USA haters, any comments on this one?

Discussion in 'Politics & Religion' started by darkhorse, Apr 7, 2003.

  1. interesting WSJ piece- written by an arab french writer, no less


    Shiite Schism


    LONDON -- Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Sistani is a happy man. For the first time since 1988 he is not only not under house arrest but free to travel wherever he wishes. What's more, 22 of his relatives, held hostage by the Iraqi government since October, have returned home. A contingent of American Marines patrols Najaf, his hometown, widely regarded as the most sacred city in Shiite Islam. Their presence means that the Baathist death-grip of Saddam Hussein is broken -- at least in Najaf.

    The 75-year-old ayatollah is the undisputed A'alam al-ulema (the most learned of the learned) of the mullahs who minister to the religious needs of Shiites, 60% of Iraq's population. This week he will resume lectures, banned by the Saddam regime for seven years, at the oldest Shiite seminary. This follows his fatwa last week -- the first pro-U.S. fatwa in modern political Islam -- in which he ordered Iraq's Shiites not to resist U.S.-led coalition forces.

    The news is potent, and potentially tectonic in its impact. And with Saddam's regime disintegrating, Ayatollah Sistani is already talking of restoring Najaf's position as "the heart of Shiism."

    What does this mean? Speaking on a satellite phone to this writer, the ayatollah said he had advised "believers not to hinder the forces of liberation, and help bring this war against the tyrant to a successful end for the Iraqi people." His emissaries have also gained control of mosques and seminaries in Karbala, to the north, the second most sacred city of Shiism. On Saturday, a delegation of his followers arrived in Baghdad, to "guide believers on the right path." "There is good in what happens," he said, quoting the Prophet Muhammad. "Our people need freedom more than air [to breath]. Iraq has suffered, and it deserves better government."

    Ayatollah Sistani's close entourage goes further in its support of the U.S.-led coalition. "We shall never forget what the coalition has done for our people," says Hojat al-Islam Abdel Majid al-Khoi, son of the late grand Ayatollah Khoi, who was Iraq's supreme religious leader for almost 40 years. "A free Iraq shall be a living monument to our people's friendship with its liberators." As Sistani's right-hand man, Khoi is trying to create a united front of Iraqi Shiites.

    At the start of the war, Iran's ruling mullahs pressed Iraqi Shiite clerics in exile in Qom, near Tehran, to call for a boycott of coalition forces. A meeting of more than 300 Iraqi mullahs in Qom received a message from Iran's "supreme guide," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for a condemnation of both Saddam and President George Bush. The Iraqis ignored Khamenei's advice, and ended the meeting without a statement. Later, two Iraqi clerics in Qom, ayatollahs Hassan Jawaheri and Muhammad Hadi Razi issued statements declaring Saddam's regime to be "in rebellion against the authority of God," and unfit to rule a Muslim nation.

    Iraqi Shiite leaders base their support for the coalition on a theological position that allows the faithful to cooperate with a non-Muslim ally that is "distant but friendly" against a Muslim adversary that is "near but hostile" in order to save Muslims from oppression. Iran's ruling mullahs, none of whom has a senior rank within the Shiite clergy, have accepted the position but tried to inject anti-American rhetoric in it -- so far with little success.

    The only prominent Shiite cleric to have rejected that position in the context of Iraq is Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah. He has echoed calls by the Sunni Muslim center at Al-Azhar university in Cairo for a jihad against the coalition and in support of Saddam. Fadlallah, however, is dismissed by most Shiite clerics as more of a politician than a scholar. "He is leader of a party," says Muhammad Hussein Kashef, an Iraqi cleric. "As a politician, he is free to say what he likes." With Iraqi Shiism unable to play its leading role because of Saddam's repressive measures, Fadlallah has tried to promote Lebanon as a center for Arab Shiites. The revival of Najaf's seminary, where Fadlallah studied for 20 years, could end his Lebanese dreams.

    Najaf's return to the center of Shiism is also a source of alarm for Tehran. Under the influence of a string of great theologians, starting with Mirza Hassan Shirazi in the 19th century and passing by Mohsen Hakim Tabatabai and Khoi in the 20th century, Iraqi Shiism steered clear of politics and focused on the ethics of the theological discourse. This was in contrast with what the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution in Iran, preached from the 1950s. Khomeini spent 14 years in exile in Najaf (1965-1978), where he was a lone voice among the theologians. He argued that "only a good society can create good believers." Khoi argued the opposite: "Only good men can create a good society."

    Khomeini believed that, left to their own devices, most people would not live by Islam's precepts. "Man is half-angel, half-devil," he wrote in "Tozih al-Masayel" (Explication of Issues), his magnum opus. "The devil part is always stronger than the angel part. This is why society should organize to combat it through laws and suitable punishments." Ayatollah Khoi rejected that view. He asserted that the individual was capable of taming "the devil side" and using "the angel side" to improve society, thanks to "divine guidance rather than coercion." Khomeini believed that mullahs should seize political power and use it to create "the perfect society" even if that meant "purification" in the form of hundreds of thousands of executions. Ayatollah Khoi rejected the possibility of creating the "perfect society" in the absence of the Hidden Imam, whose return has been awaited by the Shiites for 12 centuries.

    Today, the late Ayatollah Khoi's views, continued by his disciple Ayatollah Sistani, enjoy the widest audience among Shiites, including in Iran, where virtually all grand ayatollahs reject Khomeini's theory of rule by the mullahs.

    For more than 20 years, Tehran has financed Iraqi Shiite exiles led by Muhammad Baqer Hakim Tabatabai, while Syria has financed and supported a rival group led by Muhammad Taqi Mudarressi. Both Hakim Tabatabai and Mudarressi, however, are regarded more as politicians than as theologians. Even if they return to Najaf, they will have to acknowledge Ayatollah Sistani's position as primus inter pares among Shiite clerics.

    For more than a decade, Khomeini warned his followers against "American Islam" (Islam-e-Amrikai), which he defined as a system under which "distinct spaces exist for religion and politics." Ironically, Shiism had always recognized that distinction. In a sense, it was Khomeini who had departed from tradition. Unlike Iran's ruling mullahs, who claim that they have a divine right to rule, Iraq's mullahs are opposed to a theocracy in Baghdad. "The clergy is the conscience of society," Ayatollah Sistani has written. "The administrative aspects of society's life must be left to men of politics."

    Iraq's liberation is certain to inspire a lively debate within Shiism among those who, like the ayatollahs Sistani and Hussein Ali Montazeri in Iran, argue in favor of seeking a place in the new global system and those, like Ayatollah Khamenei and his associates, who still preach "exporting revolution" in the hope of conquering the entire world for their brand of Islam.

    The American Marines who entered Najaf the other day did not know it, but they were opening a new chapter -- perhaps an overdue schism in the history of Shiism, the faith of some 180 million Muslims in more than 100 countries.

    Mr. Taheri is the author, most recently, of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes," published last October by Editions Complexe, in France.

    Updated April 7, 2003
  2. Warring factions in the Middle East? Tribes who have differnet takes on Islam?

    Is that possible?