thank you. very excited to be here, and particularly happy to speakafter michael's talk. "the occupation authoritiesare not entitled to name the members of the assemblycharged with drafting the constitution. there is no guaranteethat such a convention will draft a constitution which upholds the iraqi people's interestsand expresses their national identity" fatwa issued by ayatollah sistani.
in june 2003,the coalition provisional authority, the transitional government in iraq following the ouster of saddam husseinthree months earlier, faced a crisis regardingthe state-building project in iraq. the cpa, createdby the department of defense, and composed mainly of us personnel, took charge of layingthe foundation of the state by vesting itself with executive,legislative, and judicial power over the newly emerging iraqi government.
the cpa appointed the governing councilcomposed of iraqis, 24 out of 25 exiles, who would participatein drafting the new constitution. paul bremer, head of the cpa, did not anticipate what was about to happen. immediately following his decisionto recruit constitution writers, grand ayatollah sistani,the most senior cleric in iraq today, issued a fatwa, or a religious decree, declaring that only an elected assemblyshould draft a new constitution of iraq. at that time, bremer dismissed himas a disgruntled aging cleric.
to bremer's surprise, however,like a light switch, a single fatwa by sistani managedto cripple the legislative process. that fatwa, considered binding by shiites who follow the ayatollah, led the governing councilto halt the process altogether until november of that year,when bremer agreed to sistani's plan. >from that point forward,analysts identified sistani as the most influentialpolitical figure in iraq. this is a story about the us planto reconstruct iraq based on the us perceptionsof what iraqis needed and wanted.
the united states was challenged. they were not challenged by the kurds, who had been agitatingfor an independent state on their own since the 20s. they were not challengedby the secular nationalists, who flocked back to iraq after 2003claiming a piece of the pie. nor were they challengedby the sunnis, who had the most to lose; after all, 82 years of minority rulehad quickly come to an end. they were challengedby the most unlikely actors,
the shiite clerics, the men in beards. this is counter-intuitive because the shiitesmake up over 65% of the population, over 15 million people in the country. they could shape the state in their image,they could usurp power, after all, they suffered morethan any other group under saddam hussein. rather than doing so, they were committed to the principles of democracy, equality,pluralism, and human rights. the clerics challenged the united states to uphold
its very own principles of democracy. the clerics were ignored, but they proved to be the most progressivevoices in the new iraqi state. if you look at a map of iraq, the us plans for reconstructionwere based on this tripartite. it is the classic artificialityof iraq example, where you seethe northern province of mosul, typically considered the home to kurds, baghdad to sunnis,and basra to shiites of the south.
and this artificially of iraq,like the rest of the modern middle east, where we hear these storiesof winston churchill crafting the state after a liquid lunch,if you know what i mean, and sometimes, drawing linesin a sort of a zigzag, crooked. the idea though is that the iraqi state,like the rest of the middle east, is artificial. but there's more: that the united statesin going into iraq in 2003 assumed that the shiiteswould want to secede from the state,
that they would greet the american soldiers with candies and flower, and that they needed to be saved because they were apathetic,apolitical, and incapable, and that essentiallythat strongman saddam hussein had held together otherwisewarring factions for decades. so this sectarian lens through which the united states viewed iraq led the united statesto put forth a series of policies, like the policy of de-ba'athification,
which, within days of taking over iraq, removed the ba'ath party,mainly composed of sunnis, from power, vetting candidates to their liking, mainly western, educated,secular men in suits that spent most of their life in europe, and imposed the confessional modelof statehood on iraq, that the state was organized by sect. so the assumption is sunnis would only vote for sunnis, and shiites would only votefor shiites, and so forth.
so this federal state structurethat was put forth by the united states troubled many iraqis. as a matter of fact,after then senator biden in 2007 actually imposed a federal model for the state of iraq, iraqis took to the streets, simply because they wanted to resistthese ethnosectarian symbols. so the assumptions of the united states led policymakersdown a long perilous path. the united states pulled out of iraqby december of 2011,
but the clerics were not invincible. they were after all dealing with giants. so when you hear about bombingsand factionalism in the state today, it's because it'll be years before the iraqis are able to win back or deal with the narrative set forth by the united states. but in this mess, the ayatollahs of iraq,the highest-ranking shiite clerics, have been among the most vocal to helpreconstruct the narrative of the state in the way that they perceivediraqi unity to be.
