Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq: Caroleen Sayej at TEDxConnecticutCollege


Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Denise RQ Thank you. Very excited to be here, and particularly happy to speak
after Michael’s talk. “The occupation authorities
are not entitled to name the members of the assembly
charged with drafting the constitution. There is no guarantee
that such a convention will draft a constitution which upholds the Iraqi people’s interests
and expresses their national identity” fatwa issued by Ayatollah Sistani. In June 2003,
the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government in Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein
three months earlier, faced a crisis regarding
the state-building project in Iraq. The CPA, created
by the Department of Defense, and composed mainly of US personnel, took charge of laying
the foundation of the state by vesting itself with executive,
legislative, and judicial power over the newly emerging Iraqi government. The CPA appointed the governing council
composed of Iraqis, 24 out of 25 exiles, who would participate
in drafting the new constitution. Paul Bremer, head of the CPA,
did not anticipate what was about to happen. Immediately following his decision
to recruit constitution writers, Grand Ayatollah Sistani,
the most senior cleric in Iraq today, issued a fatwa, or a religious decree, declaring that only an elected assembly
should draft a new constitution of Iraq. At that time, Bremer dismissed him
as a disgruntled aging cleric. To Bremer’s surprise, however,
like a light switch, a single fatwa by Sistani managed
to cripple the legislative process. That fatwa, considered binding
by Shiites who follow the ayatollah, led the governing council
to halt the process altogether until November of that year,
when Bremer agreed to Sistani’s plan. From that point forward,
analysts identified Sistani as the most influential
political figure in Iraq. This is a story about the US plan
to reconstruct Iraq based on the US perceptions
of what Iraqis needed and wanted. The United States was challenged. They were not challenged by the Kurds, who had been agitating
for an independent state on their own since the 20s. They were not challenged
by the secular nationalists, who flocked back to Iraq after 2003
claiming a piece of the pie. Nor were they challenged
by the Sunnis, who had the most to lose; after all, 82 years of minority rule
had quickly come to an end. They were challenged
by the most unlikely actors, the Shiite clerics, the men in beards. This is counter-intuitive because the Shiites
make up over 65% of the population, over 15 million people in the country. They could shape the state in their image,
they could usurp power, after all, they suffered more
than any other group under Saddam Hussein. Rather than doing so, they were committed to the principles of democracy, equality,
pluralism, and human rights. The clerics challenged
the United States to uphold its very own principles of democracy. The clerics were ignored, but they proved to be the most progressive
voices in the new Iraqi state. If you look at a map of Iraq, the US plans for reconstruction
were based on this tripartite. It is the classic artificiality
of Iraq example, where you see
the northern province of Mosul, typically considered the home to Kurds, Baghdad to Sunnis,
and Basra to Shiites of the South. And this artificially of Iraq,
like the rest of the modern Middle East, where we hear these stories
of Winston Churchill crafting the state after a liquid lunch,
if you know what I mean, and sometimes, drawing lines
in a sort of a zigzag, crooked. The idea though is that the Iraqi state,
like the rest of the Middle East, is artificial. But there’s more: that the United States
in going into Iraq in 2003 assumed that the Shiites
would want to secede from the state, that they would greet
the American soldiers with candies and flower, and that they needed to be saved because they were apathetic,
apolitical, and incapable, and that essentially
that strongman Saddam Hussein had held together otherwise
warring factions for decades. So this sectarian lens through which
the United States viewed Iraq led the United States
to put forth a series of policies, like the policy of de-Ba’athification, which, within days of taking over Iraq, removed the Ba’ath party,
mainly composed of Sunnis, from power, vetting candidates to their liking, mainly Western, educated,
secular men in suits that spent most of their life in Europe, and imposed the confessional model
of statehood on Iraq, that the state was organized by sect. So the assumption is
Sunnis would only vote for Sunnis, and Shiites would only vote
for Shiites, and so forth. So this federal state structure
that was put forth by the United States troubled many Iraqis. As a matter of fact,
after then Senator Biden in 2007 actually imposed
a federal model for the state of Iraq, Iraqis took to the streets, simply because they wanted to resist
these ethnosectarian symbols. So the assumptions of the United States led policymakers
down a long perilous path. The United States pulled out of Iraq
by December of 2011, but the clerics were not invincible. They were after all dealing with giants. So when you hear about bombings
and factionalism in the state today, it’s because it’ll be years before the Iraqis are able
to win back or deal with the narrative set forth
by the United States. But in this mess, the ayatollahs of Iraq,
the highest-ranking Shiite clerics, have been among the most vocal to help
reconstruct the narrative of the state in the way that they perceived
Iraqi unity to be. That is, they wrote prolifically,
they issued powerful fatwas, they mobilized hundreds of thousands
of people in the street in reaction to the US initiatives
on the ground, and they had qualms
about these US assumptions. And so, from day one,
pretty much 13 years into the war, they were working hard
to debunk that artificiality myth. They talked about long history
of cooperation for hundreds of years, and they argued there had been
no precedent for division, that for hundreds of years
