Thursday, November 27, 2003

Sistani Versus Reality In Iraq 

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, opposes the current political transition plan because it did not have direct elections for the interim government. He also calls for a political system that emphasizes "the role of Islam and the identity of the Muslim people."

I'm not sure what to make of this. Sistani has been relatively restrained in talking about the occupation authorities, which I'm thankful for. But considering the 60 percent Shiite majority and the continued lack of support for the US from the Sunnis, this smells a lot like Algeria's famous "one man, one vote, one time" strategy.

Even if the push for direct elections isn't a scam to introduce an Islamic regime, having direct elections in less than a year will likely deepen rifts between the ethnic and religious communities. The truth is that the Islamic clergies and ethnic organizations (such as the Kurdish parties) remain the only groups organized enough to get anywhere in a major election held in the near future. Having elections so soon will only entrench their position in Iraq's long-term political future, sowing the seeds for continued ethnic and religious strife and instability.

Enshrining the position of Islam? Out of the question. Turkey and Israel, the only two countries in the Middle East that can have any claim to the term "democratic", both have secular constitutions, despite being devoutly religious in demographics. And Iraq has, besides Lebanon, one of the larger non-Muslim populations in the Arab world. Islamic constitutions, meanwhile, are tried, tested, and truly horrendous. Thankfully, Bremer's officials say that a proposed bill of rights will remain in any new plans. That should hopefully counteract any attempt to write in Islam into the the new constitution.

If Sistani meant well for all of Iraq, I think he should be more realistic and accept a certain degree of indirectness in the political process. I understand that Saddam's decades of totalitarianism has made any degree of political abstraction or delay seem worrying, but the truth is that the days of Saddam have ended. The marathon for political reform requires a lot of warm-up.
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