Sistani Calls for ‘Civil State’ in Iraq

Iraqi politicians — whether Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds — have for years tried to  drag supreme Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani into their ongoing political conflicts. To this day, certain parties have not  grown tired in their efforts, through any means possible, to bridge the wide gap  between the prevailing view in Najaf — based on religious figures maintaining  distance from politics — and the prevailing theory in the Iranian city of Qom — based on religious figures assuming political roles.

However, Sistani — a charismatic man who adheres to a near-obsolete legacy  that is hard to change —  resisted, and is resisting, all of these attempts. He is  doing so not only out of an ascetic desire to abstain from politics and power,  but also to protect millions of his Shiite followers throughout the world from  the effects of severing the thin line between the religious Shiite figure and  the political leader.

Sistani recently issued a serious of highly significant recommendations  through his representative in Karbala regarding the crisis represented by the Sunni demonstrations in Iraq. He said that he is calling  for a “civil state,” based on respect for the law and the constitution, human  rights, and equality.

This supreme Islamic religious figure did not talk about a “religious  state,” nor did he fill his speech to politicians and the public with religious  expressions, Quranic verses, or sayings from the prophet. Rather, with clarity  and in a language understood throughout the world, he called for “a civil  state.”

This understanding not only means that Sistani deeply understands the  movements within Islamic communities, and their diversity and conflicting  visions regarding a “religious state” and its limits, but that he — like most  senior Islamic clerics throughout history — fundamentally looks at society and  the role of religion as an interactive, not unilateral, relationship. It was  this vision that has allowed the Shiite sect to adapt to ongoing political and  historical developments throughout history. And it is this same vision that  allowed religion, and its position vis-à-vis politics, to be based on the idea  of independence, not dependency or hostility.

Sistani’s vision differs from that of many Shiite religious and political  leaders. Some of them still maintain the dream that the religious authorities  will one day take charge of the premiership, while Sistani views religion as  something symbolic of history, place and time, more than a governmental  function.

A few days ago, Sistani met with the representative of the Secretary-General  of the United Nations in Baghdad, Martin Kobler, and discussed with him the  crisis relating to the demonstrations. The two men agreed on a road map that  must be adopted to solve this crisis.

This meeting comes following a period of nearly three years in which Sistani  had closed the door to Iraqi politicians. He did so as a result of his  displeasure at their performance, and to force them to practice politics away  from any religious or sectarian influence. He wanted politics to be practiced as  “job” not as a “religious mission.” Yet when the crisis reached a dangerous  level, Sistani had no choice but to clarify his understanding of the state. He  views the state as a “civil” entity in which there is no difference between  Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, except at the ballot boxes. It is a state of “law,”  where a modern constitution is harmonious with human rights; democracy is the  basis, the judiciary rules. It is a “peaceful” state, meaning respect for  international rules and law and discipline within the parameters of  international peace and security.