Inter Press Network

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Good Ayatollah

By Stephen Schwartz

Much hope is presently vested, by friends of a free Iraq, in the 74-year-old grand ayatollah, Sayyid Ali al-Husseini Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani acts as a marja, or religious guide, for many if not most Iraqi Shia Muslims from his residence in the holy city of Najaf. Since the Shia make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, it is a matter of some interest to know just where the grand ayatollah would lead his followers.

Sistani has thus far been an unwavering advocate of elected government in Iraq (far more steadfast than the Coalition itself). And now it is possible to ascertain his views on another important matter--relations between Muslims and non-Muslims--thanks to a volume of Sistani's pronouncements (fatwas) offering guidance to Muslims living abroad. A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West was dictated to Abdul Hadi al-Hakim and translated by Syed Muhammad Rizvi from an Arabic text approved by Sistani's office in the Iranian religious center of Qum. It can be downloaded at or bought from Islamic booksellers.

For the novice, any work of Islamic jurisprudence might prove difficult to navigate. Certainly, there is much here to disconcert the reader unfamiliar with the strict Shia sect. The book begins, for example, by warning that Muslims should not emigrate to non-Muslim countries unless they are certain that doing so will not undermine their faith or that of their relatives. Its pages mention numerous customs and notions alien to outsiders, like the prohibition on attendance at musical concerts intended purely for entertainment, rigorous habits of personal modesty, and acceptance of "temporary" as well as "permanent" marriage.

But more instructive than looking for exotic features of Shia teaching is a comparison of Sistani's views on key questions with those propounded by Wahhabi Islam, the official sect of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi teaching is propagated via websites, newspapers, sermons, and lectures, in thousands of Sunni mosques and by Islamist organizations throughout the world. It is the contrast between Sistani's teaching and that of the Wahhabis that shows quite plainly who are our enemies and who are our friends.

A good place to start is the question whether Muslims living in the West may participate in electoral politics. Sistani answers yes, the Wahhabis answer no. And the difference between them in tone could hardly be greater.

The Ayatollah Sistani not only states that Muslim citizens of Western nations may vote, he goes on to counsel that they may, and sometimes should, run for office: "At times the higher interests of the Muslims in non-Muslim countries demand that Muslims seek membership of political parties, and enter parliaments, and representative assemblies." While he specifies that such decisions must be submitted to consultation with "trustworthy experts," his view is that Muslim citizens of countries like Britain should participate in the political process on an equal basis with non-Muslims.

The Wahhabis' attitude toward elections was on display during the recent vote for the European Parliament. In Britain, which has a Muslim population of at least 1.5 million, widely reproduced Wahhabi propaganda posters, flyers, and website commentaries bore the headline "The Messenger Muhammad (S.A.W.) Is Our Example--Did He Ever Vote?" (S.A.W. stands for Sallallahu Aleyhi wa-Sallam, or May the Peace of God Be Upon Him, and is usually abbreviated in English PBUH.) One might as well ask whether the Messenger Muhammad ever rode a bus, spoke on the telephone, or wore glasses, but that was not the point. Rather, the intent was to keep Muslims removed from the political process of a democracy.

A typical Wahhabi rant under this headline may be read at the pro-bin Laden website al-Muhajiroun. It declaims, "Muslims must not vote for anyone in the present election, even if they say that they are going to get you some schools or other benefits for the Muslim community." That "some people go to Parliament or local councils and legislate and others vote for them to go there and do so" is "clear-cut shirk," or idol-worship. "How can a Muslim say there is no legislator except Allah," asks the piece, ". . . and then vote for someone else to legislate [the unbelievers'] law and order?"

Such blandishments accurately represent the all-or-nothing mentality of Wahhabis living in Britain, according to whom no government is legitimate except an Islamic one--which is why they fully intend to establish an Islamic government in place of the country's present parliamentary system.

The contrast between the mentality of Sistani and that of the Wahhabis is even starker when one turns to the simplest level of participation in community life: Should Muslims extend Christmas and New Year's greetings to their Christian neighbors? Sistani says yes, the Wahhabis say no.

Sistani states very simply: "It is permissible to greet the Jews and Christians and also [other non-Muslims] on the occasions they celebrate like the New Year, Christmas, Easter, and the Passover."

If we turn to the Wahhabi website, representing the "Islamic web community," we find a diatribe by Jamal al-Din Zarabozo. He writes that "it is not allowed for Muslims to congratulate the non-Muslims on their holidays and festivals. . . . It is one of the greatest sins in Allah's sight . . . a greater sin than congratulating them for drinking wine."