that is, they wrote prolifically,they issued powerful fatwas, they mobilized hundreds of thousandsof people in the street in reaction to the us initiativeson the ground, and they had qualmsabout these us assumptions. and so, from day one, pretty much 13 years into the war, they were working hardto debunk that artificiality myth. they talked about long history of cooperation for hundreds of years, and they argued there had beenno precedent for division, that for hundreds of yearsthe norm in iraq was mixed neighborhoods,
that mosul was mixed, baghdad was actually composedwith more shiites than sunnis, and basra had been sunni led. so this tripartite vision,which is plaguing iraq, is something that the ayatollahshave taken as their personal mission. after all, under saddam hussein's iraq, these were all mixed neighborhoods, and there was lots of intermarriageand cooperation. if you'd typically ask a person in iraq,you know, "are you sunni or shiite?",
more often than notyou'll find the answer, "we're neither, we're sushi," because they're a combinationof sunnis and shiites. but they stressed more than anything else that the sectarianismthat the united states assumed would be continued post-2003 was really a productof saddam hussein's survival policies. that he divided and ruled people,tortured and expelled shiites, tried to strip them of their arab identityand pretty much labeled them as persians,
so that they could never havea claim to the state. but nonetheless, the ayatollahsremained true to their principles of no partition, that the united stateswas talking iraq into pieces, and remained calm. the most senior cleric in iraq- the fatwa i had shown before - is ayatollah sistani. right, he's the highest-ranking, has the most followersof any ayatollah in the world today, inside and outside of iraq.
- so if you are a shiitein the united states, you're looking for an ayatollah to follow, you're free to follow himor one of the other high-ranking ones - and he had been previouslydetached from politics, that is, prior to 2003, he had only issued one political fatwa. that's probably because he waspracticing dissimulation; in 1980, and again in 1999, saddam husseinhad put to death rather savagely two of the highest-ranking ayatollahs. but again, sistani was viewedthrough this lens of a binary:
that we can perceive that we havequietest ayatollahs in iraq, and, on the other end,activist ones in iran. the quietest ones totally aloof,writing their books, nothing to do with politics; and on the iranian side, everybody knowswhat 1979 represented, right? the first shiite islamic state that obviously the united stateswas not so excited about. ayatollah sistani's political positionshave been anti-khomeinist, he always talks abouthaving government accountability,
universal ideals, never ever speeches that are simplyabout the qur'an, or flowery words, he's a pure pragmatist, and looksfor actual policy and actual solutions, always guarding against the dangersof federalism and sectarianism, and he's now knownas the electronic ayatollah par excellence because right now you can goonto facebook, ask a question, and he has such a large following. he did participate in politics because the binary of quietismand activism is much too simplistic.
i would argue that there's a middle ground. he need not take over the stateand become head of state to actually become important politically. so, during the elections of iraq, he allowed his picture to be usedfor the first major shiite bloc, the united iraqi alliance. and basically, if you see all the imagesduring election time, you'll see that it looks like he's the one actually running for head of state, because he wanted to show that he can bethe symbol, really, of iraqi unity.
and most of his demonstrations and rallieswere of peaceful nature. he's revered. and you can see here,(arabic) "no to federalism," so there was widespread domestic support for his ideas in trying to resistthe united states. i don't really have time to talkabout all of the ayatollahs of iraq, but i'd like to just briefly mentionayatollah baqir al-hakim, who was assassinated six monthsafter returning to iraq after 20 years in exile.
initially, he wason the same page with iran, yes, we want to havea rule of jurisprudent; the cleric would be head of state;it would be a purely islamic state. but after he returned to iraq,he completely abandon that idea. he said what iraq actually needsis a strong central government, it needs to be builton notions of popular sovereignty, and thought that a coalition governmentwith a parliamentary system would be the best model for iraq. he's actually credited - would have beenthe fifth ayatollah if he wasn't killed;
there are four left in iraq now - for laying downthe key pillars of the state, the ballot box,protection for ethnic minorities, respecting islamic lawwithin a state structure, and human rights. and he even refinedthe position of the grand ayatollah to account for a separation, where one can conceiveof a grand ayatollah who runs religious affairs,
and one that has a purely political roleunder a democratically elected state. in summary, about all these ayatollahs, from day one,they've all been very committed to the notions of popular sovereignty, and that they argue that the contextin iraq really, really matters. that is, there's no islamic model that works to fit all shiitesall over the world, that we should now lookfor candidates who are qualified. so most of the ayatollahs actually stoppedendorsing political parties and said,
the better chance is if we just lookfor candidates that are most qualified, so that we're not fallinginto that sectarian trap. they also did not react to the sunniswho started an insurgency trying to do what saddam did: say these guys are persians,strip them of their identity, and, you know, call themthe lowest of the lowest, and try to say that they're atheists, or polytheists, or other things. and most importantly,the ayatollahs of iraq, actually surprisingly, had a universal,non-violent approach to the united states;
