Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, February 14, 2005
I'm inclined to agree with Steve Sailer's utterly unsubstantiated hypothesis that the reason it took so long to count the votes in Iraq was that this gave time for Sistani to generously deal other parties into the governing process. If Sailer is right (and again, he has no evidence at all, just an intelligent hunch) then the final results speak well of Sistani and his intention to govern a unified Iraq rather than tip the country into civil war.

It took us a long time post-invasion to figure Sistani out, and we've probably still got a lot to figure out. I don't have any special knowledge here. But I did want to weigh in on a couple of things. There seems to be a division of opinion among the blogosphere as to whether Sistani is resolutely opposed to an Iranian-style theocracy or whether he, in fact, promises to usher in exactly that. From what little I know about him, I don't think either answer gives quite the right picture.

The great political heresy of the Iranian regime is *rule* by clerics. Nominally, Iran has an elected parliament, a president and all that, but the real power rests with the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Traditionally, the Shia held that clerics should abjure political power and serve as a kind of conscience of the country able to criticize the ruler when he deviates from the Islamic path. It's not that the state should be neutral in matters or religion, much less secular, but rather than institutionally clerics should not take political power lest they be corrupted by it. Sistani appears to strongly support this traditional perspective; he has refused to run for political office and has proclaimed clearly that clerics should not have positions of power.

But this does not mean that he favors an American-style neutralism in matters of religion, or a French-style official secularism, or a limp British-style religious establishment, or a Canadian-style multi-cultural "establishment". He does, after all, favor a government whose fundamental basis is Islamic law, and I would expect him to tell people to vote against a party that took "un-Islamic" positions. Is such a stance compatible with democracy? Once again: it depends. The Christian Coalition tells people how to vote, and it's entirely compatible with democracy (whatever its opponents say). But the Saudi state - which is not a democracy at all - is also an example of a system where clerics do not rule but do determine substantially the content of the political system.

Let me digress to make an Israeli analogy to the difference between how Iran's system works and what Sistani may favor. Within the Likud there is a faction - not especially strong but rather alarming nonetheless - called Jewish Leadership. This faction formally supports an Iranian-style system for Israel, complete with a rabbinical council that would wield the real power by overruling any act of the Knesset that conflicted with Jewish law. They are not shy about admitting that they favor the elimination of the democratic system and its replacement by something that (in their view) is more authentically "Jewish." The largest religious party in Israel, the Shas party, favors making halachah (Jewish law) the law of the land, but this means something different from what Jewish Leadership means. Shas has not called for a council of rabbis to wield formal power, and Shas's "spiritual leaders" do not run for office. But they *do* tell their voters (and their MKs) how to vote. Shas intends to pass laws to conform Israeli laws in various ways to religious law, but they do not propose eliminating the democratic system. "Jewish Leadership" is explicitly and forthrightly opposed to democracy. Shas is much more complicated. It may well *not* be compatible with democracy as we understand it in the West, but it's far from easy to articulate *why* it is incompatible with democracy without suggesting that *any* party with a religious-based agenda is similarly incompatible.

In any event: I suspect what Sistani favors is something like what Shas favors in Israel. That is to say: you would have a democratic political system, but his party (by virtue of a Shia majority in the country) would be the dominant party. Clerics would not exercise a veto over legislation, but they would instruct voters and legislators how to vote. And the law would be based on, and designed to implement, Islamic law.

Do we care if this is his agenda? Do we care whether this is "true" democracy? Yes and no. I don't think Iraq is an especially good laboratory for the question of democracy in an Islamic context, precisely because it is so fractured and has such a weak political tradition. Turkey, Egypt and Iran are each much more important in this context. I've said before that I view the emergence of the AKP in Turkey as long-term positive even though it is short-term negative for America, because the AKP seems to be groping towards a way for Islam to find political expression without being politically oppressive. The important challenge for Iraq is not "can we leave behind a model democracy" but "can we leave behind a reasonably stable political structure that isn't brutal or anti-American." In that regard, it matters a lot more how the dominant Shia treat the Sunni Arabs and Kurds and whether the government aligns itself with Iran than whether the government regulates female dress codes. On the former, we've seen a number of promising signs from Sistani. On the latter, the signs are fewer and conflicting. I will note, though, that Sistani seems smart enough to know that America and Iran are alike dangerous to his health. He's likely to try to keep us each close enough to protect him from the other, and each far enough to avoid being swallowed up.