The role of Iraq’s influential Shiite clerics is changing. Here’s how.

The role of Iraq’s influential Shiite clerics is changing. Here’s how.
The Washington Post | Feb 4, 2019 | Marsin Alshamary
Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the militant Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad on Jan. 28, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
Marsin Alshamary
February 4, 2019
The Washington Post

In a recent interview, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and militia leader warned the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The leader, Qais al-Khazali, represents a class of politician preachers who have come to dominate the political scene in post-2003 Iraq. The ascendancy of these clerics raises questions about the role of the Shiite religious establishment in contemporary Iraqi politics.

What is the Shiite religious establishment?

Shiites are Iraq’s largest ethno-sectarian group — and these Iraqis have a history of appealing to their religious leaders, known collectively as the marjayya, during political crises. Many observers mistakenly think Iraqi clerics are divorced from political involvement — which they see in stark contrast to Iran.

But since 2003, elite clerics have played a prominent public and political role in shaping the Iraqi state. They have been members of the constitutional writing committee and have held public office. When Iraq started holding elections in 2005, there were rumors of a marjayya-approved Shiite list. Most famously perhaps, the Shiite establishment is known for issuing a religiously binding call to arms in 2014 to fight the Islamic State.

As part of a larger research project, I spent the past few months interviewing Shiite clerics in Iraq to understand how they perceive their own role in Iraq’s political landscape. Here are five things that I learned.

A firebrand cleric will not lead the marjayya

The establishment is led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the question of who will succeed the 88-year-old cleric is of vital importance to policymakers. Those less familiar with the religious institution fear the succession of a less moderating voice: a hard-line cleric. The United States and its allies within Iraq fear the ascension of a cleric with theocratic (read: Iranian) leanings.

Both fears are largely unfounded. The elite clerics of the marjayya have been filtered through a process of intensive training and conformity to the traditions of the clerical academic institution. This requires that seminary students remain apolitical until they have reached an advanced level of training and education, a process that can take decades.

Many seminary students drop out long before arriving at this level and take on nonacademic clerical careers. Some of them become politicians. Those who remain within the academic institution dedicate their lives to academic production and have little time for political activity.

The marjayya fears state control

Fears of state control stem from the tremendous persecution that Shiite clerics suffered under Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s fears of Shiite mobilization were compounded by the Iranian Revolution next door. In the 1970s and 1980s, this led to a massive campaign of arrests, executions and forced exile of many clerics and their families.

Most of the elite clerics of present-day Iraq lived their formative academic years under this campaign. This experience has colored their views of state-society relations and has fostered a fear of outside penetration.

As a result, the marjayya now opposes any attempt to transform the seminary system into an official state-sponsored entity. The institution is informal seminaries that provide no official degrees and has no accreditation. This has led some seminary students, particularly those interested in social activism or interfaith work, to simultaneously pursue academic studies at formal institutions. This means that there will be a lack of marjayya-approved clerics who are trained to negotiate with nonclerical actors. This will affect how Iraqis will negotiate the relationship between the religious institution, society and the state.

Most clerics support democracy but stop short of activism

According to my interviews, clerics participated in the Iraqi elections at a higher rate than the population. Most clerics I spoke with believe that democracy is the most suitable form of government for a country as diverse as Iraq. However, while they view participation in elections as important, clerics stopped short of directly encouraging people to vote in the last election.

Clerics view themselves as the spiritual fathers of the nation

Although they support democracy, many clerics view the religious institution (and, by extension, themselves) as being above the state. Many elite clerics describe themselves as occupying the position of “adviser” and “spiritual father” of the Iraqi nation, stepping in only when needed (such as during the invasion by Islamic State fighters).

The ambiguity of this position led to a mismatch between clerics’ own job descriptions and the expectations of the Shiite and broader Iraqi public. In recent protests, many citizens hoped for clerical support — and were disappointed by the lack thereof. This ambiguity has also challenged Iraqi sovereignty by making it difficult to define the limits of clerical and political authority.

The marjayya views itself as internally democratic 

Shiite clerics view the process of cleric ascension to the marjayya as being meritocratic — arising from academic performance and personal piety. They pride themselves on the ethnic diversity of the seminary system as well as the nonhereditary selection of the marjayya’s leaders.

Relations between Shiite believers and elite clerics are also viewed as democratic, in a way. Shiite individuals are required to select a specific elite cleric whose religious views they follow and to whom they pay religious taxes. Many clerics view this process of directing funds toward a particular cleric as being similar to voting. These religious taxes ensure the establishment’s financial independence from the state.

Where do we go from here?

Shiite clerics are operating in a new and unfamiliar space of Shiite political control. This allows them to enjoy an unprecedented level of intellectual freedom. However, years of persecution mean that they have developed inextricable links with Islamist political parties that are rapidly falling out of favor with the Iraqi public.

Their ability to manage these connections is critical if they are to maintain their hallowed position in the Shiite popular mind-set. Because their authority ultimately stems from the population, Shiite clerics will have to adapt to popular demands — which are now tending toward a secular state — or risk losing relevance.

Marsin Alshamary is a PhD candidate in the MIT Department of Political Science.

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