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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq’s Shiites: One Banner, Many Allegiances

Iraq's Shiites
Iraqis practise Self-flagellation at the Imam Ali shrine in the holy city of Najaf near the capital Baghdad, on April 22, 2022, as a gesture of mourning for the 7th century killing of Imam Ali, during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Ali Bin Abi Talib was assassinated in 661 at the Great Mosque of Kufa, located in present-day Iraq. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/ AFP

Ali Al-Ajeel

Introduction

During the three decades of the Ba’ath rule in Iraq, the Shiite political movement had rooted itself in religion and morals. The opposition of Saddam Hussein claimed to oppose injustice and crime, wherever it is, and to uphold the values of justice, equality, freedom and citizenship.

These forces took an example from the fairness and asceticism of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb and the revolution of Imam Al-Husayn. Both Imams are praised, and their banners are raised. Moreover, it extends to even the names of these factions, like the Islamic Dawa Party, the Islamic Action Organisation, the Badr Organisation, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the Mahdi Army and the Promised Day Brigade.

All these slogans and others like “Revolution and Justice” or “Revolution for Justice” brought the Shiites of Iraq to power. However, they were not sustainable for more than 20 years. The reasons were mismanagement, chaotic government, and the exploitation of personal and partisan benefits. The political leaders also became warlords after they monopolised power and public money. Not only that, they turned the Iraqi people, including the Shiites themselves, into extreme poverty.

This led to the dissolution of the image these parties had been polishing for more than 50 years.

The Sanctity of the Religious State

Al-Sarkhi incident, the subsequent campaigns against him, and the arrests of his followers proved that the second and 10th articles of the constitution are the only defining texts of the Iraqi state. The second article states that Islam is the official religion of the state and is the foundation source of every legislation. As for the 10th article, the state is committed to assuring and maintaining the sanctity of the holy shrines and religious sites and to guaranteeing the free practice of rituals in them. However, the dozens of other constitutional articles that emphasise civil identity, freedom to practice rituals, the freedom of expression and the right to assembly do not mean anything.

Al-Sarkhi called for the removal of sanctity and veneration from the clergy and their various institutions. The statement did not incite violence or hatred. Nonetheless, the calls of Al-Sarkhi and his supporters were met with great ferocity. The ruling class wants to establish and consolidate their roles and favour the only portion of the constitution that serves them and their interests. This treatment also reveals how all factions put their historical differences aside to unite against Al-Sarkhi and his ideals.

This obstinacy will only add more sanctity and fear from the authoritarian class. A sanctity that will prevent any political, media, or even societal current from bringing any small change or even criticism of this ruling structure.

Frenemies

Faction leaders want you to believe that a single homogenous voice unites all Shiite. There are many Shiite parties, militias affiliated with them, or directly affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, they do not share the same ideology, even if they belong to the same sect.

The United States enforced a quota-based political system akin to Lebanon‘s. Since then, the Shiite candidates have seized power as representatives of the “components of the public.” It replaced any accurate representation of Iraqis. As the most significant component of the population, Shiites have the lion’s share of the balance of power.

The Shiites of Iraq were never a single sect. The Husseini rituals unite them, but everything else divides them and provokes discord. These differences can trigger conflicts if the interests are not aligned. Differences between the Shiites existed long before the occupation and the ascendance of political Shiism into power. However, clinging to power and exploiting resources prompted these factions to ignore many disputes, such as between Maliki and Al-Sadr, Al-Sadr and Khazali, and Al-Sarkhi and the rest of the factions.

Between Najaf and Qom

Iraq's Shiites
Iraqi men pray at the Imam Ali shrine in the holy city of Najaf near the capital Baghdad on April 22, 2022, as pilgrims gather to commemorate the 7th century killing of Imam Ali, during the Muslim month of Ramadan. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

The rivalry between the two seminaries: Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, has intensified recently. According to Khaled Bashir, both belong to the same sect, the Twelver Shi’ism, and there is no difference between them in teachings and beliefs. However, their competition intensified for “the leadership of the sect’s followers worldwide.”

The Hawza is historically considered the religious and scientific capital of the global Shiite religious and social system from which Shiite clerics of different nationalities graduate. There are two Hawzas, one in Najaf, extending back nearly a thousand years, and the second in Qom, dating back to the migration of the Iraqi Kufic Ash’ari tribe to Qom. The two seminaries differ in aspects related to organisational structure and scholarly contribution, but they “are similar to the point of identicalness in content and curriculum,” according to Shafaq News.

This conflict has been going on between Najaf and Qom for years. Its goal, according to ANF, is to “impose influence and supremacy, as Qom’s Hawza adopts Wilayat al-Faqih, and makes politics at the core of the clerical work.” However, Najaf’s Hawza “does not believe in Wilayat al-Faqih and issues fatwas to stay away from politics. Their Hawza rejects the authority of “Wali al-Faqih” over the Shiites of Iraq or anywhere else.”

It is impossible to summarise the “Marjaa” system because it is very complex, and it is impossible to determine the affiliation of people to either of the two Hawzas. According to the International Institute for Iranian Studies, “it remains hard to predict the fate of the supreme marjayya and the actors influencing it – given the complexity and the overlapping religious, political and economic aspects. This is added to the conflicting interests of regional and global actors. Even if there is a will by some countries or parties to install aligned clerics as Marjaa, the whole matter, in the end, will be subject to the process of social filtering. There is no doubt that this needs time. However, the social incubators are controlled as they are subject to the media, actors, and figures – who could be independent or directed. Hence, some countries and actors will seek to invest in these popular incubators which make up the hawza’s taqlid incubators.”

Sect Divisions

Once united in their decades-old battle against Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shiites are now deeply divided and disillusioned with their political leaders.

The primary source of disappointment is the corrupt state, with more than half of the population of Iraq being under 25 years of age, but a third of them are unemployed. Getting a job is linked to nepotism and connections with the political elite.

Moreover, corruption is widespread, with Iraqi Shiite leaders employing only their families, friends, and loyalists. More political appointments were made through networks that transcend state and religion. Here, it must be noted that these appointments are based on party membership and loyalty to political leaders rather than merit or technocratic capabilities.

Today, in Iraq’s most crucial Shiite heartland, the Shiite community resents the successive Shiite-led governments. They blame it for the failing infrastructure, unemployment, and ongoing violence.

The recent crushing of Al-Sarkhi and his views does not mean any possibility of religious reform. Regardless of agreeing with Al-Sarkhi’s religious views or disagreeing with them, in the end, they mean to add diversity and contrast to the religious mind, its discourse and the field itself. This feature is the natural prelude to any historical development.

The security, political and media campaigns against Al-Sarkhi take on a decisive religious struggle perspective, in which the various ruling political forces contribute through state agencies and institutions. However, essential Iraqi life issues are being forgotten. Some of these countless issues are related to drinking water, electricity, domestic violence, the unjust tribal rule, the massive increase in the population, the exacerbation of desertification and political insurgency, the militarisation of society, the domination of armed militias over the economy and foreign interventions just to name a few.