Enter the Ayatollah: Sistani calls on Iraqis to enlist in Fight against “Terrorists”

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader of most Iraqi Shiites, intervened forcefully in Iraqi politics on Thursday and Friday, giving his support to the national army and urging Iraqi men to volunteer to enlist and to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He termed the hyper-Sunni group, which has taken over the major northern city of Mosul, “terrorists.”

Unlike Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the head of the religious fundamentalist Da’wa Islamiyah (Islamic Mission) Party, Sistani did not call on private militias or paramilitaries to take up the fight. He specifically urged people to enlist in the national security forces (“al-quwwat al-amniyyah“). Sistani is said to want to improve the morale of the army, which collapsed in Mosul and elsewhere in the Sunni north.

Neither Sistani nor his representative used the word “jihad” (struggle for the faith, which can holy war under certain circumstances), contrary to what many newspapers are reporting. In Shiite Islam most authorities do not believe it is any longer permissible to wage offensive holy war, as opposed to taking defensive action. And he is not calling for vigilanteism or revenge. Sistani carefully used the language of patriotism, not religion. He spoke of citizens defending their country. He did say that Iraqi troops killed in the fight with the would-be al-Qaeda affiliate are considered martyrs to the faith.

On Tuesday, Sistani had issued a statement in which he called on Iraqi politicians to unite in the face of the ISIS challenge and to redouble their efforts in standing against the “terrorists,” and in providing protection to citizens from their evil deeds. He underlined the ayatollahs’ support for and backing for the armed forces and urged them to be patient and steadfast in the face of the aggressors. (Sistani is said to have been most dismayed by the way he Iraqi soldiers ran away from Mosul.)

Sistani clearly considers the rise of radical, Sunni ISIS as of major importance. Sunni fundamentalist fighters have vowed to take the Shiite holy city of Najaf and blow up its shrine.

On Friday, Sistani’s representative in the other major holy city, Karbala, gave a Friday prayer sermon elaborating on the written statement. Sheikh Abd al-Mahdi Karbala’i said that in Sistani’s view (a view binding on believers who follow him) “It is incumbent on citizens who are able to carry weapons and to fight the terrorists, defending their country, their people and their holy places, to volunteer and to enlist in the security forces so as to achieve this sacred objective.” Many news reports are misreporting Sistani as calling for young men to simply arm themselves and go fight the Sunni extremists. Instead, he is acting as a recruitment agent and cheerleader for the Iraqi national army.

There is nothing sectarian in this call except the need to protect the shrines sacred to the Shiites; but note that many Sunnis revere figures like Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, and would be upset to see his mausoleum in Najaf destroyed. Moreover, the puritanical ISIS poses a threat to other holy places such as the mystical Sufi shrines of the Kurds.

Sistani has sometimes been forced to rely on Shiite militias for his own safety, but he does not approve of paramiitaries and wants to see the Iraqi state build responsible army and police.

Shiite Islam in its current majority form is more like Roman Catholicism than it is like Protestantism, but there are some wrinkles. At any one time in the Shiite world outside Iran the faithful typically look to a major grand ayatollah resident in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, as their spiritual and legal guide or “source for emulation”– i.e. someone whose views and upright behavior should be blindly imitated and obeyed. Although in the 1970s Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran promoted the idea of political intervention by the supreme clerical leader, who he said should be a guardian for society the way someone can be appointed by a judge to be the guardian of a child. Sistani largely rejects this notion, wanting clerics to avoid trying to run the government. He said that guardianship of society can only be achieved if he has the wholehearted support on that point of the people, and holds that a grand ayatollah should only interven in those issues that touch the “structure of society.”

Sistani did intervene to insist in 2003 that the Iraqi constitution must be drafted by an elected constituent assembly of Iraqis, rather than being written by American viceroy Paul Bremer.

One may conclude that Sistani sees Sunni radicals taking over northern Iraq as the biggest crisis since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Sistani is enormously popular among Iraqi Shiites and many will in fact risk their lives if he asks it of them.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Top Iraqi Shia cleric calls on followers to take up arms”

23 Responses

  1. Ali Sistani has been a positive force within Iraq for many years, having survived persecution under the Baathist regime. His role as a spiritual leader extends back to the early 1960s.

    Ironically, he is an ethnic Iranian, however his influence extends far beyond Iraq and is revered among Lebanese Shi’ites as a spiritual leader.

    He can safely be described as the most influential and respected leader within Shia Islam worldwide.

    • Its said he doesn’t visit Iran due to ideological differences and in principles with Khamenei and Iran.

