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Is the Bush administration having second thoughts about its plan to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government by the end of June?

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The question is raised by recent remarks made by officials in Washington and Baghdad about possible delays in implementing the plan. The cited source of their doubts is a statement made last Sunday by Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, the most prominent religious leader of Iraqi Shiites.

Sistani’s comment was a response to a group of unnamed “believers” who wished to know what he thought of the plan to set up an interim government. The ayatollah replied: “The ideal mechanism is an election, which many experts believe is possible to hold within the next months with an acceptable level of transparency and credibility.”

The Coalition plan, however, envisages a process of selecting the interim government through a number of caucuses and informal consultations with ethnic, tribal, religious, and political groups. The Coalition authorities, and almost all Iraqi political parties, believe that the country is not yet ready for free and fair elections, and that an interim government representing all strands of opinion is the best option.

Thus, Sistani’s call for elections is seen by some officials in Washington and Baghdad as a definitive rejection of the current plan. But this is a dangerous misreading not only of Sistani’s intentions, but also of the role that the Shiite clergy should play in a future democratic Iraq.

To begin with, Sistani’s statement is a fatwa, which means an opinion, and not a decree or an edict, as some U.S. officials, including L. Paul Bremer, the Coalition’s chief civilian administrator, seem to believe.

In Shiism, as in Islam in general, no religious expert (mujtahid) has the authority to issue either a decree or an edict. There are no popes and cardinals in Islam, and the opinion of one religious expert could be challenged or even contradicted by another’s. Believers refer to experts when they feel they cannot find the proper answer to a question on their own. If they find the answer given by one expert inadequate or unreasonable, they can always refer to another expert or revert to their own judgment. In other words, the religious expert in Islam is like a medical doctor whose diagnosis may be challenged or rejected by a second opinion.

All of this is based on a key principle of Islam: the notion that an individual bears sole responsibility for his actions. There is no confession or excommunication. The believer has a duty to consult as widely as he can before he acts on any matter, yet in the end, the decision is his, and his alone.

This principle, however, has been challenged however, notably the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. They claim that most Muslims, being poor and illiterate, lack the knowledge and moral strength needed to make correct decisions. They call the masses the mustazafeen, meaning “the enfeebled ones”.

“The mustazafeen need the guardianship of the theologians, as much as sheep need a shepherd,” Khomeini wrote almost 50 years ago. It was on that principle that Khomeini based his Islamic republic in Iran in 1979 and wrote a constitution under which a mullah, designated as “The Supreme Guide,” has absolute power beyond the wildest dreams of even the most despotic monarch.

Sistani understands all this perfectly. For almost 50 years he has been in the camp of those who have defended mainstream Islam against Khomeinist and other deviations from the faith. Thus Sistani would be the last person to claim that he has any authority to dictate what the people of Iraq should or should not do. It would be a supreme irony if this veteran anti-Khomeinist cleric is transformed into an Iraqi version of the ayatollah by Bremer and company.

To be sure, the Coalition authorities must respect Sistani, not only because it is good politics but also, and perhaps especially, because he deserves the highest degree of respect. Sistani should also be consulted, albeit not directly by occupation officials, on all issues just as other prominent Iraqi citizens are. But it would be wrong to treat Sistani as a political leader of Iraqi Shiites. When it comes to taking and applying political decisions, the Coalition must deal with Iraqi politicians. Dragging Sistani into politics is bad for Iraq, bad for him, and bad for the Coalition.

How, then, should one take Sistani’s latest opinion? The cleric says that holding elections is the “ideal,” and not the only, mechanism for forming an interim government. This means that if his ideal mechanism were proved unrealistic by present circumstances he would be prepared to change his opinion. This could be done with the help of the Governing Council, whose current chairman, Adnan Pachachi, is in contact with Sistani and the United Nations, whose experts agree that Iraq is not ready for elections.

But even if, at the end of the day, Sistani remains unconvinced, that should not bring the whole process to a halt. It is unlikely that Iraqi Shiites would be foolish enough to repeat their mistake of 1920 and choose to stay out of the nation’s political life. Holding elections is not a religious duty, but a matter of political expediency. The Koran calls for consultation (shawr), and not elections in the Western democratic sense, as a key for legitimizing any government.

I do, however, happen to agree with Sistani that the ideal way to form an interim Iraqi government is through free and fair elections. I also share Sistani’s belief that such elections, though extremely difficult to organize, are not impossible to hold.

Having said that, the responsibility for Iraq lies with the Coalition and the Governing Council, not with any theologian or media commentator. Theologians and media commentators, and others who might contribute to the debate, must be heard. But the ultimate decision, legally and morally, rests with the Coalition. If a premature attempt at holding elections leads to disaster, it won’t be Sistani or any media commentator who will pay the political, and other, costs of failure.

What’s most needed now is for Iraq’s governance to be handed over to the Iraqis, as quickly as possible. I doubt that Sistani would want to be held responsible for postponing the transfer of power to the Iraqis and for prolonging the occupation. The Coalition rejects the election option not because it is technically difficult, but because the results cannot be pre-scripted.

Sistani is right, and the Coalition is wrong. But this is not the end of the world: Iraq has been liberated and will have plenty of free elections in future. Emerging from half a century of despotism, terror, and war, the people of Iraq cannot afford a prolonged period of uncertainty. They need a clear political roadmap that, though it may not be ideal, would nonetheless suffice in guiding them through a difficult period of transition.

Amir Taheri is an NRO contributor and the Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.



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