the norm in Iraq was mixed neighborhoods, that Mosul was mixed, Baghdad was actually composed
with more Shiites than Sunnis, and Basra had been Sunni led. So this tripartite vision,
which is plaguing Iraq, is something that the ayatollahs
have taken as their personal mission. After all, under Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, these were all mixed neighborhoods, and there was lots of intermarriage
and cooperation. If you’d typically ask a person in Iraq,
you know, “Are you Sunni or Shiite?”, more often than not
you’ll find the answer, “We’re neither, we’re Sushi,” because they’re a combination
of Sunnis and Shiites. But they stressed more than anything else that the sectarianism
that the United States assumed would be continued post-2003 was really a product
of Saddam Hussein’s survival policies. That he divided and ruled people,
tortured and expelled Shiites, tried to strip them of their Arab identity
and pretty much labeled them as Persians, so that they could never have
a claim to the state. But nonetheless, the ayatollahs
remained true to their principles of no partition, that the United States
was talking Iraq into pieces, and remained calm. The most senior cleric in Iraq
– the fatwa I had shown before – is Ayatollah Sistani. Right, he’s the highest-ranking, has the most followers
of any ayatollah in the world today, inside and outside of Iraq. – so if you are a Shiite
in the United States, you’re looking for an ayatollah to follow, you’re free to follow him
or one of the other high-ranking ones – and he had been previously
detached from politics, that is, prior to 2003,
he had only issued one political fatwa. That’s probably because he was
practicing dissimulation; in 1980, and again in 1999, Saddam Hussein
had put to death rather savagely two of the highest-ranking ayatollahs. But again, Sistani was viewed
through this lens of a binary: that we can perceive that we have
quietest ayatollahs in Iraq, and, on the other end,
activist ones in Iran. The quietest ones totally aloof,
writing their books, nothing to do with politics; and on the Iranian side, everybody knows
what 1979 represented, right? The first Shiite Islamic state that obviously the United States
was not so excited about. Ayatollah Sistani’s political positions
have been anti-Khomeinist, he always talks about
having government accountability, universal ideals, never ever speeches that are simply
about the Qur’an, or flowery words, he’s a pure pragmatist, and looks
for actual policy and actual solutions, always guarding against the dangers
of federalism and sectarianism, and he’s now known
as the electronic ayatollah par excellence because right now you can go
onto Facebook, ask a question, and he has such a large following. He did participate in politics because the binary of quietism
and activism is much too simplistic. I would argue
that there’s a middle ground. He need not take over the state
and become head of state to actually become important politically. So, during the elections of Iraq, he allowed his picture to be used
for the first major Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance. And basically, if you see all the images
during election time, you’ll see that it looks like he’s the one
actually running for head of state, because he wanted to show that he can be
the symbol, really, of Iraqi unity. And most of his demonstrations and rallies
were of peaceful nature. He’s revered. And you can see here,
(Arabic) “No to federalism,” so there was widespread domestic support for his ideas in trying to resist
the United States. I don’t really have time to talk
about all of the ayatollahs of Iraq, but I’d like to just briefly mention
Ayatollah Baqir Al-Hakim, who was assassinated six months
after returning to Iraq after 20 years in exile. Initially, he was
on the same page with Iran, yes, we want to have
a rule of jurisprudent; the cleric would be head of state;
it would be a purely Islamic state. But after he returned to Iraq,
he completely abandon that idea. He said what Iraq actually needs
is a strong central government, it needs to be built
on notions of popular sovereignty, and thought that a coalition government
with a parliamentary system would be the best model for Iraq. He’s actually credited – would have been
the fifth ayatollah if he wasn’t killed; there are four left in Iraq now – for laying down
the key pillars of the state, the ballot box,
protection for ethnic minorities, respecting Islamic law
within a state structure, and human rights. And he even refined
the position of the Grand Ayatollah to account for a separation, where one can conceive
of a Grand Ayatollah who runs religious affairs, and one that has a purely political role
under a democratically elected state. In summary, about all these ayatollahs, from day one,
they’ve all been very committed to the notions of popular sovereignty, and that they argue that the context
in Iraq really, really matters. That is, there’s no Islamic model that works to fit all Shiites
all over the world, that we should now look
for candidates who are qualified. So most of the ayatollahs actually stopped
endorsing political parties and said, the better chance is if we just look
for candidates that are most qualified, so that we’re not falling
into that sectarian trap. They also did not react to the Sunnis
who started an insurgency trying to do what Saddam did: say these guys are Persians,
strip them of their identity, and, you know, call them
the lowest of the lowest, and try to say that they’re atheists,
or polytheists, or other things. And most importantly,
the ayatollahs of Iraq, actually surprisingly, had a universal,
non-violent approach to the United States; all of their fatwas and religious decrees had argued no arms,
no insults to the United States, only peaceful resistance. Why does it all matter? Ayatollah Khomeini. This was actually
a piece out of “Time” magazine, it says, “The Ayatollah Orders a Hit”. He was the Grand Cleric, the jurisprudent,
who came back to Iran after 1979 and put together
our first Shiite Islamic state, an authoritarian theocracy. And talking about fatwas
and democratic fatwas, I’m sure many people in the audience
