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Whatever happened to Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani?

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America's favorite ayatollah is bowing out of politics.

"Pat Robertson is retiring?" you ask.

No. I'm talking about America's other favorite ayatollah, Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

On Sept. 3, London's the Sunday Telegraph reported that he's giving up trying to influence Iraqi politics. "I will not be a political leader any more," is what the Telegraph reports he told his aides. "I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters."

The announcement, assuming it's true, is a terrible blow to anyone holding out hope that Iraq's current low-to-medium-intensity civil war might not escalate into a full-scale one. Sistani is Iraq's preeminent Shi'ite religious leader. Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Sistani has been the loudest and most effective Iraqi voice for moderation.

In American news articles, "moderate" is typically just a code word that means "dictator who relies on US support to stay in power." For example, the dictators who (mis)rule Egypt and Saudi Arabia are regularly referred to in the American news media as moderates, despite the fact that they regularly torture and kill their opponents. Ditto Pakistan. The US government and news media insist on referring to Pakistan's military dictator Pervez Musharraf as a "moderate" even though his government shelters al-Qaeda, assisted the Taliban even after 9/11, supports anti-Indian terrorists and sold nuclear weapons technology to two of our worst enemies.

Sistani, however, has been a moderate in at least three genuine, meaningful ways.

1. He's been a voice of calm. When the Sunni insurgency formed and began targeting Iraqi Shi'ites with the express intent of fomenting civil war, Sistani urged Shi'ites not to retaliate. As long as I'm writing about news media clichés, here's another: cycle of violence. If Sistani withdraws from politics, Iraq is losing its loudest anti-cycling advocate. Sistani believes that Shi'ites need to sit tight, be patient and wait for democracy to put them in charge of Iraq's government.

2. Though Sistani wants Iraqi law and government to be consistent with his interpretation of Islam, he does not want Iraq to become an Iranian-style theocracy. Iran is ruled by a council of Shi'ite clerics who decide, among other things, who can and cannot run for political office. Sistani, who was born in Iran, is opposed to that sort of setup.

3. Sistani has been, by Iraqi standards anyway, a Democrat. When the Bush administration pushed for a plan to have Iraq's first post-invasion government formed using what the Council on Foreign Relations describes as a "complex system of regional caucuses," Sistani called it bullpoop and demanded instead a one-man-one-vote system of direct elections. Sistani was concerned that a caucus system would lessen the voting power of Iraqi Shi'ites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's population. So one-man-one-vote obviously works in favor of Shi'ites.

According to the Telegraph story, Sistani is giving up on politics because Iraqis are becoming increasingly resistant to his requests for calm. Heeding Sistani's requests to not retaliate has not stopped the violence in Iraq, so people have stopped heeding. Sistani is apparently worried that continuing as a "failed" political leader will diminish his influence as a religious leader as well.

Sistani's sayonara leaves the younger and much more radical Moqtada al-Sadr as the most powerful Shi'ite leader in Iraq. Sadr is less influential as a cleric, but his willingness to use violence against Iraqi Sunnis and vocal opposition to the US military is much more in-line with the feelings of everyday Iraqis and he's therefore a much more popular and powerful political leader than Sistani. Sadr also commands a very powerful militia (the so-called Mahdi Army), which helps with the whole political power thingy.

Sistani's withdrawal from politics is a terrible omen, but something good might come of it. Sistani might have more free time to spend on his endlessly fascinating Web site, is a flash-driven, multilingual Web site that hosts many of the Grand Ayatollah's writings. The site's best feature is the Web-a-tollah, this columnist's name for the online forum on which Sistani answers his followers' most profound religious questions. For example, "Question: When I am unable to do Muta'h (temporary marriage), am I allowed to masturbate? Answer: Masturbation is not permissible under any circumstances."

And, no, I didn't make that up.

Contact Andisheh at


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