This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.
Caroleen Sayej, Connecticut College
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq changed the structure of the Iraqi state. Previously a presidential republic in name, and a dictatorship in practice, the state was remade as a parliamentary democracy. Baathist regimes had long persecuted dissidents of all stripes, but on the formal level the state and the Baath Party were avowedly secular. By contrast, most of the politicians who took over the interim state structures in 2003, and most of the parties that ran in the inaugural elections in 2005, were expressly organized along lines of ethnic or sectarian affiliation as opposed to ideology or political program. As a result, many Iraqis perceived the post-2003 system as altering the basis of formal politics to communal identity for the first time in the country’s modern history.
Many people in Iraq resisted these trends. Prominent among them were the four grand ayatollahs at the hawza in Najaf, Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Saeed al-Hakim, Bashir al-Najafi and Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad. The ayatollahs tackled sectarian rhetoric head on, rejecting it as an interpretation of Iraqi history and decrying its dangers for Iraq’s present and future. They appealed instead to a pan-Iraqi nationalism. The ayatollahs were unable to stop the violence in the streets; nor did they control the entire religious landscape. But their counter-narratives had a restraining effect and at times allowed them to serve as arbiters of political stalemates. Viewed from this perspective, the ayatollahs acted as public intellectuals, tirelessly working to set the parameters for healthy public discourse, correcting misinformation and setting a moral example for society. Sistani was particularly influential in this regard. Although he was not always effective in arbitrating critical political deadlocks, his narratives tell us something about the political culture in which Iraqis were operating. There is great value in his ideas that flooded the public sphere, reproduced over and again, creating new patterns of interaction and new political symbols.
In this paper, I seek to explain the discourse and actions of Grand Ayatollah Sistani in order to make sense of the timing of his interventions in post-Saddam Iraqi politics. Sistani underwent a transformation from an “apolitical” ayatollah to one of the most important political actors in contemporary Iraq. By tracing his interventions at key junctures, I aim to get a sense of his strategic thinking about when to interact with the political system and when not to. Although Sistani had strategic interests, such as the need to keep the clerical establishment relevant to the political process, he often intervened during moments that would have set Iraq on a path away from democratic development. Sistani’s views were important first and foremost for their power to frame narratives about Iraq. But there was another element: in many ways, Sistani oriented a state under construction and affected its course of action. Some have exaggerated his accomplishments: one Iraqi official, for instance, was speaking in hyperbole when he said that “Iraq could have witnessed another genocide were it not for Sistani. He saved Iraq’s Sunnis.” In fact, Sistani’s frequent calls upon Shiites to refrain from attacking Sunnis did little to reduce political violence. With several hundred thousand dead, the violence had taken on a life of its own. The insurgency morphed from civil war to ISIS expansion, and the multiplicity of actors involved in the conflict compounded the violence on the ground. Sistani’s positions focused on reinforcing ties between Sunnis and Shiites, calling attention to humanitarian concerns, and making clear that terrorism would not be rewarded either in this life or the afterlife. Despite the poor prognosis, such exaggerations about Sistani’s role in curbing violence show the extent of Sistani’s perceived importance in Iraqi politics.
A not-so-silent hawza
To appreciate Sistani’s importance, one should not simply lay his fatwas side by side to determine which were effective and which were not. His interventions should be understood independently of their effectiveness. After all, Sistani made clear over and again that he would serve as a “guide” only, in stark contrast to the Khomeinist model of velayet-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which placed the ayatollahs at the center of formal politics, and, indeed, the nitty-gritty of government. His narratives about the proper course for Iraq tell us something about the political culture in which he operated after 2003. He played a vital role as the very notion of “Iraqi-ness” was thrown into question. He reached into history to make the case for pan-Iraqi nationalism, and reached out to his Sunni coreligionists to make the case for Iraqi independence from the rule of the United States, and later, the trap of ISIS.