      I’m glad more Shiites are looking towards Najaf rather than Qom. But the latter did have a great number of admirers after the ’79 revolutions, and in a sense still do around areas of political flashpoints, and I fear will eventually win out and have greater influence.

  2. I’m a Shi’ite Muslim from Pakistan. Just to add to your article, many Shi’ite in Pakistan are followers of Ayatollah Sistani. We have a rigid religious hierarchy and the Grand Ayatollahs are at the top. Their verdicts, as you said, are binding for all their followers. Ayatollah Sistani usually refrains from intervening in politics and issuing statements to his followers which involve political or military compulsions. But if he ever decides to call upon his followers outside Iraq for military action (Jihad), the Shi’ite militias will pour in from all around the Arab world and Pakistan and the ISIS will be dwarfed in front of them. But of course he is not going to do that. Not only does he discourages interference of foreign elements in Iraq (including Iranians), he also wouldn’t want to spill blood to save the Shrines.

  3. One point about Sunni dissatisfaction with the Maliki government: As a Sunni, the main problem I have with the Shia groups is that they see political participation as a series of “turns”: Sunnis had their turns with the Caliphate, the Ottomans, and Saddam but now it is the Shias’ turn in Iraq. Not only Maliki, but Shias at large in Iraq and elsewhere are simply not interested in democracy or power-sharing at all. Whether one thinks this right or wrong is something else, but this is the common Shia mentality with regards to what the “future” holds.

  4. Thanks for this background information. I have seen several reports from major news sources in the US, and all of them omitted significant points you make, or were simply wrong. So much of what we read and hear is superficial or distorted.

  5. ISIS are not sunnies. They are wahabies and consider themselves as the only muslims, declaring all other muslims (sunnies and shias included) as heretics and worthy of killing.

    • They’re certainly enjoying a lot of local Sunni Muslim support.

      Canada lays it out as religo-political Sunni Islamist extremist particularly of the Wahhabi/Salafi ideological kind being the top domestic and foreign threat.

      I can see how disowning them, in form of rejection and condemnation, might make us all feel better or stress some sort of unity in victimhood, but we need to recognize a reality of the branch they’re offshoot from and the thin line between them and the mainstream, becoming the new black.

      In Pakistan, local and foreign Wahhabi/Salafi/Deoband/Sunni extremist militant groups do try to inflict as much civilian casualty as they can, which nets a great deal of Pakistani Sunni Muslims as victims, but they do make it a point in targeting minorities, particularly the largest one being Pakistani Shia Muslims who make up a higher disproportionate number of victims in a sectarian cleansing compared to others. A good example would be the Karachi airport attacks happening but following after the Baluchistan pilgrim Shia bus bombing.

  6. Thanks for your reporting on this. i cringed last night when I heard Alice Fordham of NPR report that Sistani called for all Shiite men to take up arms, rather than all Iraqi men as you translate. She really seemed to be promoting a sectarian agenda and projecting that onto Sistani.

    • Everyone has been pretty bad – the NYT, WSJ, etc. I cannot speak to television because I do not watch. (Mainstream newsprint bothers me, especially the NYT, but one needs to understand the arguments others are making.) The Guardian editors to their credit published a piece cautioning US intervention. And there was a BBC article one of the commentators linked to in Juan’s last piece that was informative – it focused on the relationship between the Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis. One of the great things about internet blogs is that academics, independent journalists, activists can counter the narratives of the power elite. The historical and cultural context that Juan provides is quite refreshing.

  7. Juan, can you explain how US administrations juggle the influence of the Saudis and other Mideast gov’ts? As a non-expert, it seems odd to me that the Saudi’s, with their massive wealth, would be just another interest group, and not insist on American policy reflecting their desires more explicitly. Now we seem to be aligned with Iran in a huge intra-Arab war. What do you know about what’s happening behind the scenes? And how much influence do the Saudi’s have compared to the Israeli’s?

    • Saudis are very influential. But their sovereign wealth fund is $750 bn & their currency reserves similar. US is a $16 trillion a year economy, so Saudia is small potatoes. But they are very influential in DC; not an an AIPAC scale, though.

  8. All this talk about “the Iraqis.” Is there, or can there be such a thing as “Iraq?” All these calls to “defend Iraq,” and how does one develop a doctrine and a strategy and tactics to do that, if one has no reality, no real polity with the adhesions and cohesions making up a nation to be defending, in relation to which our rulers would be defining that “we have to respond now” response?

