The Indispensable Man
As the Western world waits breathlessly for results of elections in Iraq, it is high time to recognize the man who made it all possible. His name appears in few news reports and didn’t appear on any ballot. His role and his contributions are unknown to many foreigners, especially Americans. Yet democracy’s precarious hold in Iraq---and most of all, its future---owe more to this man than to any other living person.
No, he is not a Bush. Nor is he a Khalilzad, Allawi, Chalabi or Jaafari. He is no politician or military leader. He is one of those strange turbaned, bearded folk who often elude Americans’ understanding. He is an Ayatollah of Islam.
More than that, he is a Grand Ayatollah of the Shiite branch of Islam, one of only five now living. To those who don’t know him, that puts him in the same class as the Shiite leaders who presided over the taking of our hostages in Iran. Yet he is a far, far different sort of Ayatollah.
This indispensable man is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He made elections and peace possible by restraining popular hatred and violence toward the American invaders and Sunni oppressors alike. By dint of his wisdom and religious authority alone, he curbed Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Militia. He wisely counseled restraint in the face of Baathist violence, and he preached tolerance of and compromise with nonviolent Sunnis in the interest of peace and harmony. With his branch of “quietist” Islam, he also counseled separation of mosque and state, which is why you won’t find his name on any ballot.
If the Grand Ayatollah had done only that much, he would have earned an honorable place in the bloody and vengeful history of Iraq and the Mideast. But he’s done much, much more. He may well be Islam’s quiet Martin Luther.
To understand this point, consider the schism between Shia and Sunni that has shattered the Islamic Arabic world and occasioned so much bloodshed. Shia believe that the true line of caliphate succession flowed from Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, her husband Imam Ali, and their progeny Hassan and Hussein. Sunni believe it flowed through Caliphs who were not direct descendants of Muhammad: Uthman, the third caliph, who was murdered while at prayer, and his cousin Ummayad, who later took the caliphate by a show of piety and force of arms. The schism is thus a millennial dynastic feud that is only partly religious and owes much to a struggle for political power.
Aside from the view that Muhammad’s direct descendents had a better claim to divine succession, religious differences did not create the schism. Sure, Shia and Sunni celebrate different holidays, observe different rituals, and revere different martyrs and holy personages. There are even different interpretations of the Koran. But the first thing that comes to mind, and the consistent thread throughout history, is the dynastic struggle for secular-religious power.
Now contrast our great schism in the West, the one between Catholics and Protestants. Ask any knowledgeable Westerner to explain it, and he will begin with ideas, not dynasties (although dynasties later turned on the split). The split derives, he will say, from a then-heretical notion: that each person’s relationship with God is personal and individual. Protestants, he will say, see religion as personal, while Catholics see it as institutional. Protestants’ view took their faith outside the scope of the Catholic Church’s dogmatic power.
We remember Martin Luther as the source of this idea. But unlike Fatima, Ali, Uthman and Ummayad, his name is secondary. The idea is all.
From that once heretical idea sprang the social organization that allows both modern democracy and modern science to flourish. If each individual relates directly to God and is an image of God, then each individual’s interests and opinions deserve tolerance, if not respect. Democracy is only an intellectual baby step away, although that baby step took hundreds of years and countless wars.
Modern science, too, hangs from Luther’s banner. Once the Catholic Church banned Galileo’s “heresy” that the Earth revolves around the Sun and forbade his astronomical research. Once it prohibited dissection of cadavers and thereby the advance of medical science. But if each person’s understanding of Nature and God’s world depends on her own personal relationship with God, then the old, generalized taboos and the Pope have less to say. Experiments can proceed, and new ideas can flourish, so that each may understand God’s work in her own way.
The two key principles of modern American democracy flowed from the same source. If everyone’s relationship with God is personal---and presumably different---then it makes little sense to decree a state religion and force everyone to profess the same belief. If everyone can believe differently, then all should be free to discuss and debate their differing beliefs. And so we have separation of church from state and freedom of speech. Our First Amendment, embodying both principles, is a direct descendent of Luther’s manifesto tacked on the church door.
By and large, Islam has never accepted either principle, at least not decisively. It’s still a quintessentially authoritarian religion, although authority may be local. The Imam’s or Ayatollah’s fatwa has the authority of God, and all must obey. A writer like Salman Rushdie can be condemned to death merely for saying the wrong thing.
Enter Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Quietly and without fuss, he has independently discovered one of the two great principles that make modern, pluralistic societies possible: separation of mosque and state. A modest and reclusive man, he does not proselytize or enjoin this principle on others. But he teaches it by example. Despite importunities from every direction, he has refused to take part in politics directly, although he has exerted considerable influence merely by stating his views. He seems to believe it improper for religious authorities to meddle directly in politics. No doubt his reason is the same as that underlying our First Amendment: mixing religion with politics inevitably corrupts both.
Whether the Ayatollah recognizes freedom of speech is less certain. He seems far less eager than most Islamic clerics to spoon-feed his adherents with dogma. And his first principle---separation of mosque from state---logically leads to the second. If politics are divorced from religion, then citizens must be free to practice politics without religious restraint. Practicing politics of course requires at least some degree of freedom to speak.
Like Luther’s ideas, Ayatollah Sistani’s may allow democratic, prosperous, and pluralistic societies to flourish. Ultimately, his ideas may be the key to turning Islamic hearts and minds toward democracy, science, and peace.
So what can we Westerners do to insure that Ayatollah Sistani’s ideas get the attention they deserve? That is a difficult and delicate question. The Ayatollah does not often meet with Westerners. Any involvement with us might taint him and destroy his influence in the Islamic world. But surely Western Muslims can help by shining a spotlight on his modern and potentially revolutionary ideas. They can help discover and publish his writings and those of his disciples and translate them into every language and dialect.
One other thing. Grand Ayatollah Sistani must be well protected. He must live to a ripe old age, thinking and writing all the while. If he is martyred, Shia may remember only his image, personality and martyrdom, but not his ideas. His name then may serve as a banner for legions, not an invitation to rethink the relationship between Man and God and make life better on this Earth.
That must not happen. For in the current ideological struggle for hearts and minds, Grand Ayatollah Sistani is truly an indispensable man.