December 10, 2004

Not So Hierarchical

Matt Yglesias thumps Charles Krauthammer with a sandbag full of hindsight. Funny stuff. But he's a bit too quick to mock Krauthammer's assertion that "Shiism is not a hierarchical religion." Shi'ism isn't a hierarchical religion, and this distinction matters quite a bit.

When Krauthammer was writing, in May 2003, it looked like Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim -- the older brother of the current SCIRI leader -- would be top dog in Najaf, over even the more distinguished Ali al-Sistani, if only because Bakr al-Hakim had broader popular support. (Remember the cheering crowds that greeted his return?) It may seem like a foregone conclusion now, but Sistani only really became the undisputed alpha cleric when a) Bakr al-Hakim was blown to bits by Zaraqawi & Friends and b) Sistani smacked down the Americans over our wacky little caucus scheme, endearing himself to millions. But Sistani's authority is not absolute, nor is it universal. It could wane if he loses the respect of his followers—there was real danger of that during the August showdown in Najaf, though Sistani happened to handle it brilliantly. (It helped that the U.S. military shredded through the Imam al-Mahdi Army and forced Sadr's hand.)

It's best, I guess, to think of Shiite religious authority in terms of overlapping spheres of influence. Sistani happens to have a Godzilla-sized sphere at the moment, so when he speaks, all ears perk up.

Meanwhile, if Sistani were to die, then yikes, who knows what would happen? None of the five remaining Grand Ayatollahs (Muhammad Said al-Hakim, Muhammad Fayed, Bashir Najafi, Muhammad Taqi al-Mondarresi—or maybe even al-Haeri in Qum) have much political support, so we would see a lot of jockeying, back-room dealing, backstabbing. Even Sadr, pitiful as his "ranking" may be, could come out on top in this struggle, with the right mix of gunmanship, maneuvering, and popular support. (Though I think his army has dwindled significantly.)

This holds in Iran too -- Khamenei, as far as I know, hasn't attained Grand Ayatollah status, and never will. (He's a laughable scholar, from what I've heard.) If the Shiism was as rigid as, say, the Catholic hierachy, Hussain Montazeri would have ascended to "Supreme Leader" status post-Khomeini, and Iran would probably be our ally by now. But all Montazeri's authority got him was a fuck you and house arrest. Same goes for some of the other Grand Ayatollahs in Iran. The "hierarchy" depends entirely on who stabs who in the back. In part, this is because Iran's a theocracy, and in theocracies religion tends to get subsumed into politics. But Shiism also lends itself to these sort of intricacies.

Anyways, way too much information here, but Krauthammer was kind of correct at the time. Sistani outmaneuvered everyone in a way that would have been hard to predict back then.
-- Brad Plumer 5:28 PM || ||