Shi'ite Cleric Gains Sway Across Border

Shi'ite Cleric Gains Sway Across Border
May 14th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Shi'ite Cleric Gains Sway Across Border

Shi'ite Cleric Gains Sway Across Border
Boston Globe
May 14, 2007
Pg. 1
By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff
TEHRAN -- Iran's ruling clerics have long prided themselves on running the world's only Shi'ite Muslim state -- a state that imposes religion, dictating what imams can preach, what the media can report, and what people can wear.
So some Iranians are intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi'ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq, where -- Iraq's myriad problems aside -- imams can say whatever they want in political Friday sermons, newspapers and satellite channels regularly slam the government, and religious observance is respected and encouraged but not required.
In Tehran's storied central bazaar, an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric -- rather than to clerics closer to Iran's state power structure, said Jawad al-Ghaie, 48, a wholesaler of false eyelashes and nail extensions and a respected lay donor.
Speaking carefully to avoid directly challenging the Iranian government, he and several fellow merchants suggested that Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani holds more spiritual sway because of his lifelong commitment to quietism. That is the school of thought that says Shi'ite leaders should stay out of government, and Sistani has stuck to it despite the great temptation to wade into the chaos of Iraqi politics.
Haamed Hussein Warraqi, another merchant, contrasted the different ways in which Sistani and the Iranian religious authorities deal with overly exuberant revelers on Arbayeen, an important Shi'ite holiday. In Iran, he said, riot police line the streets to rein in men who cut their scalps with knives -- a show of mourning that the Iranian government and some religious scholars deem Islamically incorrect.
In contrast, "Sistani uses the authority of his word," said Warraqi, 27. "The domain of Sistani is in religion, and he is obeyed by the people. Here they want to rule according to politics. That's why they have to use the riot police."
"Any time religion is imposed by the government," Ghaie added, "there is a bad reaction."
The war in Iraq has failed to produce the democracy domino effect that its US advocates contended would crack open calcified regimes across the Middle East. Instead, Iraq's violence has handed repressive governments from Iran to US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia a propaganda opportunity to equate democracy with chaos.
But ever since US-sponsored elections brought the Shi'ite majority to power, Iraq's imperfect liberation has quietly influenced the debate among religious Shi'ites about the role of religion in government .
After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded a state that rests on his concept of velayat e faqi, or guardianship of the jurist. There are elections and parliamentary debates, but ultimate authority rests with a supreme leader who is appointed by a council of clerics.
Traditionally, Shi'ites have believed that clerics should stay out of politics until the return of the Mahdi, the last of the revered early Shi'ite imams, who disappeared in the ninth century. Shi'ites believe he went into hiding and will someday reveal himself.
Only he can establish a perfect Islamic state, according to traditional believers -- including some in the Tehran bazaar, whose influential religious merchant class backed the revolution but has since grown more skeptical of the ruling clerics.
"Only the Mahdi is the genuine leader," said Ghaie's brother Mohammad, 45, whose family, like many Iranian merchants, has lived in both Iran and Iraq over generations.
Expressing such opinions is dangerous: Several prominent religious scholars -- chief among them Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri -- are under house arrest or other official sanctions for opposing clerical rule or proposing limits on it.
The quietist philosophy suited disempowered Shi'ites, who through most of their history lived under Sunni powers. Shi'ites are a minority among Muslims and within all modern Middle Eastern states except Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain.
But now, in Iraq, Shi'ites are witnessing a new alternative: They can defend their rights at the ballot box, without establishing a religious state.
"We believe that politics is separate from religion," said Iraq's ambassador to Iran, Mohammed Majid al-Sheikh. "Of course there are debates about this. If Iran wants to take on these debates, it will benefit. And I could say that the experiment of Iraq will ripple throughout the Middle East."
Iran has worked hard to influence Iraq. US officials have accused it of fomenting violence there. Analysts say Iran welcomes low-grade chaos in Iraq in part to prevent the emergence of a democratic Shi'ite alternative that could embolden Iranian reformists, while at the same time courting Shi'ite Iraqis by presenting itself as a stable and benign neighbor.
But influence is a two-way street, especially between two countries whose shrine cities and capitals have been tied by trade and pilgrimage for centuries. About 1,500 Iranians go to Iraq on pilgrimage every day, Sheikh said. The Ghaie brothers went recently and were impressed to see the parade of Iraqi politicians visiting Sistani's modest house in Najaf -- voluntarily -- for advice.
Last month, the Iranian press reported, Jalaluddin Taheri, a dissident cleric who resigned as Isfahan's Friday prayer leader in 2002 after criticizing the regime as corrupt and autocratic, went to Najaf to pay respects to Sistani.
The representative of Iraq's most pro-Iran political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, touted Iraq's freer system.
Majid Ghamas contended in an interview in his Tehran office that Iranians, because of their country's somewhat competitive elections, have more freedom than Saudis, Jordanians, or Egyptians.
"But not as much as in Iraq," he said, "now that we have a government that respects Islam and the rituals of Islam but does not impose Islam by force so that it becomes a rigid Islam."
But persuading the Iranian masses that their country should emulate Iraq would be an uphill battle.
"If there were security there, these changes [in Iraq] could be appreciated" by Iranians, he said. "But without security you cannot appreciate anything else."
In Ghaie's shop, on a lively mezzanine in the bazaar lined with shops selling stuffed elephants and Big Bird dolls, Warraqi, the younger merchant, lamented that Iraq's experiment would be "impossible here."
Asked why, he said, "Iranian Shi'ites, when they are suppressed, they are mute. When the Iraqis are oppressed, they explode."
Mohammad al-Ghaie said, "We've taken lessons from the Iranian government."

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