Who can end Iraq's Sunni-Shiite violence?

Iraq needs prominent Islamic leaders who back democracy to now speak out for democracy's survival. Who better than Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani - despite his reluctance.

Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images/File
Posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite Muslim cleric -- are put on a wall in the holy Shia city of Karbala.

A few choice words right now from one particular person could help keep Iraq from descending into civil war between its minority Sunnis and a Shiite-dominated regime – and possibly prevent Al Qaeda from taking over even more cities like Fallujah.

That person is Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a quiet and widely respected Shiite leader. An advocate of democracy for Muslims, he has long been reluctant to play a political role in Iraq – although he has done so on occasion. Yet he is also the leading Shiite figure who argues for harmony between the two major branches of Islam.

As Sunni-Shiite tensions erupted over the past year after sectarian power grabs by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Mr. Sistani met with religious Sunni leaders to tell them that Iraqi Muslims (and the country’s ethnic Kurds) have too much in common to split over long-held theological and cultural disputes. He has called on the prime minister to “give justice to the Sunnis in Iraq.” He even puts Iraqi national identity above a Muslim one.

Unlike the Shiite clerics in neighboring Iran, Sistani warns against the dangers of clerical rule, favoring instead such democratic equalizers as one person, one vote. Like many Shiites in Iraq, he has embraced the democracy implanted after the 2003 American ouster of Saddam Hussein.

That mental shift is important. Shiites, being a minority in the Muslim world, have a history of being rebellious against Sunni dominance. With a culture rooted in protest, Shiites are not used to holding secular power. That kind of thinking comes with values based on survival, while a democracy relies on the values of self-governance and inclusive, collective progress.

Iraq’s young democracy has yet to create the depth of popular support that is needed to sustain it. The country still requires leaders who stand up to preserve democracy when societal divisions jeopardize it. Sistani is one of those necessary leaders – despite his reluctance to evoke religious authority for a secular cause.
Within Shiism, leaders like Sistani rise up because of their principles, education, pedigree, and connections. They are often seen as infallible. Their fatwas (edicts) are obeyed. It is rare, then, when such a figure adopts constitutional democracy as the ideal form of governance.

Sistani must be careful in evoking his power to ensure individual rights and peaceful reconciliation without perpetuating the notion that secular rule should derive from the personal divinity of imams like himself. In one 2005 fatwa, he wrote: “The religious leadership has repeatedly stated that it has no wish to involve itself in political work and prefers for its clerics not to assume government positions.”

From his confines in the religious city of Najaf, Sistani could do much to bridge Sunni-Shiite clashes. Iraq should not become another Syria – or repeat its own post-invasion violence of 2006-07. Whereas Mr. Maliki and the Obama administration’s reliance on weapons to end the violence in Anbar Province would likely fail, a few choice words from a revered cleric might help bring needed peace.

[Editor's note: The original version of this piece mischaracterized the significance of Najaf to Shiite Muslims.]

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