It!" -- including chugging the Kool-Aid at Jonestown.

Too much reason, too little faith, and you're standing ankle-deep in blood on the Place de la Concorde with a basketful of unicorn heads, because any evil can be rationalized. (Like full nuclear war "only a 4.5 gigadeath situation...")

Posted by: Ken at August 2, 2004 5:42 PM

Sadr is contained?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 2, 2004 9:20 PM

Remains to be seen, but for now, yes.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 3, 2004 11:27 PM