"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Sistani and Iraqi democracy

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme religious authority of Shiite Islam in Iraq, has been lauded over the last few years as being one of the few forces in that country willing or powerful enough to hold that country together. He has often called for restraint in the face of assaults on Shiite civilians, including worshippers at mosques. I read recently that he had issued a decree to the effect that if he himself were murdered he forgave his murderers in advance and wished there to be no reprisal. Such forbearance in the face of intense provocation has led him to described as a key ally of the democratic project in Iraq.

In the sense that he has been a force for stability, this is accurate. In the broader sense of promoting individual freedom and human rights, some of his recent comments present a different picture. Andrew C. McCarthy of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies argues that "that the grand ayatollah is familiar with the practice, turned into an art form by Yasser Arafat, of shielding gullible Westerners with whom one is ingratiating oneself from some of the more alarming things one says to Arabic-speaking audiences". He bases this on Sistani's supposed view that non-Muslims should be considered in the same category as “urine, feces, semen, dead bodies, blood, dogs, pigs, alcoholic liquors, and “the sweat of an animal who persistently eats [unclean things]” and a recent decree that homosexual conduct was “forbidden” and that those who engage in it should be “punished, in fact, killed. The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.”

This type of pronouncement is disturbing. If this is the authoritative version of Shiite Islam held by Iraq's Shi'ites - who hold a majority in parliament under a constitution under a constitution which posits Islam as a fundamental source of law - what sort of democracy is likely to emerge? The most worrying aspect of Sistani's thought is that its attitude to non-Muslims seems consistent with that of al-Qaeda's spokespersons. Sistani doesn't advocate terrorism but such an attitude is inconsistent with any sort of cultural understanding or openness. The lesson one supposes is that democracy in Iraq and the broader Middle East is ultimately a project for the people there and one that will take many years. America and its allies can oust a regime like Saddam's and try to hold the line while democratic institutions are stood up, but they cannot create democracy in any real sense - only an opportunity for it to take root.


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