Zarabozo, whose rhetoric is notorious among Muslims for its excesses, cites a reported opinion by Abdullah ibn Umar, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, that "whoever stays in the lands of the foreigners and celebrates their New Year's Days . . . shall be resurrected with them on the Day of Resurrection," that is, excluded from the Muslim hereafter. Zarabozo also cites an opinion of Ibn al Qayyim, a fourteenth-century disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, the forerunner of Wahhabism, holding that Muslims should not even "sell Christians anything they may use in their holidays of meat, blood, or clothing, nor should they loan an animal to ride on, nor help with anything concerning [their] festival because all of that would be a way of dignifying their idolatry and helping them in their [unbelief]."

Moving on to actual friendships between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Sistani welcomes them, the Wahhabis forbid them.

Sistani writes, "A Muslim is allowed to take non-Muslims for acquaintances and friends, to be sincere towards them and they be sincere towards him, to help them and they help him in fulfilling the needs of this life." He notes that Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the founder of Shia jurisprudence, said, "If a Jewish person comes to sit with you, make that a good meeting."

Wahhabis teach that such relationships should be avoided at all costs. (The Muslim Students Association is especially pernicious in spreading this view among Muslim college students in North America.) The authoritative Wahhabi website Islam Q&A declares that "a Muslim's relationship with Muslims is different from his relationship with others. . . . With regard to non-Muslims, the Muslim should disavow himself of them, and he should not feel any love in his heart towards them. . . . If [the] Muslim has to be with [non-Muslims] physically, he should not be with them in his heart, and he must avoid mixing with them unnecessarily. . . . The rights of Allah and His Book and His Prophet are more important than our personal rights. Remember this, for this is one of the things that will help you to hate them and regard them as enemies until they believe in Allah alone."

Some Wahhabis have adopted a viewpoint slightly less harsh. Abdullah Ibn Abd ur-Rahman Jibreen, a prominent Saudi cleric and state religious functionary whose fatwa against hijackings has been used to paint the Wahhabis as enemies of terrorism, concedes, "It is allowed to mix with the disbelievers, sit with them and be polite with them as means of calling them to Allah, explaining to them the teachings of Islam, encouraging them to enter this religion and to make it clear to them the good result of accepting the religion and the evil result of punishment for those who turn away. For this purpose, being a companion to them and showing love for them is overlooked in order to reach that good final goal."

It is true that Shia and Wahhabi leaders have one unfortunate point of agreement: Both call on Muslims in the West to boycott Israeli products. Wahhabis, however, are instructed to go the extra mile and boycott American products as well. The differences between the dour, rigid mentality that Saudi Arabia seeks to impose and the moderate views of Ayatollah Sistani, meanwhile, extend to matters as trivial as depictions of human beings (Wahhabis command that such paintings be destroyed; Sistani accepts them) and as grave as punishments for adultery (the Wahhabis kill an adulteress; Sistani writes that "it is not permissible for [a Muslim man] to kill [a Muslim woman who commits adultery], even if he sees her in the act").

Most important, perhaps, Sistani's book makes no mention of concepts, dear to Muslim radicals, such as the goal of establishing Islamic rule in Western countries and the duty to fight jihad in non-Muslim lands. Instead, Sistani exhorts the Muslim living in a non-Muslim nation that when he has made a commitment "to abide by the laws of that country"--as he implicitly has in signing immigration documents--he must keep his promise.

The lesson here is simple and essential: The Ayatollah Sistani does not seek to promote a clash of civilizations or a conflict between religions. He does not teach the necessity of aggressive dawa (Islamic evangelism) or jihad against non-Muslims. The Saudis and their Wahhabi servants insist on both.

And that, of course, is a major reason why extremist Saudi clerics incite Muslims to kidnap and murder Americans and other non-Muslims on Saudi soil. It is also why Saudi Arabia so fears a democratic, Shia-led Iraq on its northern border, and why Wahhabi preachers urge pious Muslims to kill and die fighting all who defend the new Iraq.

-Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

-The article was published in Weekly Standard on July 12,2004


Docu calls WMDs a big neo-con job

UNCOVERED: THE WAR ON IRAQ Documentary by Robert Greenwald. (1:23). At the Angelika, the Sutton. Unrated.

In March 2003, the Bush administration knew with professed certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and would use them on us.