were thinking, “Wait a minute, this is the guy that ordered
that fatwa for Salman Rushdie, putting the bounty
of millions of dollars on his head because of that novel he wrote
‘The Satanic Verses’. Aren’t fatwas about terrorism
and jihad and anti-Americanism?” It’s because Khomeini had given
fatwas a bad name. So if you look at images: “Down with the United States”,
stepping on the flag, this is really since 1979. Every time there’s an announcer
they come up and say, “OK, we’re going to introduce
the president or introduce the speaker, but before we begin,
let’s start our chants: ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to America’,
‘Death to Israel’, ‘Death to Israel’.” So it’s sort of routine,
very, very typical protest. And the shoe, the dreaded shoe. If you ever really want to insult
someone in Arab culture, you invoke the shoe, because it is
the symbol of the worst disrespect – we have like 25 or 30 words
in the Arabic language alone for different types of dirty shoes
depending on how low you are – and so, I don’t know if people remember, I think when George Bush was doing
a press conference in Iraq, one of the reporters took off
his first shoe and hurled it at him, missed, took off the second shoe
and hurled that at him, missed; but nonetheless, was sending a message. And as a matter of fact,
after the 1990 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein
had a very famous Iraqi artist put a mosaic of George Bush
Senior’s face on the floor, like, in shock, “Ah, we kicked you
out of the country,” – or he thought –
so that people can step on his face. And this is the sort of politics
you don’t really see in the imagery on the part of the clerics
of Iraq as they put this forth. But leaving shoe politics aside, what this all sort of indicates, based
on this notion of perception of other, is that Islam is dangerous. We have 1979, we have Al-Qaeda, we have 9/11, we have the War on Terror, but we don’t think about the idea there could be
multiple expressions of Islam, that an Islamic state does not necessarily
mean a religious state. There shouldn’t be things
such as monoliths in which we see the region. Why can we not perceive of Islam
in its various forms serving as a modern ideology? I think we were stuck on Fareed Zakaria’s
very, very famous statement in his writings on illiberal democracies. He was warning us when he said, “Don’t trust the Islamists, they’re going to act like moderates,
they’re going to run for elections, they may win them, but as soon as they do, they’re going to curtail rights
and turn it into the worst case scenario for all members of society.” What I say is, “Thank God for Iran.” I don’t know if you guys noticed
when I started, in my map, you could see that the tentacles from Iran
are creeping up into Iraq. I would say that the Iranians had given
clerical rule a bad name, but that was good in terms of learning
on the part of Iraqis. So they saw what had happened in Iran, they saw that the ayatollah,
at one point in history, couldn’t even find a successor, because he was supposed
to claim one after he died, and had to actually elevate
Ayatollah Khamenei, the successor, or the supreme leader now,
because no one else would do it; most of them went under house arrest,
or a special court for clergy. So the Iraqis are seeing this, and then,
they also saw the other side of it, the secular nationalism of Saddam Hussein, which only lead to torture, expulsion,
and everything else in between. So although Iran is the lens
through which we see Iraq, we shouldn’t be so afraid. The Iranians have not been able
to export their revolution, a testament to Iraqi sovereignty; no Iraqis have ever asked to secede, the majority of them, 60%, have never
flocked to a country with 90% Shiites; and the Iranians themselves
are losing faith in the government. I was talking about chants
of “Death to America”, “Death to Israel”: In June 2009, when Ahmadinejad won
questionable elections in that country, when people were told, “Ready?
Let’s chant ‘Death to America’,” they actually chanted “Death to Russia,” because the Russians were the first
to accept the results of that election. So we see that there’s an evolution here. But what I’d like to sort of end with is this notion
that there is no fiat in Islam, no blueprint, no model, and maybe many people may think,
“Wow, that’s really dangerous, because it means then
that it’s a free-for-all.” But I’d say there’s a potential, an important potential
for democratic development there. Although the narratives about Iraq
don’t really leave room for democracy by clerics, the clerics have actually proven that they’re the most progressive
thinkers in the country, they can serve as public intellectuals,
they have important links to society, and the actual clerical hierarchy
in and of itself has democracy embedded in it, because without people following you
and asking for fatwas, you can’t reach that level
of having a compendium that allows you to be a Grand Ayatollah. And there’s that level of accountability: those clerics go back to the state,
and they petition on behalf of the people. And what this essentially means is when the perception is that ayatollahs
and clerics are in their law schools, and they think about state,
and they have these lofty ideals, they then try to impose them on state; actually the opposite is true. It’s not religion that’s shaping
politics in the Middle East, or at least here in this context, it is politics that’s constraining
and shaping religion. Hence, the way that the Iraqi ayatollahs
conceive of their states. In 1920, Gertrude Bell,
the British diplomat, who was entrusted with reconstructing
Mesopotamia into modern Iraq, was very proud of her work
with the modernized Sunnis, and she expressed a lot of disdain
for the Shiite clerics, and she called them the alien popes. Almost 100 years later,
Donald Rumsfeld made similar statements, ending with, “We will never tolerate
a regime like that of Iran.” But the problem is
we only see what we want to see; if only we can get past the beards. Thank you. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