Saddam Hussein’s removal created a power vacuum, leading to the emergence of new forms of authority and the revival of older ones. The prime example of the former was Muqtada al-Sadr, son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who appealed especially to the urban poor. Sadr has evolved over the years from an outsider to an insider, but still offers an alternative to the traditional clerical hierarchy, which he derides as the “silent hawza” (al-hawza al-samita). Yet the hawza, with Sistani at its head, proved adept at remaining relevant as Sadr and other new actors entered the scene. Sistani was aware of the critique coming from Sadr’s self-styled “vocal hawza” (al-hawza al-natiqa); indeed, his sense of this critique’s persuasive power led to his decision to take part in the political process.
Yet on many political issues Sistani maintained an equally telling silence. On federalism, for example, Sistani refused to issue an opinion, saying only that Iraqis should work it out through the political system. He did not want to influence the process. Keeping in line with his role as a “guide only,” Sistani assured his followers that those entrusted with the task would find “the perfect formula to save the Iraqi unit and the rights of all its ethnicities and nationalities.” Sistani exercised great restraint despite the fact that the Kurds were able to enter the new political pact with a disproportionate amount of power. In this instance, like other perceived threats to Iraqi unity, Sistani chose instead to highlight national unity and anti-sectarianism in the broadest terms possible.
Along with the other three grand ayatollahs, Sistani made a conscious choice to act as a “guide”—and only a guide—in contrast to the Khomeinist model of velayet-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which placed ayatollahs at the center of formal politics and government. The ayatollahs in Najaf had no program, Islamic or otherwise, and no intention to carve out a place for themselves in the new state. Sistani derived his power from his ability to organize both alongside the state and in dialogue with it. Thus, he could pick and choose when and how to intervene. In general, over the last decade and a half, Sistani chose rule of law over chaos, Iraqi nationalism over sectarianism, and popular sovereignty over authoritarian rule. He always grounded his opinions in concrete political circumstances rather than religious ideals or abstractions.
The precise character of Sistani’s interventions after 2003 marked his judgments about what was necessary given developments on the ground. Early on, he focused on correcting misinformation about Iraq and insisting that sectarianism was neither inevitable nor intrinsic to Iraqi culture. The February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites for Shiites, marked a turning point. It unleashed unprecedented sectarian retaliatory violence that ripped through the country. In response, Sistani declared that his fatwas were binding on all Muslims, not just Shiites. In doing so, he sought to reach a broad national audience, demonstrating his ability to move beyond matters of theology and ritual and enter the world of politics. This activist stand inspired a shift in the ayatollahs’ attitudes toward the Iraqi government. In 2011, the senior clerics broke off communication with the government in response to widespread state corruption. With the second turning point, the rise of ISIS in 2014, the ayatollahs shifted back to supporting the state and the military’s campaign to push back ISIS.
Sistani and sectarian strife
Sistani’s main message on sectarianism, derived from the volume of his statements on the issue, was that Iraqi identity should be inclusive of all sects rather than defined by a power-sharing agreement that favored one sect at the expense of others. He did, however, worry that sectarianism was becoming a reality as the post-Saddam state was institutionalized. He was concerned that Shiites, as the majority in the country, would be blamed for the violence and chaos, particularly since some of the post-2003 governing parties claimed to speak in their name. Most of his early decrees therefore forbade the formation of militias and pleaded with citizens to put their trust in the courts to administer justice. Vigilante action was “not permissible.” The formation of “special armies,” by either men of religion or other non-state actors, would harm the country’s national army. The state, with its monopoly over violence, was the key to intercommunal peace. Sistani warned the armed forces to remain neutral, free from the influence of militias or sectarian influence.
Sistani was asked also whether Shiites should have a special place in the government. His position, which became consistent over time, was that “Shiites want what all Iraqis want, the right to self-determination.” He repeated that their position in the state was “not special,” no different from the rest of the population. Though it might seem natural for the grand ayatollahs to be more concerned about the Shiites as their own constituents, Sistani made clear that he represented the interests of not only Shiites but also all Iraqis in the promotion of an Iraq-centric democracy.
