Over the past five weeks, as more Iraqis have taken to the streets in mass protests, the slogans of the demonstrators have pleasantly evolved. At first their placards revealed what they were against: lack of basic services and jobs, corruption among ruling parties, and the powerful influence of neighboring Iran. Then the slogans began to demand wholesale change in government, such as allowing voters to cast ballots for individual candidates rather than for parties.
Lately, however, demonstrators have shifted to this popular slogan: “I am going to take my rights myself.”
The idea that a people should be self-governing still faces obstacles in Iraq 16 years after the United States planted democracy in the Middle East country. Iraq is largely ruled by Shiite religious parties with strong ties to Shiite-run Iran, where autocratic rule by a religious scholar is the norm. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who set himself as the “supreme guide” 40 years ago, once wrote that universal rights are merely “opium for the masses.”
In both Iran and Iraq, the denial of basic rights and accountability has contributed to mass corruption and economic stagnation. Now, by the tens of thousands, Iraqi protesters are demanding a rights-based state that respects religion rather than a religious state like that in Iran. They do not want spiritual guides to be spiritual autocrats.
To help their cause they have looked to the most revered figure in Shiite Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives a quiet life in the Iraqi city of Najaf. He has not disappointed them.
In a sermon last Friday, he backed the protesters and said no one person or foreign power (meaning Iran) should impose its will on the Iraqi people. He also criticized “the abyss of the killings.” Since Oct. 1, when the protests began, more than 200 protesters have been killed, many of them by gunmen from militias controlled by Iran.
Following his sermon, Mr. al-Sistani was visited by Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps. The results of this meeting could influence the entire Middle East, where Iran keeps pushing the notion that only clerics can reflect the truth needed to run society.
Iraq’s elected leaders have already won a war against Islamic State, the Sunni-based group that controlled a large part of Iraq from 2014 to 2017. Now with protesters seeking a citizens-based democracy rather than a cleric-ruled theocracy, these leaders must side again with those who regard equality and self-governance as inherent rights. Such ideas are not mere slogans.