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الثلاثاء، 15 يوليو، 2014

Iraqi religious authorities: the Quiet and the Outspoken

Debates in Iraq on the proper role of the Shii religious authorities in the past focused on whether they should be politically ‘quiet ‘ or ‘outspoken’.


Debates in Iraq on the proper role of the Shii religious authorities (called ‘Marjia’ in Arabic ) in the past focused on whether they should be politically ‘quiet ‘ or ‘outspoken’. (In Arabic ‘Samita’ or ‘Natiqa’ respectively) The first refers to non-interference in political affairs, perhaps following the “dissimulation” principle (in Arabic ‘Taqyia’) to preserve the Shii faith in adverse conditions, while the second refers to readiness or necessity of taking public political stances. (The Arabic term ise for ‘quite’ here carries a connotation of ‘Silence’, which further connotes in Arabic-Islamic culture to the un-heroic refusal to face wrongdoings or evil.) 
In other words, should the religious authorities address what people are politically facing, or they should confine themselves to doctrinal issues, family and personal laws, and the dispensing the endowments and religious tax? (This includes the Khums, which is one-fifth of the profits or income of devout Shiites paid to clerics.)
This debate flared up following the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq in 2003. It was limited on the surface at first to the doctrinal debate between the roles of the “quite” and the “outspoken” Shii authorities under occupation. But it gradually spread across religion, politics and media. Politics and the media dominated over religion, so that even when only religious themes are addressed, this was padded with a political speech and media dimension. 
In the first year of occupation, Muqtada As-Sadir, the Leader of the Sadrist Bloc, described Ali Sistani - the highest Shii religious authority who resides in Najaf, south of Baghdad, of being a “silent” authority, while As-sadir saw himself as a representative of the “outspoken”.
But, are there really such fundamental differences that require dispute and reconciliation among these authorities now? Especially following the recent reconciliation meeting between Sistani and Muqtada As-Sadir at the house of Sistani in April, 13th, 2014, where the two discussed the latest developments in Iraq?
The question here is not doctrinal. That side, with its language and idioms is beyond lay people, such as myself. The question here is about the mixture of religion, media and politics, the intensity of overlap between them, and how one of those elements dominates the others in a certain period of time.
The course of events in Iraq during the 11 years of occupation makes it hard to believe that there is a quiet or silent religious authority, no matter how some would want to label them so. The “silent” authority now has a media outlet, which means that it has, necessarily, a political influence, whether it accepts that or not.
To be clear, almost every religious authority, whether ‘silent’ or outspoken, has an internet website promote its  thoughts, doctrine and syllabus.  That applies whether they reside in Najaf or in Baghdad, whether they receive guests or not, and regardless of their position in the religious seminary hierarchy. The best example for that is the highest religious authority of Sayyed Ali Al-Sistani, who is known for his rare public appearance in person, and refusal to meet Iraqi politicians. His website browser would find his resume, hid books, reports, questionnaires, data, his  follower websites, archive, and the names and descriptions of Sayyed Sistani’s agents.
A Religious-Media Spokesman of his personal office is supervising the website, just like the websites of  presidents of states, leaders, and those who occupy high positions in the seminary hierarchy. In fact, Sistani has two Spokesmen, noted in the official website: one is in Najaf, Sayyed Ahmed Al-Safi, titled Representative of the Supreme Religious Authority, and the other one is Sheikh Abdulmahdi Al-Karbalaie, titled Representative of the Supreme Religious Authority in Karbala. Their job is to make speeches, issue and read statements in his name. These statements are issued every week, or, according to the needs seen by the religious authority, under titles like: “The Current Situations in Iraq”, and “Regarding the Latest Security Developments”. Sayyed Ahmed Al-Safi discussed in July, 4th, for example, the political process, the Constitution, holding the Parliament session, and gave advice on how to organize the volunteers to fight “terrorism”. In such a case, what does quietness means? Is the authority silent? It is very like, in taken open political stances, to the most prominent example of the outspoken side, Muqtada As-sadir, the Leader of Al-Mahdi Militia, and of the parliamentary Liberal Bloc. Doesn’t Sheikh Abdulmahdi Al-Karbalaie stand before a media platform every Friday, with tens of microphones in front of him, which broadcast every breath and word said by his as a spokesman of Sayyed Ali Al-Sistani?
This functional media-political-religious overlap negated the notion of a ‘Quiet’ or neutral religious authority. it had became an influential political organ. The ‘dissimulation’ principle had already been negated by the end of the authoritarian regime, establishing a system whose politicians mimic the religious authorities, outspoken or silent, each according to his party and sub-sectarian loyalty. As we know, media influence is essentially political at its different levels, from incitement or support to induction or extortion. The more the political-media is used, the more the religious and spiritual side is neglected.
Religious edicts (fatwas) by Sayyed Sistani given through his Media Spokesman throughout the years of occupation has led to the enhancement of the occupation’s “political process”.  These fatwas gave the political process an air of the infallibility the religious authority claims for itself,  in spite of its sectarianism and the corruption of those who participated in this political process. The supreme Marji’ was politically exploited, whether he himself  knew it or not, (clearly his spokesmen at least do know), to manipulate the emotions of people and at time to incite them to irresponsible reactions. This, in essence, is the very same action of those who issue edicts guaranteeing a place in heaven and virgins with big and lustrous eyes.
Religious edicts reached its utmost limits in fueling fear and instinct defense emotions on Friday,13th,2014. This was when Sayyed Sistani issued a fatwa, through his Spokesman, Sheikh Abdulmahdi Al-Karbalaie, that jihad is an imminent duty to defend the land, its people and their honor. This suggests that the land, until the moment the army members escaped from Mosul on the 10 June, was fine, and that the people’s honor was preserved, as if the fatwas of jihad issued by Al-Qaeda and ISIS to push their congegations to start their jihad, are as a legal duty or an insufficient divine commissioning.
In the absence of law and order in the Iraq, jihad fatwa sanctified the policies and practices of Nuri Al-Maliki’s regime, including the bombing of the cities. Everyone knows that bombing cities wouldn’t eliminate “terrorism”, and that bombing is a collective punishment for the innocent inhabitants. Any claim contradicting that should call to abandon Geneva Conventions. . The religious authorities should have been really quiet - just like what the silent monks in monasteries do, isolating themselves to be devoted to worship. Alternatively they should only speak to call for peace, compassion and harmony among people who are in a real need of the spiritual guidance.  They should call for a political system based on respect for citizens and imposes laws equally on everyone.
The politicization of fatwas, and implicating the clerics in tearing apart society religiously would in time lead Iraqis to renounce religion altogether.  But this wouldn’t happen overnight.  It will be in the way it is happening in Iraq - a bloody conflict, with a prohibitive human cost.
Haifa Zangana oversaw translation with added descriptions for non-Arabic readers.
13 July 2014

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