As political violence began to appear among Iraqis after the US invasion, foreign media outlets began asking Sistani if the occupation had created a “schism” in the country. The ayatollah, wary of repeating words that reporters would attribute to him, objected to the term. He called it the “thinking of a few people,” and argued that once Iraq regained its sovereignty, there would be no “trend” along those lines. Sistani understood the power of narratives: talking about a “schism” would make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. He viewed it as his job to explain the process of cause and effect behind the violence.
It became a major challenge as the character of the anti-occupation insurgency changed. Extremists among the Sunni insurgents began to speak of a two-front battle: one against the United States and the other against the Shiites. One such group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, soon raised the sectarian stakes with indiscriminate attacks against Shiites. Zarqawi described Shiites as “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion” with whom the only thing to do was “drag them into battle.” Zarqawi and his ilk exploited post-invasion US policies built on the assumption of communal divisions, as well as the sectarian agenda of some elements in the fledgling Iraqi state. The Ministry of Interior was running death squads that targeted Sunnis. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia waged an explicitly anti-Shiite war against the government’s security forces and its associated militias.
Sistani worked to offer an alternative to the sectarian discourse that many had reached for as an explanation for these events. He spoke a great deal about Iraq’s long and complex history. To downplay or omit the reality of Sunni-Shiite coexistence in that history, he said, was pure “ignorance.” Instead, he emphasized years of intercommunal cooperation in defending the country when it was under attack. He repeated many times that Iraqis of different sects were “brothers in humanity” and “partners in the motherland.” He attributed the growing violence mostly to “organized crime” rather than sectarianism. Nonetheless, he was not delusional. In 2006, after the al-Askari bombing, Sistani lamented that “there was no deterrent” now to sectarian strife. He knew what the bombing would unleash.
After the 2006 turning point, Sistani first brought attention to foreign intervention’s role in fomenting sectarian violence. Second, he repeatedly made the connection between sectarian fighting and a sectarian state.
When asked if he feared the onset of civil strife in Iraq, Sistani often offered some version of this response: “we do not have such fears if foreign parties do not interfere in Iraqi affairs.” In doing so, he opposed the notion that outsiders would or could save Iraq. He was keen to link the violence to the occupation, which he said bore “all the responsibility for what Iraq witnesses,” a reference to the breakdown of security and the increased “criminal operations.” Consistent with his description of sectarian attacks as crimes, Sistani gave al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia as little attention as possible in his speeches and pronouncements. He preferred to refer to its acts as “threats” from a “deviant class.”
As civil strife began to fade, and al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia began to decline, in late 2007, Sistani looked to Iraq’s leaders to move away from such sectarian policies as those followed by the Ministry of Interior. He saw a clear link between those policies and the persistence of violence on the ground. In 2011, after years of “keeping a close eye on the government,” Sistani supported growing protests against government corruption.
Sistani often addressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki directly to highlight the connection between corruption and sectarian fighting. In one statement, Sistani urged the prime minister to prioritize “the higher national interest and ignore personal, party, and sectarian interests.” In doing so, Sistani made clear that he would “monitor the government’s performance” and most importantly, “support the voices of the oppressed, regardless of their sect.” For Sistani, these were the necessary foundations of a sovereign and unified Iraq. Sistani understood early on that leaders like Maliki found in sectarianism a default strategy for building the social base they could not build in exile. Identity politics, derived from a narrative of Shiite victimhood, were ingrained in the political system, which in turn increased the likelihood that Iraqis would be polarized further into “Sunni” and “Shiite” camps.
Sistani and ISIS
The rise of ISIS put Iraq and the ayatollahs on new terrain. Sistani recalibrated his rhetoric to focus on the new threat. He referred to ISIS as a group as “strangers” and “disbelievers,” who were targeting “anything their hands could reach” with the goal of “killing all who disagree with their opinions.” The response was “everyone’s responsibility.” He implored politicians to move beyond “ego,” “jealousy” and “rivalry” but his main appeal was to the Iraqi people. In his June 2014 fatwa he declared that all “citizens who are able to take up arms and fight terrorists in defense of their country must volunteer and join the security forces.” Sistani made clear that this dictate was not sectarian. His pronouncements over the years, even during the peak of sectarian fighting, had likewise called upon all Iraqis. But Sistani’s impact on this occasion was profound. Tens of thousands of volunteers joined the army.
