Tensions remain between Iraqi government, religious authorities

Sheikh Ali Najafi, the son of Shiite cleric Bashir al-Najafi, announced May 19 on his Facebook page that police and intelligence forces were raiding the houses and schools of international students, mainly Pakistanis, and dragging scores of them to Iraqi police stations. This incident coincided with the announcement of the results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections held at the end of last month. Shortly before the elections, Sheikh Bashir criticized the government of Nouri al-Maliki, accusing it of using money and power to buy votes. He also called on the people not to vote for Maliki’s electoral list.

At the time, the government remained silent as to the stance of Najafi. It seemed that it was waiting for the right opportunity to respond, to prohibit him from making statements and taking stands against the government. The opportunity came after the results of the elections were announced, when Maliki’s list won 92 seats, leaving his rivals, the Citizen Coalition and the al-Ahrar Bloc respectively with 29 and 28 seats.

The raids came under the pretext of implementing residency laws for foreigners in Iraq, although authorities had no previous reports of violations by students in that regard. This raises doubts about the campaign targeting Pakistani students who are sponsored by Najafi.

The news stirred fierce reactions within the Najaf religious establishment. The head of cleric Ali al-Sistani’s bureau said, “The arbitrary, humiliating and cruel measures security agencies have adopted against a number of Pakistani students in the Shiite seminaries, and the arrest of scores of them under the pretext of implementing the residency laws for foreigners in the country, are completely unacceptable and strongly condemned. Higher authorities should halt these practices, conduct investigations into those who carried them out and take suitable measures against them.”

After reactions from the part of Najaf religious figures and members of parliament intensified, the arrested students were released. Ali al-Najafi called for prosecuting those who ordered the illegal arrests, likening what happened to the arbitrary measures that were taken during the former regime.

This incident indicates that the relationship between religion and politics in the new Iraq is still based on suspicion, and will witness prospective developments and unrest. Although the relationship between the religious institution and the political regime during the rule of the former regime was bad, it was a lot simpler than it is nowadays. The reason is that this bilateral relation has developed and become more complicated, as new factors and actors were introduced to it.

In the past, Iraq witnessed animosity between a nonreligious political regime that wanted to impose control on the religious authority. The latter, however, resisted the pressures of the regime. Now, the religious authority has various political inclinations, while religious parties are controlling the state, and internal and external actors are trying to influence this already problematic relationship.

Sistani was able to take central stage in managing the religious-political relationship in the country, whereby he distanced the religious institution from direct interference in the political regime. However, Sistani preserved the influence of the general guidance the authority offers so that it could still be influential in terms of the social monitoring of politicians. Despite this fact, other views adopted by Sistani’s rivals in their relations with politics were unchanged from the time of the former regime.

For example, some of Sistani's opponents are leading their own political parties, as is the case of the Islamic Virtue Party led by Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. Other clerics who are close to Sistani believe that clerics should exert more effort to guide people politically and prohibit politicians from carrying out corrupt practices that contradict religion. An example of an advocate of this view is Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi, given that his stance toward the government in the past years, in particular in the last elections, was different from Sistani's.

Moreover, some figures with extremist views, similar to velayat-e faqih, have tried to influence the political course based on this view. For instance, the fatwas of Kadhem al-Haeri, who resides in Iran, have always proven controversial in Iraq since they are characterized with religious extremism and the inclination toward excluding the other. In fact, Haeri issued a fatwa saying it was religiously forbidden for people to vote for secular candidates in the last Iraqi elections.

On the other side, some political religious parties consider themselves to be authorities in the political field, which is shown through their slogans and methods of managing the government.

When it comes to the Sunnis, the historical common view of their scholars, which dictates the necessity of obeying the regime, has changed to dealing cautiously with or even refusing the Shiite regime. This change was brought about as sectarianism came to characterize the relationship between religion and politics. In the past, Sunni obedience to the ruler was because the political authority was Sunni. Now, however, with the rise of Shiite parties, Sunni obedience to the government is seen as a religious loss to Shiites, as seen through the political behavior of moderate as well as extremist Sunni scholars. The most prominent example is Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, who issued a fatwa after 2003 allowing jihad. Dhari also sponsored some jihadist organizations. The second example of this view is Abdul Malik al-Saadi who, at first, dealt cautiously with the new regime in Iraq, only to recently issue fatwas stating that participation in the last elections are religiously forbidden and that he supports armed groups fighting the Iraqi army in Anbar.

The aforementioned proves that the unstable relationship between religion and politics is playing a key role in crafting the general political situation in the country. Without considering this relationship, the nature of events cannot be understood. Furthermore, the absence of an acceptable balance between the two parties to this relationship augurs impending tensions in Iraq.