On Friday the 13th Ayatollah Ali Sisitani’s representative, Mortaza Kishmiri, urged Iraqis to take up arms in order to defend their country and protect religious Shrines. Since then, many Shia, both men and women, put on military uniforms and joined the Iraqi Army. This article aims to answers five important questions about what is going on in Iraq.
1- What’s the significance of Shia clerics’ recent call to arms in Iraq?
It is the first time that Shia clerics such as Ayatollah Sistani who usually does not interfere with politics, have invited civilians to take arms and defend their country from armed extremists. Another Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Seyed Sadiq Shirazi, who is very active in politics, on the other hand says Shia do not need to be reminded by clerics that defending shrines is mandatory: anyone who is capable should defend shrines in Iraq. Shia clerics play huge role in the Shia communities and their comments have changed the world in past. For example, The Tobacco Protest was a Shiacleric-led revolt in Iran against an 1890 tobacco concession granted by the Shah to Great Britain. The protest climaxed in a widely-observed fatwa against tobacco use supposedly issued by Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi in December of 1891. The Victory of the tobacco ban movement led by Mirza Shirazi’s, created two historically important results: First, the appearance of religious authorities’ unrivaled power in the country’s political scene and scholars leading in the mobilization of popular movements. This eventually led to the breakdown of the control of a dictatorship and the disintegration of colonial power in Iran and made spiritual leaders a symbol of national aspirations. Second, it led to a sea change of political opinion, which provided the context of a fundamental change in the administrative and political system of Iran and the formation of a larger populist movement during the Constitutional Uprising.
2- Is Ayatollah Sistani the only Shia cleric to call people to arm against ISIS?
NO, Ayatollah Shirazi also said defending Shrines is every Muslims’ duty, a duty that is self-evident without a scholar’s Fatwa. Ayatollah Shirazi’s office in Syria helped many Shia flee when anti-Shia groups targeted them in Zeynabia, Syria. His followers have also steadfastly protected the Seyedeh Zeynab Shrine in Syria since the Arab spring.
3- Is this a call to Jihad?
NO, both clerics clearly stated that it is a call to voluntary action. Jihad is when it becomes mandatory for ALL to join the army.
4- Will this call to arms turn into sectarian bloodshed in Iraq?
Both clerics invited all Iraqis to join the army, not just Shia Muslims. Therefore it is not a war against any sect but a countrywide effort to defend Iraq’s stability and Iraqi security against ISIS.
Also Ayatollah Sistani stressed that civilians who want to defend holy shrines should join the army, encouraging them to operate under the government’s supervision. This call to arms is not a call to vigilantism, which would become difficult to monitor.
5- What is the Iraqi reaction to the call to arms?
According to media outlets, thousands of Iraqi’s have joined the army so far. This call to arms has united the Sunni minority and Shia majority of Iraq against a common enemy, ISIS. By using their moral authority and considerable social influence in a nonsectarian and pro-Iraqi way, Shia clerics can help restore the mistrust that Iraqis have developed toward the Army since the embarrassing retreat in Mosul. Since the call to action, the army is increasingly made up of civilians motivated by the desire to ensure a that Iraq remains a country free from extremists, rather than those who fight for the sake of a government and its political agenda.
The situation in Iraq is a threat with ramifications that extend well beyond the borders of Iraq and is not limited to the Middle East. While all are closely monitoring the situation there has been very little action. Here are some suggestions for immediate action:
- Saudi Arabia and Qatar must stop their financial and moral support to all terrorist groups in the region, including ISIS,
- The UN must take steps to secure areas for vulnerable refugees displaced by the extremists in Iraq,
- The Iraqi army should organize and train civilians who are joining the army. Volunteers who choose to fight to keep Iraq free from the grip of extremists in a time of violence have better motivation than those who joined for the prospect of a steady paycheck,
- The government of Iraq also must work to unite all sects and groups within Iraq to fight one common enemy, ISIS.
ISIS and other terrorist groups cannot be defeated when the governments of neighboring countries, the US and Europe choose pragmatism over their self-professed values.