At the time of his fatwa, ISIS had taken over one third of Iraq’s territory. On paper, the army was composed of 700,000 men. In reality, the army was toothless. The situation was so dire that even the Qom seminaries in Iran supported Sistani’s position. This fatwa is also noteworthy because, at the time, Sistani had been boycotting the government for three years. He was able to (re)insert himself into the conversation with a single fatwa. In August, Sistani repeated his call. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi, as it was called in Arabic, formed in response. He seemed to spark unity because Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis joined the PMUs, an Iraqi state-sponsored organization composed of dozens of militias that, though mostly Shiite, included these other groups as well.
Sistani’s message about militias remained the same: they were allowed to operate only under the state’s guidance. Interestingly, however, the militias soon outgrew their mission. With ISIS defeated, they remained under arms and, in many places, assumed the functions of de facto local governments answering neither to Sistani nor the state. What was the ayatollah to do? Should he insist that the militias disband? He has yet to do so, though some Iraqis speculate that he will soon. This example demonstrates Sistani’s unique brand of activism. It is not the activism of Khomeini, in which the ayatollah is the head of state. Nor is Sistani quietist as that term is traditionally understood. In declaring that the ayatollahs are “guides,” as Ayatollah Najafi first said in words that Haider Hamoudi calls the “Najaf mantra”, Sistani adopted a form of political activism that is strategic and careful not to overshadow formal state institutions.
On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree ordering state security forces to absorb the PMUs. This call differed sharply from his 2016 decree, which acknowledged the PMUs’ independence of the army and Ministry of Defense, but not the prime minister. Abdul Mahdi has been under increasing pressure to regulate the PMUs, which by some estimates are made up of 45 factions, totaling over 130,000 members. Sistani encouraged the PMUs to integrate into the military to prevent the empowerment of Iran, which controls some of the factions. In 2018, Sistani issued a statement in opposition to the PMUs’ participation in elections. He said: “no one is allowed to exploit the religious reference’s title or any other title dear to the hearts of Iraqis for electoral gain.”
Some analysts, however, fear that Sistani did not go far enough and may not do so before his death. Over the years, the militias have caused problems, especially in their unwillingness to remain loyal to the state. The PMUs differ from the Iran-backed militias that predate Sistani’s 2014 fatwa and the peshmerga, who maintain loyalty to tribal rather than Kurdish national leaders. Militia leaders praised the July 1 decree, but they do not seem willing to follow its dictates. The Iranian-backed militias, for example, continue to recruit and train followers, potentially harming Iraq’s sovereignty in the long term. Many Iraqis wish that Sistani would “formally and very clearly rescind his call,” fearing that otherwise it may be “impossible to address the problem for decades to come.” But Sistani’s self-proclaimed role as a guide only meant that he would offer his opinions, but that a commitment to political change needed to come from political actors from within the system.
What Sistani has done is to exhort the PMUs—whom he prefers to call volunteers—to occupy the moral high ground in today’s Iraq. These calls echo his earlier discourse decrying the sectarianism embedded in the post-Saddam state and predicting that it would lead to renewed sectarian violence. In this vein, Sistani cautioned that even those whom the PMUs are fighting are victims who had been led astray. It is incumbent on the fighters to set an example to these enemies in the hopes that they would help the “misguided souls find the path of righteousness.” This appeal to the volunteer PMU fighters was a sign that he had given up, for the time being, on elected officials solving problems. Rather than pleading with the leadership to solve problems, Sistani made direct appeals to the people about justice, the rule of law and the need to avoid extremism. In March 2015, for instance, Sistani said that fighters should preserve the homes of Sunnis, bury slain ISIS fighters and prevent the abuse of civilians. Sistani delivered the constant message that sectarian violence was not inevitable so that that narrative about the conflict would not take on a life of its own. That September, Sistani delivered a sermon calling for corrupt officials to be prosecuted. He called on Iraq’s Integrity Commission to implement reform. The days of offering advice to government leaders were long gone.