Now we know that the only way Saddam could have had biological, chemical and nuclear weapons then was if he'd rubbed a lamp and been granted three wishes.

Didn't anybody in the intelligence community or among all the President's men know that?

The answer, in Robert Greenwald's despairing documentary, "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," is yes. Plenty of people in the know knew - people with backgrounds ranging from the CIA to the Iraq inspection teams to the Bush administration itself.

But according to their testimony in this film, Bush was so intent on invading Iraq, and initiating a Middle-East plan that his neo-con advisers had hatched years before 9/11, that their reservations were ignored.

This is Greenwald's second attack on the right this month. His "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," was released in theaters two weeks ago.

But he doesn't resort to any of the editorial flim-flam and smug theater that undermines the credibility of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." To a careful follower of post-9/11 political news, there is nothing in "Uncovered" that should come as a surprise. Excluding Fox News, it's all been covered.

But recapping it in one tight, 83-minute film, and placing his sources in front of the camera, Greenwald has created a crisp historical document that is worth your time, even if the information in it was not worth the President's.

Originally published on August 20, 2004


'Death after death, blood after blood'

Killing goes on despite claims that siege is over
Luke Harding inside the Imam Ali shrine,Najaf

Inside the pockmarked entrance of Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, there were no police to be seen yesterday afternoon.

Supporters of the rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr loafed on carpets in the pigeon-infested courtyard. A few smoked; others dozed. A couple of young students stood next to a makeshift infirmary; parked nearby was an empty pallet covered in blood.

"We haven't given up. This is a lie by the government," said Amar Al-Khaji, a 29-year-old civil engineer from Baghdad. "As you can see, we are still here."

Only hours earlier a senior Iraqi government official had claimed that Iraqi police had secured the shrine, apparently bringing to an end the two-week standoff with Mr Sadr's militia. At least 400 Mahdi army members had been arrested, and the bloodshed had ended.

By dusk, it was apparent that this was not the case. Hundreds of unarmed supporters of the cleric were bedding down for another night in the mosque. In the rubbish-strewn alleyways around the shrine, fighters armed with Kalshnikovs sat on metal chairs.

The evidence of withering American bombardment was all around: tangled electricity wires, pulverised remains of earth barricades and the smell of decaying human flesh.

Far from being vanquished, the Mahdi army is still in Najaf, battling to win. "The fighting is still going on," Saeed Mustafa confirmed, as we crunched through Najaf's glass-strewn old city toward the shrine, arms raised and waving a white handkerchief.

All afternoon the dusty streets had echoed intermittently with the crump of mortars. Puffs of black smoke wafted over the Imam Ali shrine's golden dome.

The standoff in Najaf has plunged Iraq's beleaguered prime minister, Ayad Allawi, into his worst crisis so far. Mr Allawi issued a "last call" to the cleric on Thursday and the battle is clearly a defining moment for his interim government, which owes its existence to Washington.

Mr Sadr has rejected its authority and refused to compromise with foreign occupation.

What happens in Najaf next will determine Iraq's future, for better or worse. That may in part explain the confusion which surrounds events. The claims of victory, of a Sadr cave-in, appear to be wishful thinking, more than reality.

So, too, is the attempt to portray the battle for the Shias' holiest city as one in which the US military is merely assisting government forces.

At the moment, the Americans are doing all the fighting. The Iraqi police play merely a cameo role: a massive convoy rode towards the shrine yesterday, sirens blazing, celebrating a victory that never happened. Two minutes later it turned back.

On the streets there is exasperation. "Our situation is disastrous," said Abu Qatam, a 25-year-old taxi driver. "We don't have water or power. My neighbour came back yesterday to check on his house and he was killed. We don't know whether the Americans did it or the Mahdi army."

Where the Mahdi army has been newly turfed out, there is little sympathy for Mr Sadr, or for his militia, many of whose corpses lie unburied to the north of the shrine, in Najaf's vast cemetery.

"They are looters, murderers and Ba'athists," a shopkeeper, Abdul Amir, said. His troubles started six months ago, he said, when an American soldier bought one of his fridges.

"A month later the Mahdi army took me to the cemetery, accused me of being an American agent, and beat me up. After that I had to appear before Moqtada's Sharia court. Dozens of people have been tortured or disappeared. Moqtada has a secret underground jail. His followers have executed at least 300 people," he claimed.

It is not a claim that can be easily verified. But what is clear is that in the battle for Najaf, civilians are dying.