all of their fatwas and religious decrees had argued no arms, no insults to the united states, only peaceful resistance. why does it all matter? ayatollah khomeini. this was actuallya piece out of "time" magazine, it says, "the ayatollah orders a hit". he was the grand cleric, the jurisprudent,who came back to iran after 1979 and put togetherour first shiite islamic state,
an authoritarian theocracy. and talking about fatwasand democratic fatwas, i'm sure many people in the audiencewere thinking, "wait a minute, this is the guy that orderedthat fatwa for salman rushdie, putting the bounty of millions of dollars on his head because of that novel he wrote'the satanic verses'. aren't fatwas about terrorismand jihad and anti-americanism?" it's because khomeini had givenfatwas a bad name. so if you look at images:
"down with the united states",stepping on the flag, this is really since 1979. every time there's an announcerthey come up and say, "ok, we're going to introducethe president or introduce the speaker, but before we begin,let's start our chants: 'death to america', 'death to america','death to israel', 'death to israel'." so it's sort of routine,very, very typical protest. and the shoe, the dreaded shoe. if you ever really want to insultsomeone in arab culture,
you invoke the shoe, because it isthe symbol of the worst disrespect - we have like 25 or 30 wordsin the arabic language alone for different types of dirty shoesdepending on how low you are - and so, i don't know if people remember, i think when george bush was doinga press conference in iraq, one of the reporters took offhis first shoe and hurled it at him, missed, took off the second shoeand hurled that at him, missed; but nonetheless, was sending a message. and as a matter of fact,after the 1990 gulf war,
saddam husseinhad a very famous iraqi artist put a mosaic of george bushsenior's face on the floor, like, in shock, "ah, we kicked youout of the country," - or he thought -so that people can step on his face. and this is the sort of politicsyou don't really see in the imagery on the part of the clericsof iraq as they put this forth. but leaving shoe politics aside, what this all sort of indicates, basedon this notion of perception of other, is that islam is dangerous.
we have 1979, we have al-qaeda, we have 9/11, we have the war on terror, but we don't think about the idea there could be multiple expressions of islam, that an islamic state does not necessarilymean a religious state. there shouldn't be thingssuch as monoliths in which we see the region. why can we not perceive of islamin its various forms serving as a modern ideology?
i think we were stuck on fareed zakaria'svery, very famous statement in his writings on illiberal democracies. he was warning us when he said, "don't trust the islamists, they're going to act like moderates,they're going to run for elections, they may win them, but as soon as they do, they're going to curtail rightsand turn it into the worst case scenario for all members of society."
what i say is, "thank god for iran." i don't know if you guys noticedwhen i started, in my map, you could see that the tentacles from iranare creeping up into iraq. i would say that the iranians had givenclerical rule a bad name, but that was good in terms of learningon the part of iraqis. so they saw what had happened in iran, they saw that the ayatollah, at one point in history, couldn't even find a successor, because he was supposedto claim one after he died,
and had to actually elevateayatollah khamenei, the successor, or the supreme leader now,because no one else would do it; most of them went under house arrest,or a special court for clergy. so the iraqis are seeing this, and then,they also saw the other side of it, the secular nationalism of saddam hussein, which only lead to torture, expulsion,and everything else in between. so although iran is the lensthrough which we see iraq, we shouldn't be so afraid. the iranians have not been ableto export their revolution,
a testament to iraqi sovereignty; no iraqis have ever asked to secede, the majority of them, 60%, have neverflocked to a country with 90% shiites; and the iranians themselvesare losing faith in the government. i was talking about chantsof "death to america", "death to israel": in june 2009, when ahmadinejad wonquestionable elections in that country, when people were told, "ready?let's chant 'death to america'," they actually chanted "death to russia," because the russians were the firstto accept the results of that election.
so we see that there's an evolution here. but what i'd like to sort of end with is this notionthat there is no fiat in islam, no blueprint, no model, and maybe many people may think,"wow, that's really dangerous, because it means then that it's a free-for-all." but i'd say there's a potential, an important potentialfor democratic development there. although the narratives about iraqdon't really leave room
for democracy by clerics, the clerics have actually proven that they're the most progressivethinkers in the country, they can serve as public intellectuals,they have important links to society, and the actual clerical hierarchy in and of itself has democracy embedded in it, because without people following youand asking for fatwas, you can't reach that levelof having a compendium that allows you to be a grand ayatollah.
and there's that level of accountability: those clerics go back to the state,and they petition on behalf of the people. and what this essentially means is when the perception is that ayatollahsand clerics are in their law schools, and they think about state,and they have these lofty ideals, they then try to impose them on state; actually the opposite is true. it's not religion that's shapingpolitics in the middle east, or at least here in this context,
it is politics that's constrainingand shaping religion. hence, the way that the iraqi ayatollahsconceive of their states. in 1920, gertrude bell,the british diplomat, who was entrusted with reconstructingmesopotamia into modern iraq, was very proud of her workwith the modernized sunnis, and she expressed a lot of disdainfor the shiite clerics, and she called them the alien popes. almost 100 years later,donald rumsfeld made similar statements, ending with, "we will never toleratea regime like that of iran."
but the problem iswe only see what we want to see; if only we can get past the beards. (applause)