In January 2016, Sistani delivered a sermon in praise of the liberation of Ramadi. He said then, as he had said in 2003, 2005, 2010, and 2014, that government corruption had led to the rise of extremism in the first place. Without good governance based on equality among citizens, there would be no peace in Iraq. He offered reminders to his followers throughout 2016 to refrain from acts of extremism, to understand the sanctity of life with regard to civilians, and to act in accordance with the rules of warfare. With fifty thousand civilians trapped in Fallujah in May of that year, there was talk of Shiites having the opportunity to commit mass atrocities. He counseled restraint.
Meanwhile, Sistani has consistently urged aid and reconstruction for the areas of Iraq devastated by ISIS and the fight against it. On March 22, 2017, Abbas Kadhim tweeted a fatwa delivered by Ayatollah Sistani, which he had translated: “Due to the increase in IDPs, shortages of resources, we call on ALL respected Iraqi citizens to contribute all they could to reduce suffering. This is the best way to be close to God and a means to unite people in times of crisis. Giving aid to IDPs is equivalent to fighting terror.” According to Kadhim, 1,000 large trucks filled with supplies went to IDP locations in response to Sistani’s fatwa.
Sistani’s emphasis on human rights is not new. At the height of the attacks against civilians in 2006-2007, Sistani warned, “if your religion does not prevent you, may your humanity. By 2015, however, Sistani’s language on human rights, international law, codes of conduct during war, and the notion of justice had become more sophisticated. He wanted to make clear that there were “certain conditions and etiquettes” that volunteers should follow in fighting ISIS—conditions that were “mandated by the primordial nature of human beings.” Sistani warned fighters to emulate the Prophet’s example: do not engage in “acts of extremism,” do not “disrespect dead corpses,” do not kill elders, children or women and “do not cut down trees unless necessity dictates.” Sistani declared respect for “innocent souls.” He argued that if one attempted to strengthen his authority by the “unlawful spilling of blood,” he would instead become weakened, and authority would shift to those who are wiser. From his vantage point, restraint was always the best way to maintain legitimacy. Sistani stressed that there is no justification for pursuing revenge instead of justice—especially in the case of the innocent, whose rights should never be denied.
Today, the Iraqi government has the difficult task of prosecuting individuals involved in ISIS while ensuring that both the security forces and judiciary use restraint under a legal framework. Sistani has contributed to this process immensely, in a way that can heal the wounds of sectarianism. His language, in line with that of international law and human rights, is indicative of his ability to serve as a moral compass for Iraqis. The UN Security Council sought his support as it set up a team to document ISIS crimes. Sistani’s approval, which added legitimacy to the project, meant that the investigative team could get access to areas that it would otherwise be unable to reach. Sistani emphasized the importance of documenting ISIS crimes: offenses such as rape and slavery would not only go in the public record, but they would also be properly addressed by the justice system. And, as in his earlier admonitions about sectarianism, Sistani urged everyone to forego “sentiments which carry hatred and bigotry.”
By 2018, Sistani had become even bolder in expressing his disdain for the Shiite Islamist politicians who make up a majority of the Iraqi government. In April, Rashid al-Husseini, a high-ranking cleric close to Sistani, said, “trust a faithful Christian over a corrupt Shiite. If you don’t pray but you can be trusted, you have my vote. If you pray but steal, you do not have my vote.” Sistani issued a fatwa in May advising his followers to “go vote.” Somewhat reluctantly, he called for a new prime minister who was “competent and courageous.” He was hoping that the elections would usher in new blood from the more than 7,000 candidates and 320 political parties vying for the 328 seats in parliament. He had the same message, however, for whoever was elected: he warned against using political violence to achieve political goals.