    Looks to me like our Empire is gearing up to do more “striking,” what used to be called “smiting and putting to the sword.” Obama promises (!) “no American boots on the ground,” but in addition to all the other ASSets that are in motion toward “being in range,” there’s the grave pronouncement that the USS George Herbert Walker Bush, another “larger expensive target,” is powering toward that end of the Gulf. link to wavy.com “We” seem to be a one-trick pony, the trick involving trying to force 4th gen warriors into the kind of set-piece battles that our generals have prepped and prayed for since Vietnam. Or failing that, since the “wogs” won’t generally cooperate in setting themselves up that way, I guess it’s time to “do air strikes,” since Air Power has been so effective in Nation Building in the past, right? Too bad that “First, Do No Harm” is not in the moral structure…

    Got to love “the media.” One tiny anecdote: watching Al Jazeera America this morning, the talking head is soliciting “truths and advice” from the person their editors called on to “be wise and informed in this crisis,” one James F. Jeffrey, former ambassador to whatever Iraq is, and other interesting stuff: link to en.wikipedia.org. The gist of this master insider’s Wise Advice and Counsel is this, please note the “oil must flow” phrase, among the other idiot talking points:

    ““We have tremendous interests involved here including fighting terrorism,” he said. “And Iraq, unlike Syria, is a major oil exporting country. You see the impact we already have on oil prices. We have to act and we have to act swiftly.”

    He said that Obama should use air strikes to stop ISIS from continuing their current advance. If they aren’t stopped, he fears the insurgent army will surround Baghdad, involve Iran, and cut off Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Air strikes could immobilize ISIS, but Jeffrey is also convinced that the American assistance will inspire the Iraqi soldiers to continue fighting.”

    And hey, that “striking” really worked, in Kosovo and Bosnia and Libya, so see?

    Who’s Jeffrey? Obama’s Former Iraq Ambassador. For even more recent detail on this fella who now works for ExxonMobil and pontificates all over, look here: link to wemeantwell.com

    For me, with my little knowledge of human physiology, this is like watching the progression of one of the horrible auto-immune diseases, as parts of the body’s defense system attack other parts, leading often to death by asphyxiation or clotting of all the blood vessels. Or what’s known as “disseminated intravascular coagulation,” often an endpoint to cancers: link to ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

    “We” apparently have no idea, let alone any ideal, let alone any mental or “policy” or military tools, calibrated on how to “fix” the current situation in that it’s-not-a-nation landspace, particularly neither plan nor inspiration on how to move all those warriors and sect adherents and their rulers, holy or a__hole-y, in the direction of being just ordinary people again. Other than blowing stuff up, bribing, corrupting, destabilizing, propping up and arming one subset or another. Installing people like Bremer and Jeffrey in policy positions, and “befriending” Maliki and Karzai and Batista and the Shah…. Because the basic, most basic bottom foundation level of all of this is corporatocracy, starting with the premise that “the oil must flow.” With all that means, to the ordinary people of the planet.

  9. Whatever Sistani’s intentions, the effect will certainly be to increase recruitment in Shia militias. The Iraqi government will certainly rely on them more in future, as it the regular army has proved so unreliable. Likely opening for Iran.

  10. I’m NOT seeing any humor in this at all. The US is about to Re-invade Iraq. Easy to do when your hand-picked (or should I say ‘real opposition assassinated’) Proxy “gubmint” requests it.

    It won’t be long before the Mahdi Army is killing US soldiers again despite the fact we handed over our CIA asset Saddam Hussein to them for extralegal execution, and, now that the Mosul armory among others has been looted, along with a WHOLE BUNCH OF MONEY (USD no doubt… still on pallets as delivered by Paul Bremer’s buddies) it will not be long before the Iraqis can shoot down the most modern fighter planes the West can get up. B-1’carpet Bombing will follow that.

    I just don’t see that “Enter the Ayatollah” is a respectable, OR INTELLIGENT way to lede this tragedy. A “tragedy” that’s been expected all along for the West, but MAYBE the REAL FIRST STEP in the liberation of Iraq FOR Iraqis (Because it will be much easier for the Iraqis to exterminate ISIS if they want than the US presence, which takes the form of B-1 bombers and drones in situations like this. Just ask a Yemeni.

  11. I just want to extend my deep gratitude for your knowledge about the Middle East, Dr. Cole, and for your willingness to share it with your readers and, in particular, to enable us to make sense of the nonsense. You are a national treasure.

  12. It’s a little disingenuous to pretend that Sistani’s appeal is not sectarian. He doesn’t have to come out and say “I’m addressing Shias only”, because he is a Shia leader and only Shias follow what he says.

    • Subtext in all this talk is a yearning, an unspoken whining complaint, that the leaders, people like Sistani, who is getting a nice polish as a Good Sensible Dude just now, kind of like We Hope Rohani is, a complaint about why these people don’t inspire and lead for ALL the ordinary people, whatever their polarity and whichever succession mythology or creation story they adhere to.