10 Responses

  1. Such an enlightening talk. Considering what's going on in Egypt and especially Syria today, people may think your points in Iraq are off base. Look at this article – it reinforces the points you are making. Many more people should be reading things like this, see 'The myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia War' on AlJazeera opinion by Murtaza Hussain.

  2. Such gibberish in this talk. Christopher Hitchens would have destroyed her in argument. She seems to have a problem with western educated men being in charge. Would you rather have those educated in Islamism or other conservative ideals in charge? Clerics want pluralism? Yeah right, say that to the gays and women.

  3. One of the few things still made in the U.S., democracy.
    Exporting this stuff get's expensive and not of the best quality.

  4. السيد السستاني يعمل وينطق بما
    أوصى به جده الامام علي ع
    الا مالك الاشتر عندما ولاه مصر
    رسالة علي بن أبي طالب إلى مالك الأشتر

    بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

    رسالة علي بن أبي طالب إلى مالك الاشتر أو عهد علي بن أبي طالب للأشتر هي الرسالة التي أرسالها علي بن أبي طالب إلى مالك بن الاشتر النخعي عندما ولاه[1] الحكم في مصر. فهي عهد في كيفية إدارة الدولة وسياسة الحكومة ومراعاة حقوق الشعب وفيه نظريات الإسلام في الحاكم والحكومة ومناهج الدين في الاقتصاد والاجتماع والسياسة والحرب والإدارة والأُمور العبادية والقضائية.
    هاذا هو السيد السستاني فلا تستغربو فأنه علا خطا جده ع

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