Forty six people were injured and 11 killed in the past two days of fighting, the director of Najaf's hospital, Falah Almahana, said yesterday.

A short stroll from his office was the evidence. The newly dead were stored in a makeshift truck, next to a German refrigerating unit that did not work. In it, the bodies were too numerous to count.

But it was clear the small girl with the gamine haircut and the other corpses had little to do with the battle that has been raging down the road. Three blanket-covered bodies lay nearby in the dust.

"They were walking down the street when a mortar landed on them," a morgue attendant, Abu Muhammad, explained.

Even if Iraqi troops eventually storm the shrine, or kill Mr Sadr, it seems optimistic to think his uprising will then disappear. In the town of Kufa, close to Najaf, dozens of Shia militiamen armed with rocket-propelled grenades were yesterday standing on the streets.

As night fell, the small girl's body lay unclaimed in Najaf's morgue. Next to her lay the corpse of a middle-aged woman who might have been her mother.

"I don't believe in violence. I've never fired a gun. The only way to solve this problem is through peaceful means," Dr Almahana said. "But this isn't happening in Najaf. Instead we have sadness after sadness, death after death, blood after blood."

First published on August 21,2004 in the Guardian,UK

Shia strength

He may appear sidelined after a heart operation in London, but Iraq's most senior Shia cleric is still a serious force to be reckoned with,writes Tom Happold

He is in touch with events minute to minute, whatever happens in Iraq," says Syed Mohammed Musawi, president of the World Muslim League, of his spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Certainly events in Najaf, where Moqtada al-Sadr is said to have agreed to hand over control of the Imam Ali mosque to followers of Iraq's most important Shia leader, suggest that Mr Sistani still wields enormous influence despite being 3,200 miles away from Iraq recovering from a heart operation.

Many feared that Iraq would suffer from the lack of his moderating influence when he flew to London for treatment of a blocked artery last month, but Mr Musawi, one of his closest followers, insists that the septuagenarian ayatollah remains Iraq's most important guide.

"Ayatollah Sistani is the father and the wise leader of all the Shia Muslims and Iraqis in general. His word is the word of wisdom, we follow his guidance."

Asked whether he's in touch with Iraq's interim leaders, he replies: "He is not in touch, they are in touch with him. Everyone in Iraq, all the leaders in Iraq, they kept on phoning the hospital he was in."

It was Mr Sistani's mediation that secured the earlier ceasefire between Mr Sadr's Mahdi militia and US forces when the radical cleric led a Shia rebellion across Iraq earlier this year.

He was also a voice for tolerance after the wave of bomb attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul earlier this month, describing them as "hideous crimes" that undermined "Iraq's unity, stability and independence".

Despite his interventions, Mr Sistani refuses to meet American and British officials and appears committed to the Shia tradition of "quietist" clerics who do not seek personal political power.

The coded calls for Shia rights in his sermons did, however, frighten Saddam Hussein, who kept him under almost constant house arrest in his modest home in Najaf.

Following Saddam's fall, he used his influence to push for democracy in Iraq, mobilising tens of thousands of his followers onto the streets to demand a speedier handover of power to an elected Iraqi leadership when it seemed the occupying powers were dragging their feet.

His authority over Iraq's Shia community is now, however, challenged by Mr Sadr.

The young cleric lacks the ayatollah's religious standing - much of his popularity stems from his father, a senior cleric murdered by Saddam 15 years ago - but thousands of young Iraqis have been inspired by his determination to resist the US-led occupation.

Mr Musawi refuses to be drawn on Mr Sistani's reported antipathy towards Mr Sadr, saying only that "those who abide to the wisdom of Ayatollah Sistani gain and those who disobey and disagree with his guidance will face the consequences".

Though Mr Sistani is now out of hospital and recuperating at an unnamed location in London, it is unlikely that he will return to Najaf anytime soon.

"He wants to go back as soon as possible but his doctors are not allowing him," says Mr Musawi. "I personally don't want him to go back to Iraq now because if anything goes wrong with his health in Najaf it will be difficult for doctors to reach him."

But having recently returned from Iraq, Mr Musawi is confident that Mr Sistani's quiet guidance can disarm Mr Sadr's militia and restore peace.

"The majority of Iraqis are not happy with the militia. They want peace, they want security, and they want stability. I know that Iraqis are not with the disturbances and the militias."

-First published in the Guardian on Friday August 20, 2004