The Magazine

Who Speaks for Iraqi Shiites?

Not Iran's ayatollahs.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By NATHANIEL RABKIN
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"Shiites are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live." So said Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in a televised interview in April 2006. In December 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah warned that a new, Shia-dominated Iraq would become part of a "Shiite crescent," extending from Iran to Lebanon, presumably under the firm grip of Iran's "supreme leader," Ali Khamenei. Many Western analysts shared these views, and commented that while America had liberated the country from Saddam's dictatorship, Tehran would prove the real power broker in the new Iraq. A minority of analysts (Reuel Marc Gerecht in these pages among them) rejected this view. They argued that an independent Shiite religious leadership would flourish in Iraq, and ultimately come to challenge Khamenei's power over Shiites across the region, even in Iran itself.

So far, the minority view is prevailing, as the leaders of Iraqi Shiism have asserted their independence from Iranian authority. The reemergence of Iraq's Shiite leadership comes as the Iranian regime, having dropped all but the thinnest pretense of democracy, now stands only on the religious claims of authority made by Ali Khamenei. And there are indications that many Iranians reject these claims.

The independence of the four great Shiite ayatollahs of Najaf--the city 100 miles south of Baghdad that is a holy site for Shia Islam--can be easily ascertained from their public statements. Each of these ayatollahs maintains an extensive website, usually in Arabic and Persian, although some maintain sites in English, Urdu, and other languages as well. (The content appearing in one language does not always appear in another. All quotations in this article come from the Arabic websites, unless otherwise noted.) Each website has an extensive question and answer section, dealing with all kinds of religious questions, including those with political implications. Each ayatollah, responding to his followers' questions in carefully couched and diplomatic language, rejects or casts severe doubts on the religious authority of Ali Khamenei.

The ayatollah most open about his rejection of Khamenei is Ishaq al-Fayadh, who writes at www.alfayadh.com, in response to a question about the relationship between religion and politics, that no true Islamic government "exists today on any part of the earth." He adds that the policies pursued by the existing governments of the world "have no connection to religion." Elsewhere, he recommends elections as the best way of selecting good rulers.

On the website of Ayatollah Said al-Hakim (istefta.alhakeem.com), readers pose a number of questions about Wilayat al-Faqih (literally, rule of the jurist). This is the doctrine, favored by Khomeini, according to which a Shiite religious scholar should exercise supreme political power, under the title of Wali al-Faqih. Hakim explains that the concept is "subject to disputes among scholars." One reader asks: "If I follow a religious authority who does not believe in Wilayat al-Faqih, must I still obey the Wali al-Faqih?" Hakim responds: "Wilayat al-Faqih is a technical issue, and, as in all technical issues, each individual should follow the fatwas of his own legitimate jurist." On Hakim's English website (english.alhakeem.com), this ruling ends with the additional clause, "whether this jurist believes in the issue of Wilayat al-Faqih or does not." In Iran, denying the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih can result in a jail sentence or worse.

Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafy accepts Wilayat al-Faqih, but has a different version of it than the Iranians. According to Najafy (www.alnajafy.com), Khamenei can claim political authority only over territory he actually controls, and "his hand is extended only over Iran. .  .  . I don't think anyone believes that his dominion covers the entire earth." Asked explicitly whether he considers himself subordinate to Khamenei's religious authority, Ayatollah Najafy writes: "the rulings of one scholar cannot bind another."

The most cautious of Iraq's ayatollahs in dealing with this question is also the greatest: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He has good reason to be cautious in his political statements: His agents collect millions of dollars in donations from believers in Iran, and his institutions spend millions on charitable and educational projects in that country. Asked on his website (www.sistani.org), "What is your opinion about Wilayat al-Faqih?" Sistani writes that a legal scholar may exercise political power under certain "circumstances," but that he "must meet a number of conditions, including being generally acceptable to the mass of believers." It is left up to the reader to decide whether Ali Khamenei, famous for barring opposition election candidates and imprisoning critics, is "generally acceptable" to Iran's Shiite believers.

These four ayatollahs enjoy immense support among Iraq's Shiites. They face some competition from the followers of the renegade junior cleric Moktada al-Sadr, but the latter's movement is in utter disarray and in recent months has proved unable to respond to a harsh crackdown by government authorities. When Sadr's spokesmen still dare to show their faces, they often as not call their opponents Iranian agents or simply "Persians."

This favorite insult of the Sadrists reveals a basic truth: The Iranian government is not popular among Iraqi Shiites. There is not a single political party or religious authority in Iraq that openly accepts the political or religious authority of Ali Khamenei. Even the "Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq," an exile party that many observers in 2003 considered an Iranian front group, has changed its name to the "Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council." Its website features prominent pictures of the four Iraqi ayatollahs, but none of Khamenei or any other Iranian cleric. The group's rallies are said to feature loud chants of loyalty to Sistani, whom they refer to as "the crown of our heads."

It is difficult to say how much influence the ayatollahs have over political events in Iraq, although the stream of political leaders seeking meetings with them suggests that it is considerable. And while all of the ayatollahs have endorsed elections, it is not clear what they want Iraq to look like in the future or what role they wish to play in the country's politics.

What is clear is this: In the contest for religious supremacy in Iraq, the votes are in--Sistani and the other Najaf ayatollahs have won; Khamenei and the Iranians have lost.

The contest in Iran is somewhat harder to evaluate. There seminary students can be denied stipends or arrested for questioning Khamenei's right to rule. The official media impose a near-total blackout on clerics considered disloyal to the regime. But some information can still be gleaned about the relative popularity of Shiite clerics in Iran, according to Mehdi Khalaji, a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne and former BBC reporter who spent 14 years studying at Iran's Qom seminary.

In his monograph The Last Marja, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Khalaji reveals a fascinating investigation carried out annually by the Iranian government on just this question.

The manner of the investigation is simple, but can only be understood in its religious context. That context is the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca of about a million Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite. Spots on the pilgrimage are given out by lottery. Hajj pilgrims travel in organized groups, and each group has one or more administrative leaders who arrange for the physical and spiritual needs of the pilgrims under their care.

For Shiite pilgrims, these needs are also educational: In order for his pilgrimage to be valid, each pilgrim must carry out the rituals of the Hajj in accordance with the instructions of the scholar he accepts as his Marja, or personal religious authority. The leader of each Hajj group asks his pilgrims individually which scholar they view as their authority, and gives him or her a short booklet, printed by that scholar's office, explaining how to perform the Hajj.

The differences between religious authorities on the Hajj are technical, if not arcane. But by surveying Hajj leaders, Iranian authorities can get a very accurate picture of how many followers each religious authority has inside Iran. According to Khalaji, the surprising results of these surveys have been widely discussed in Iranian clerical circles: By far the most popular religious authority among Iranian Shiites is Ali Sistani. The second most popular is Hossein Ali Montazeri, a leader of the 1979 revolution who spent six years under house arrest after he publicly stated in the fall of 1997 that Khamenei is not qualified to give a fatwa.

In 2003, many expected Iraq's Shiite population to fall under the shadow of Iran's clerical government. But the opposite has happened. Far from handing the country over to Iran's rulers, the liberation of Iraq has created an independent Shiite religious leadership that provides genuine competition to Iran's turbaned dictatorship. The star of Najaf is rising, and it can be seen clearly in the skies of Tehran.

Nathaniel Rabkin is a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War.