      Sistani: would he be other than “dead meat” if he tried to make a play to speak to “all Iraqis?” Bearing in mind that it sure does not look like there is, or even can be except as a grammatical construction, anything like “allIraqis,” when the gunmen who need that transforming trigger organize around “leaders” that cynically use tribal mythologies and the motions of historical alliance to solidify their “leadership,” and deflect and re-direct all that nihilist anomic energy against those people with a different take on the life and death of Fatima. link to welcometoshiaislam.blogspot.com

      Look what happened to Yitzhak Rabin, and who killed him and why, link to en.wikipedia.org, and Anwar Sadat, and who killed him and why, link to en.wikipedia.org. And Indira Gandhi, who was Not A Nice Person anyway.

      And there’s all these sneaky-petes that apparently out of habit, and brain-dead training and for maybe just the kicks of being able to do it, either suborn some colonels or sergeants to murder their sometimes elected leader and elevate The Military to rulership, or so stir things that Chaos is the only possible sacrament.

      What, again, are the “enormous US interests” that are going to be the “reason (sic)”, this time, that “we” are maybe going to be “shock’n’awe-shucks, marching on Baghdad” once again?

      Oh well, for me, personally, it’s back to the goddam recurrent nightmares of that Vietnam sh_t, the worst one being that even though I did my three enlisted years and was honorably DISCHARGED in 1969, and finished my subsequent involuntary inactive reserve servitude more than 30 years ago, I am being called up,, ordered, to “serve my country” again, bad knees and bad ticker and all, and nobody will honor my discharge, or listen to my horror story.

      Thanks an effing bunch to all you Players and Serious People, for myself and others you have similarly afflicted… At least that insipid “thank you for your service” phrase seems to be disappearing from the jargon of the day…

  13. Tony Bliar justifies the war: ‘It would be worse if we hadn’t invaded Iraq,’ claims Tony Blair by Jane Merrick – link to independent.co.uk

    No doubt tomorrow’s Sunday corporate TV blabfests will have the usual suspects with assistance from their hosts explaining they were right in promoting the war on Iraq.

    Judging by Patrick Cockburn’s usual astute reporting the official government and Iraqi military are not worth saving. The only reason for defending the Shia is protection of the innocents.

  14. “The faithful typically look to a major grand ayatollah…whose views and upright behavior should be blindly imitated and obeyed.”

    *Blindly* imitated and obeyed? Dr. Cole, I respect your expertise on these matters but I am surprised by this adverb.

    • If you are not a trained jurist you have to obey the rulings given you by the Source for Emulation you choose. It would be like arguing with a physicist about quantum mechanics, from an Usuli point of view.

  15. An aside about government civility towards protests as an issue from Institute for Public Accuracy. Summarize this as the end result of illegitimate proxy government:

    (Ross) Caputi just wrote the piece “Unthinkable Thoughts in the Debate About ISIS in Iraq,” which states: “One year ago ISIS was concentrated in Syria, with almost no presence in Iraq. During this time, a nonviolent protest movement, which called itself the Iraqi Spring, was in full swing with widespread support in the Sunni provinces and significant support from the Shia provinces as well. This movement set up nonviolent protest camps in many cities throughout Iraq for nearly the entire year of 2013. They articulated a set of demands calling for an end to the marginalization of Sunnis within the new Iraqi democracy, reform of an anti-terrorism law that was being used label political dissent as terrorism, abolition of the death penalty, an end to corruption, and they positioned themselves against federalism and sectarianism too.

    “Instead of making concessions to the protesters and defusing their rage, Prime Minister Maliki mocked their demands and chose to use military force to attack them on numerous occasions. Over the course of a year, the protesters were assaulted, murdered, and their leaders were assassinated, but they remained true to their adopted tactic of nonviolence. That is, until Prime Minister Maliki sent security forces to clear the protest camps in Fallujah and Ramadi in December of 2013. At that point the protestors lost hope in the tactic of nonviolence and turned to armed resistance instead.

    “It is important to note that from the beginning it was the tribal militias who took the lead in the fight against the Iraqi government. ISIS arrived a day later to aid Fallujans in their fight, but also to piggy-back on the success of the tribal fighters in order to promote their own political goals. …

    “While publicly criticizing the Maliki government’s sectarian policies, the U.S. has been aiding and facilitating” the Maliki government. Caputi added: “The impunity of the Maliki government is never questioned in the debate raging within the U.S. It is simply unimaginable within the limits of this debate that Maliki might be held accountable for the war crimes his regime has committed against his own people.

    With links here

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