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When Pope Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most important Shia cleric in Iraq and beyond, at his modest house in Najaf, much of the media coverage focused on the religious significance for Christians and Muslims. But the pope’s visit, the first ever with a high-ranking Shia ayatollah, also showcased Sistani’s role and that of the clerical elites as political actors.
In the vast literature on the clerical tradition in Shia Islam, a sharp contrast is drawn between the theocracy in Iran, where a cleric maintains ultimate power over state affairs, and the clerics in Iraq, who are formally part of the quietest school of Shiism, meaning they are officially removed from political matters. Iraqi clerics themselves will say to visiting foreigners that they intervene in politics only out of necessity, maslaha, a concept in Islamic jurisprudence, which is invoked – traditionally at times of extreme peril – to protect the public welfare.
However, in reality, the role many Iraqi clerics play is intertwined with religion and politics, blurring their influence across these two spheres. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, clerics have stepped into the political fray at critical junctures. In this way, clerical authority has emerged as an extraconstitutional actor. Even so, Sistani has shown no interest in following Iran’s theocratic model and constitutionalizing his authority.
Based upon an examination of Friday sermons, social media posts, and online statements over the last two years, several Iraqi clerics, not just Sistani, have voiced their political views. They have expressed their support for the protest movement against the government, which began in earnest in 2019 in major cities, their opposition to the profound corruption inside the government, their disdain for ongoing sectarian violence, and the need for electoral reform. At the moment, the focus of clerical political involvement concerns two issues: the parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, and the ongoing protests across the country.
What is particularly significant about clerical views of the demonstrations is that the Shia protesters are opposing a Shia-led government, and many clerics are behind them. Thus, as some clerics voice support for the protesters, they are in effect serving as part of the opposition to successive Shia governments, which they had hoped after decades of repression under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would be their salvation.
In some cases, their outspoken views have increased their popularity among Iraq’s youth, often described as secular leaning. At the beginning of the protests, protest leaders looked to Sistani for support. More than 600 Iraqis have died in demonstrations and 16,000 have been wounded, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.
Iraqis blame the violence on Iranian-backed militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are officially part of the Iraqi state security apparatus. Many of the protesters have called for Iran to stop meddling in their country’s affairs. In 2014, Sistani issued a fatwa calling upon all Iraqis to take up arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which he feared would conquer Baghdad and key Shia cities. At the time, the militants had already occupied Mosul and large parts of the country. Thousands of Shias, not only from Iraq but also from neighboring Arab states, answered his call. Over time, however, the militias fell under the control of Iranian-backed commanders in the Popular Mobilization Forces. Today, the militias operate outside the control of the Iraqi government and are a great source of instability.
In Basra, in southern Iraq, the epicenter of the protest movement, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqoubi has been an outspoken supporter of the protests and a constant critic of the Shia-led government, which is comprised of Shia parties and militia leaders the protesters and some clerics believe are corrupt. In particular, he has denounced the violence launched at the protesters by the Popular Mobilization Forces. In response to the violence against them, the protesters have attacked and set ablaze buildings that house members of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iranian Consulate in Najaf.
In October 2019, shortly after the protests began, Yaqoubi issued a statement: “I think one of the most valuable fruits achieved by the youth in the liberation uprising is the restoration of national identity that was robbed by sectarians, corrupt people, and agents, until they made us lose hope … but the brave youth blew up this volcano in the souls of all the people. … I call on the government and the political and military leaders to be aware that these young people are the real wealth of the country.”
Kamal al-Haydari, a Shia cleric from Iraq now living in Iran, also has supported the demonstrations and called for reform: “A corrupt class dominated political, economic and social conditions, leading the nation to a state of despair and frustration in the homeland.”
One of the major grievances among the protesters has been the lack of transparency in national elections and the jockeying for power among political factions after the polls are closed. After the last parliamentary elections in 2018, months passed before a prime minister was agreed upon among political elites. According to Iraqi law, a new government can be formed by the politician who secures the most support from parliamentary blocs after elections are held.
Iran’s Iraqi proxies in the negotiations were a major factor in the delay in 2018 because they tried to influence a number of parliamentary blocs to guarantee that any new prime minister would advance Tehran’s interests in Iraq. Thus, a stalemate occurred.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi rose to power in 2020, after then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign due to demands from civil society activists and protesters. Kadhimi, a transitional prime minister, agreed to hold parliamentary elections in October 2021, instead of 2022 as initially scheduled – another demand among the protesters.
In January, in a speech by a supporter of Yaqoubi, marking the anniversary of the death of Fatima al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, a statement attributed to Yaqoubi was read out that reaffirmed his demand for political – particularly electoral – reform.
Yaqoubi’s statement points to the disenchantment Iraqis express toward the electoral system; an estimated 20% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2018, according to Iraqi experts, even though the official turnout estimate was about 44% of voters. In response to protesters’ demands, the government passed a new electoral law. Although the new law maintains the influence of several well-established political parties, it makes room for independents as well as smaller factions and parties to participate in elections. Sistani backed the electoral reform legislation. In fact, at key times, such as during a September 2020 meeting with the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Sistani outlined the parameters of what he believed the law should contain. He also advocated for holding early elections.
Another Friday prayer cleric in Basra, Sheikh Ammar al-Rubaie, also recently took up the issue of upcoming elections. During a Friday sermon in January, he urged his followers to vote, saying it is their patriotic duty and called for increased public awareness in selecting leaders. He warned “against the strife that results from unqualified people” in power referring to “their corrupt methods, such as deception, disinformation, and falsification of public opinion, and the use of political money stolen from being in power.”
Although key clerics do exercise political power through their religious influence, a growing number of Iraqis, according to opinion polls, say religion has no place in governing. In a poll conducted in August and September 2020 by the Washington, DC-based International Republican Institute, Iraqis were asked if religion should play a role in government. Of those polled, 40% said religion should be absent from governmental affairs, and 26% said the principles of religious teaching should be one consideration, but not the only one.
Only time will tell if Iraqi clerics can continue to walk a fine line between religion and politics: championing demonstrators’ grievances and taking up their charged demands for economic and political reforms. The outcome of the upcoming elections will be a test of this clerical influence and of the hold that the mostly young protesters can continue to exert over Iraqi politics.
a Middle East expert in Washington, is the author of four books on Islam and the region. Her fifth and forthcoming book, The Other Muslims about Arab Shia communities, will be published in 2025.
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