Monday, November 4, 2013

The Hawza vs. the state: Islam and democracy in contemporary Iraq

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
With all the focus on "radical Islamism" (a caricature of orthodox Islam based in ignorance and sectarian violence), little attention has been paid to clerics who have fought sectarian entrepreneurs who seek to politicize religion and manipulate it for personal ends.  The al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya, the network of Shi'i seminaries in and around the shrine city of al-Najaf in south-central Iraq, has been particularly effective in this struggle.   Led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the world's Shi'a, the Hawza has fought against corruption, lack of government services and, above all, sectarian violence.  What do the Hawza's actions, as well as those of other moderate clerics, tell us about religion and politics in contemporary Iraq?

Recently, Ayatollah al-Sistani's representatives have waged a  public campaign against the proposed government budget of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  Sistani's representative in the shrine city of Karbala', Ahmad al-Safi, used a very effective phrase in his Friday sermon (al-khutba) on September 27th in which he declared, "Relying on oil is dangerous because oil will not last until the Day of Judgment."  Instead, al-Safi argued, the state should be investing in agriculture, industry and investment which continue to be neglected (al-Hayat, September 28).

The cleric further argued that "there is no strong economic plan for the future in the budget."  Despite Iraq's abundant oil wealth, al-Safi called upon al-Maliki government to think about future generations. Depending solely on oil is dangerous.  The cleric called upon economic planners to think in terms of  a multidimensional strategy in which other sources of revenues would be developed to augment the country's hydrocarbon wealth.

At the same time, al-Safi called for more investment in building schools as a sign of respect for Iraq's youth, which constitutes 70% of the populace under the age of 30.  Every new school requires training at least 20 new teachers, he declared.  In his view, the Ministry of Education should take its responsibilities more seriously if the next generation of Iraqi youth is to be properly educated and meet its potential as individuals and as citizens contributing to the common good.

Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji
In al-Najaf, meanwhile, Imam Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji, who delivers the Friday prayer (khutbat al-jum'a), called upon the government to transfer the country's security portfolio to the Badr Organization.  A militia that had once been part of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq)  - now known as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Badr Organization, which became a political party once it split from the SIIC, is  known for its military prowess.

In calling for this change in policy, al-Qabbanji was responding to the terrible increase in violence during the past 6 months.  This past September, the UN reported that almost a 1000 Iraqis were killed and over 2000 wounded, by assassinations, or suicide or car bomb attacks.  Criticism has been directed at the government for relieving competent security personnel from their posts and replacing them instead with those loyal to the current government.  Qabbanji emphasized that he was not calling for militias to control the country, but that there was a need to employ the most efficient counter-terrorism forces in light of the dramatic spread of violence.

These criticisms come in the wake of earlier comments by Ahmad al-Safi in which he asserted that low level  government bureacrtas were imnpeding the work olf the priovate sector, thereby forcing many companies to leave Iraq.(al-Hayat, September 14). In a sermon he delivered on Friday, September 13th, al-Safi  argued that small business sector is critical to the Iraqi economy.  However, private companies suffer from financial and administrative impediments created by government employees who prevent them from completing their work.  He noted that many companies that came to Iraq to engage in reconstruction have been stymied in their efforts to complete their projects and have left without completing them.

In the latter part of his sermon, al-Safi called on the government not to interfere with teacher evaluations of their students.  He asked that teachers to be treated with respected and in a manner consistent with Iraqi law.  In light of the fact that many government employees are not well educated, and often lack reading and writing skills (a problem created in large measure by the collapse of the educational system during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s), al-Safi realizes the need for high educational standards if Iraq is to experience economic growth and social development.  Using bribes to get degrees and pressuring teachers to give students evaluations, degrees and entrance to universities  for political reasons, or due to bribery, rather than  merit, troubles al-Safi as it does many other Iraqis.

In asserting that government employees refuse to help private sector companies unless there is personal gain involved, Ayatollah al-Sistani is once again criticizing the Maliki government, through his representatives, for doing little or nothing to reign in corruption. Fortunately, unlike during the days of Saddam Husayn's rule when a cleric who criticized the government, even mildly, would be assassinated after the Friday prayers, the Shi'i al-marja'iya (the Shi'i religious authorities) do not have to fear for their lives in post-Ba'thist Iraq,

In this new quasi-democratic environment, the Shi'i clergy, under Ayatollah al-Sistani's leadership, has become a major force for democratic reforms, promoting anti-sectarianism and instilling a greater civic consciousness among Iraqis. What is especially significant is that Sistani and his representatives are not focusing on issues related to personal status law, such as marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, which have been the traditional concerns of the Hawza.

Instead, the Hawza is entering new territory and challenging the Iraqi government in areas of public policy not usually seen as the purview of religious clerics.  Criticizing government economic and education policy is important, however, as these issues are uppermost in the minds of most Iraqis who, public opinion polls over and over again demonstrate, are most concerned with jobs, the safety of their families and improving economic opportunities for their families.

In criticizing the government, the Hawza and other Shi'i clerics are pushing for greater transparency and rationality in decision-making, tackling corruption and promoting market forces, and improving Iraq's security situation.  One of the bright lights in Iraq's attempt at a transition to democracy comes from what many analysts would think to be an unusual source, namely Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the clerics of al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya, as well as moderate members of Iraq's Shi'i clergy.  These activities should be kept in mind next time a Western analyst argues that Islam is implacably opposed to democracy.