Mosque and State

Shia clerics are gaining power in Iraq. Should America be worried?

The accord signed in recent weeks between the two leading Iraqi Shiite political blocs—the Iraqi National Alliance and the State of Law party—has not only cleared the way for a new government to be formed in Iraq, but also, for the first time, has explicitly guaranteed a role for the senior Shiite clergy. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been named as the final, binding arbiter for any disputes among the members of the governing coalition. “The marjaiya [the assembly of the most senior ayatollahs] has the final say in solving all the disputes between the two sides and its directives and guidance are binding,” the agreement states.

Seven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shiite clergy, who already exercised a great deal of behind-the-scenes influence over the political process, have now been given a more public role. True, this is not a constitutional mandate; the clerics have no formal power to interfere with government policy. And if the current Shiite coalition should dissolve (or lose power in subsequent elections), the agreement would not be binding on future governments. Nevertheless, this development is quite at odds with the vision of a secular Iraq that many Americans believed would be created in the wake of Hussein’s ouster.

However, Iraq is not on the verge of being transformed into an Arab version of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s novel innovation—creating a clerical “guardian” to oversee the state (velayat-e faqih) as an Islamic version of Plato’s philosopher-king—was rejected by the Shiite clergy of Iraq.

But a rejection of Iranian-style theocracy and direct involvement of the clergy in government by Sistani does not translate into an embrace of Western liberal democracy. Sistani accepted the premise of the quietist school that governance ought to be left to the politicians—but the clergy still had a right to provide guidelines for social order (nizam al-mujama). In other words, Sistani did not feel that the clergy ought to rule—but that the politicians running affairs would and should accept clerical guidance. A phrase that Sistani and other clerics use to justify their involvement in political affairs is “irshad wa tawjeeh”—”guidance and direction.” As one Shiite cleric and advisor to Sistani observed, “The marjaiya cannot abandon the people in any stage in which there are problems or obstacles in the political process. The marjaiya will intervene to solve this problem by virtue of its experience.”

So, unlike in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his staff play an active role in shaping Iran’s foreign and domestic policies, Sistani and the other senior Shiite clerics will not be involved in the day-to-day minutiae of government. But, just as we saw in 2003 and 2004 during the period of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the politicians will be careful to run all major policy initiatives past Sistani and his associates for their input and blessing. Mosque and state are not fusing together, but are certainly collaborating.

This may not prove to be a bad thing for the United States. Sistani has always maintained a certain degree of distance from Iran (although he would certainly not be in favor of Iraq assisting any punitive U.S. actions against Iran over its nuclear program) and could be influential in convincing the Shiite politicians to broaden the political process to include more Sunnis in a meaningful way, in order to stave of a resumption of the sectarian strife which brought Iraq to the brink several years ago.

Some three years ago, Sudarsan Raghavan, writing for the Washington Post, entitled a news dispatch, “Iraqi Shiite clerics’ influence wanes.” That definitely is not the case today.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.