On June 10, 2014 Mosul fell to the Islamic State and other insurgent groups. The next day Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis to protect the country’s shrines and to defend the nation. Sistani’s move caused controversy both inside and out of Iraq as many interpreted it as sectarian incitement for Iraq’s Shiite to take up arms against Sunnis. Rachel Kantz Feder of The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University argues that the fatwa was as much about the threat posed by the Islamic State as it was about the divisions within the Shiite community.
1. Can you provide some context for Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa. Besides the fall of Mosul what had the then Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) threatened to do in Iraq?
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS’s spokesperson, released an incendiary audio recording designed to incite an all out sectarian war akin to that which raged from 2006-2007. He pledged to transform Iraq into a living hell for “the Shi‘a and other heretics” before threatening to settle scores “not in Samarra or Baghdad but in Karbala’ al-munajjasah [the defiled] and Najaf al-ashrak [the most polytheistic]”. ISIS’s promise to storm Shi‘i Islam’s most revered cities elicited its intended reaction: wide scale mobilization of Iraqi Shi‘is.
2. When Sistani issued his fatwa the western press portrayed it as a call to arms for Iraq’s Shiites against its Sunnis. Was there a similar interpretation by Iraqis themselves?
The need for Sistani’s representatives to clarify repeatedly that it was a call to fight the takfiri foreigners within the legitimate framework of the IAF [Iraqi Armed Forces] and reiterate the nationalist character of the fatwa indicates that it was understood by many Iraqis just as the western media simplistically framed it: a call for Iraq’s Shi‘is to prepare for defensive jihad against ISIS and the Sunni insurgents who have facilitated the organization’s advance. To be sure, in the following days other influential Iraqi religious and political figures conflated Sistani’s fatwa with the need for defensive jihad. Also, [Lebanese Hezbollah’s leader Hassan] Nasrallah declared that he would send five times the forces that he sent to Syria, demonstrating that the fatwa could decisively shift the center of Shi‘i militancy from Syria to Iraq. Regardless of Sistani’s intentions, it was perceived as an escalation of both the Iraqi and the regional sectarian conflict, and surely the strategists in Sistani’s office could have anticipated these reactions. So despite Sistani’s track record of promoting Iraq’s national unity and urging restraint – even in the face of perceived existential threats to Iraq’s Shi‘is - we need to ask why the turnaround?
3. Besides the threat posed by the insurgency you tried to explain what else might have motivated Sistani’s fatwa.
Sistani could not afford to stand by idly as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iranian-backed militias allied with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took the lead in defending Iraq and Shi‘i holy sites. The remobilization of Shi‘i militias in Iraq has been long underway and Adnani’s ominous message was sure to fuel the mobilization regardless of Sistani’s fatwa. Leaving the protection of Najaf and Karbala exclusively to Shi‘i militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps would have legitimized further Iranian interference in Iraq. This would have undermined Sistani’s assiduous efforts to thwart Iran’s penetration of Iraq particularly in the religious sphere and it would have enduring consequences that could enfeeble the religious establishment.
4. Did the relationship between the Najaf clergy, the marjaiya and the government of Nouri al-Maliki play a role?
Sistani’s inaction might have risked a slide toward obsolescence at a time that there are clear signs that the religious establishment’s influence is on the decline. Despite unprecedented criticism emanating from the powers to be in Najaf, Maliki easily emerged from the April Parliamentary Elections as the most popular politician. Tensions between the religious establishment and Baghdad have been mounting over the past few years but never has the fissure between the figureheads of political Shi‘ism and religious Shi’ism been so manifest. Sistani consistently has rebuked Maliki’s handling of the crisis since its outbreak in December 2012. Among many other expressions of the marja‘iyya’s disapproval of Maliki and his allies’ sectarian motives, Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, one of Iraq’s four leading ayatollahs, delivered a scathing attack against Maliki and urged voters to select an alternative candidate days before Iraqis headed to the polls. Nevertheless, Maliki’s shrewd politicking allowed him to survive the clerics’ contempt, suggesting that Najaf might not wield the same degree of political influence it once enjoyed.
5. Overall, how has Sistani’s actions affected the current situation in Iraq?
Sistani has been advocating a “civil state” al-dawla al-madaniyah , or a model of religion-state relations that is anchored in the principle of equal citizenship for all of Iraq’s communities. However, Maliki’s disregard for Najaf’s vision, together with his consolidation of power and sectarian policies demonstrate that while Sistani remains the highest religious authority for many believers, new domestic and geopolitical realities seem to have limited his political influence in Iraq.