As Sistani reaches old age, it is tempting to offer sweeping judgments on the extent to which he set the parameters for discourse on democracy, sectarianism and the healing of the country’s wounds. In some ways, Sistani is an institution in his own right—his fatwas and statements establishing a set of norms that are meant to be self-perpetuating. But these norms are not laws, only advice from a “guide” wary of replicating the state project in Iran. The implications of such an institution—operating as it does in the informal political realm, alongside the state, and only sometimes superseding it—are hard to measure by definition. It is clear, however, that without Sistani’s interventions, the events that unfolded in Iraq might have been described, analyzed, and acted upon based on the very ahistorical sectarian narratives that Sistani tried to counter. More importantly, under his guidance Iraqi citizens gained agency as they pursued their rights.
Note: The majority of statements made by Ayatollah Sistani are available on his personal Web page, www.sistani.org/arabic.
 Ranj Alaaldin, “Sectarianism, Governance and Iraq’s Future,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, Number 24, November 2018. The quote comes from the author’s interview with an adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister, January 2017.
 Sistani response to Der Spiegel questions, February 14, 2004.
 Sistani statement, “A Message to the Iraqi People About Sectarian Sedition,” July 18, 2006.
 Sistani response to Polish Weekly questions, September 30, 2003.
 John Ehrenberg, L. Patrice McSherry, Jose R. Sanchez, and Caroleen Marji Sayej, eds., The Iraq Papers (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 253.
 Sistani statement, “A Letter to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his comments on Shiite loyalty,” April 8, 2006.
 Sistani statement, “A Message to the Iraqi People on Sectarian Sedition,” July 18, 2006.
 Sistani response to New York Times question, May 3, 2003.
 Sistani statement, “The Martyrdom of his Eminence Ayatollah al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, August 30, 2003.
 Sistani statement on the visit of designated Prime Minister Maliki to his Eminence, April 27, 2006.
 This fatwa received widespread media attention and different interpretations of the fatwa are available. Most analysts agree that the power of the fatwa initiated the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), to work alongside government forces.
 The PMF is also known as the People’s Mobilization Committee (PMC) and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
 Haider Hamoudi, “Navigating the Najaf Mantra with the Four Grand Ayatollahs,” Daily Star (Beirut), November 5, 2009.
 Ali Mamouri, “Shiite Militias React Angrily to Decree Integrating them into Iraqi Forces,” Al-Monitor, July 8, 2019.
 Ali Mamouri, “Iraq’s Top Shiite Cleric Denounces Militias’ Electoral List,” Al-Monitor, May 7, 2018.
 Michael Rubin, “Reining in Iraq’s Militias will take more than an executive order,” Washington Examiner, July 24, 2019.
 Anthony Loyd, “Shia Militia Fight for Fallujah with Bullets Donated by Schoolchildren,” Times (London), March 23, 2015.
 “Iraq’s Sistani Calls for Top Corrupt Officials to be Prosecuted,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Document #1097630, September 4, 2015.
 “Iraq’s Sistani Aide Calls for “Liberation of Significant Cities,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring, January 1, 2016.
 Scott Peterson, “In Fallujah Fight, Top Shiite Cleric Calls for Restraint Toward Sunni Civilians,” Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2016.
 Taylor Luck, “Why a Loss in Fallujah May be a Win for ISIS,” Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2016.
 Tweet by Abbas Kadhim, March 22, 2017. Abbas Kadhim is a Senior Fellow and Iraq Initiative Director at the Atlantic Council.
 Sistani fatwa, July 18, 2006.
 Sistani statement, “Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields,” from Sistani.org/English/archive/25036, February 12, 2015.
 “Sistani Backs UN Investigation into ISIS Crimes,” Rudaw, January 23, 2019.
 Ali Mamouri, “Religious Disputes Escalate Over Upcoming Iraqi Elections,” Al-Monitor, April 22, 2018.
 “Iraq’s Sistani Declines to Support Party in Elections,” Anadolu Agency, May 4, 2018.
 “Iraq’s Sistani Warns Against Political Violence,” Asharq al-Awsat (English), December 8, 2018.