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March 10, 2004

Sistani's Gambit

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.

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Porphyrogenitus questions Sistani's strategy and motives:

It does make me wonder what he's up to. Did he just have second thoughts on bringing things to the brink? Or did he want to show (again) that he can block anything if he doesn't like it? Is it as simple as people still learning how to deal with and accept compromise?

Here is the background: Ayatollah Sistani is, bar none, the single most influential person in Iraq right now, largely because he stayed virtually entirely out of politics during Saddam's period of rule, while many clerics were corrupted into the effective service of the regime, or killed in the process of resisting. As the most honored and respected Shi'a cleric, Sistani has the ability to make Iraq's move towards representative government impossible, or to greatly aid that move. Ayatollah Sistani has, several times, engaged in brinksmanship, most lately this past weekend over the signing of the interim constitution, threatening to withhold support for (and thus cause to collapse) vital reforms or deals. In the end, in each case, Sistani has backed down and allowed things to go forward without changes.

I have a theory, which needs a lot more evidence before I'm confident in its usefulness as a predictive tool. I believe that Sistani genuinely wants a federated, representative government ruling over a free Iraqi people; which government respects and promotes Islam, but without compelling a particular kind of rule on its citizens. But Iraq has never had such a government, nor has any Arab state, nor have many Muslim states. There is a real danger of Iraq collapsing into anarchy if the US leaves, and the US is hardly famed for its farsighted foreign policy (and with if Kerry wins, that reputation might be borne out yet again).

For the last several decades - longer than the majority of Iraqis have been alive - the government has been a dictatorship of the Sunni minority, and the Shi'a and Kurds in particular were heavily oppressed. Each major Iraqi demographic group wants to be protected. The Kurds want to ensure that the autonomy they achieved under the protection of the "no-fly zones" remains in place, and that they are not disarmed. The Sunni want to make sure that they do not end up on the receiving end of what they were putting out under Saddam.

But what about the Shi'a? At sixty per cent of the population, the Shi'a would be the natural majority under any kind of representative system. So why would Sistani be playing brinksmanship games that threaten to retard an advance towards that system, when under it he and the Shi'a in general would have more power and rights than they've ever had before?

I believe that Sistani is hedging his bets. If the US leaves, Sistani wants the Shi'a united behind him, ready to prevent a resurgence of Sunni tyranny. Certainly, he has to fear the jihadis, who are largely in favor of either violently dividing Iraq or putting the Sunni in control. (Iran notwithstanding, Shi'a is considered heretical by most jihadis.)

If Shari'a were to become the source of Iraqi law, which is almost certainly what the Iranian ayatollahs desire, Sistani risks seeing real control devolve to the jihadis, which Sistani does not seem to desire. (Indeed, he has spoken out directly against the jihadis on more than one occasion.)

So Sistani has to ensure that the Shi'a of Iraq would follow him, and to do that he has to prove that he is their hope of a better future. To do that, he has to be seen as a strong advocate for Shi'a interests - and as capable of influencing the situation directly. In other words, Sistani has to be seen to be strong in order to have the ability to influence events later should the worst happen.

I believe that Sistani's gambit is to threaten, but not actually impede, reform, in order to position himself to pull down the entire enterprise later should the Shi'a be threatened by the new system.

Other possibilities abound, and many of them are plausible. It could be that Sistani truly desires Shari'a law in Iraq, but knows he cannot obtain it until the US leaves. However, in that case, it seems to me that Sistani's best move would be to refuse to either condone or condemn the procedings, but to occasionally issue declarations that the process is not Islamic enough, or is not sufficiently in line with the will of Allah, or some similar tone. In other words, Sistani could remove the perceived legitimacy of the process without actively opposing it. This would allow the process to go forwards, and the US to eventually withdraw, at which point a well-worded fatwa could bring the entire Iraqi system crashing down, leaving the Shi'a in de facto charge and giving Sistani the ability to unilaterally implement Shari'a.

Alternately, if Sistani's intent were to bring about direct autocratic Shi'a rule over Iraq without implementing Shari'a, a similar strategy could be followed, but instead of taking the religious slant, a more secular concern for the unity of all Iraqis could be the focus. You see, Sistani could argue, federalism is all well and good for fractious Western nations put together out of a variety of incompatible philosophies and beliefs, but we Iraqis are all brothers in Islam, servants of the will of Allah. Federalism is a threat to all Iraqis because it divides us into factions. By making such an argument, Sistani might be able to pull off the insertion of a "poison pill" into the Iraqi Constitution, some provision that makes federalism apparently active, but with some room to define federalism to include no actual local authority (such as language that no regional government could override a law approved by a majority referendum of the people, which Sistani could deliver and none of the other groups could).

There are certainly other games that Sistani could be playing, but I haven't yet seen any evidence that Sistani is doing more than hedging his bets.


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Posted by jeff at March 10, 2004 12:00 AM

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