It has become almost cliche for political oracles to predict that Iraq will inevitably become a Shi'ite theocracy. While I would not number myself among those who are optimistic about the short-term future of Iraq, I would have to take issue with this blithe assessment. Civil war may well lurk somewhere in Iraq's future, but should that sad day arrive the outcome of such a conflict will almost certainly not be a Shi'ite theocracy.
Why can I state this so confidently? Because the Iraqi people are caught in the jaws of a historical vice, sandwiched between the pressing forces of Shi'a Islam and Arab nationalism. These two forces are little understood in the U.S., but if we are to navigate the turbulent waters of Iraqi politics in the days ahead U.S. leaders had better get a grasp of what they entail.
Sh'ia Islam is most often written off in textbook accounts and encyclopedia entries as the "minority tendency" within Islam, accounting for less than 15% of the world's Muslims. Such a demographic perspective vastly underestimates the importance of Shi'a in the cultural life of Islam, however. Sh'ia and Sunni Islam are not radically schismatic in the manner of Catholicism and Protestantism within Christendom. They are not divided over fundamental questions of doctrine or liturgy, nor is a special ritual required to "convert" from on "sect" to the other.
Two major concerns distinguish the Shi'a community: 1)the belief that the caliphate, or sovereign authority of the Islamic community, should have been retained within the family of the Prophet Muhamed, through the bloodline of his son-in-law Ali; 2)a profound reverence for a regular community of ulama, "doctors of Islamic science" who exercise traditional authority to adjudicate questions of Islamic law. By contrast, Sunni Muslims place much less emphasis upon the bloodline of Muhamed (the last widely acknowledged claimant to the caliphate was the Turkish Ottoman Sultan) and do not rely significantly upon the authority of regular ulama.
This latter distinction is especially important (disputes over the caliphate are for now moot, as the last acknowledged caliph was deposed in 1924). While Sunni Muslims do consult learned scholars of Islamic law, they make no attempt to set fixed or universal standards for their training and acreditation, nor do they establish regular channels for the exercise of their legal authority within the community at large. Where the Sunni ulama are a very loosely delineated and informal community of learned teachers, the Shi'ite ulama are constituted and operate in much the same fashion as the orthodox Jewish rabbinate. The tension between Sunni and Shi'a Islam does thus not reside in a truly theological dispute. Instead, the disagreement between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims is a fundamentally political one. Shi'a is not a breakaway "sect" or "heresy" within Islam, but is a movement to organize the ummah (the community of the Muslim faithful) in such a way as to create the closest possible correspondence between divine revelation (the Qur'an) and secular authority. This synergy is achieved through investing sovereign authority in the family of the Prophet (to whom the Qur'an was revealed) and the establishment of a science and community of Qur'anic jurisprudence, so that the filaments of divine revelation may have the maximum structuring impact on daily life.
An understanding of the profoundly political impulses that engender and shape Shi'a Islam help explain the unique cultural-historical conditions of Iraqi history. Iraq is unique in the Islamic world in that it is the only nation (other than Bahrain) that is both majority Arab and majority Shi'ite. This fact is less surprising when we consider that Baghdad was for centuries the seat of the global Islamic caliphate. Though the caliphs that ruled from Baghdad were almost exclusively patrons of Sunni Islam, it is easy to understand why a movement to deepen the political impact of Islamic revelation would acquire great urgency and popularity in and around the seat of universal Islamic government. What we perceive as the territory of Iraq can thus be viewed, from a different perspective, as the staging area for a centuries-long crusade to realize an Islamic utopia.
Reading thus far one might be puzzled. If Shi'a Islam is so intrinsically political, how could anyone predict that Iraq will not become a Shi'ite theocracy? The chief historical example appealed to by predictors of a future "Iraqi theocracy" is that of Iran. In Iran in 1979 the utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam burst forth into violent fruition, resulting in the founding of the world's first Islamic republic. Given that the Shi'ite clergy of Iran have so clearly blueprinted the political trajectory of a Shi'a revolution, why would anyone doubt that the same thing would happen in Iraq under the right conditions?
The answer is simple. Such "right conditions" will never come, because the very powerful hold of Shi'ite ideology upon Iraqis will always exist in irresoluble tension with the equally powerful hold of Arab nationalism. The nature of Shi'a jurisprudence and the Shi'a ulama preclude the Iraqi Shi'ite community from disaggregating itself from that of Iran. The Shi'a ulama are not a sacramentally sanctioned heirarchy like that of the Roman Catholic Church, they are a consensual community held together by appeal to precedent and tradition. The jurisprudential procedures adhered to by the Shi'a ulama rely upon a broad body of learning, decisions and precedents akin to the Jewish Talmud. Just as with the Jewish Talmud and rabbinate, the expansive community of Shi'a ulama that produced and continues to interpret this ever-widening body of jurisprudential lore does not recognize political boundaries, it flows freely over the national frontier seperating Iraq from Iran. The two great centers of Shi'a learning (which house the institutions that set the standards of training and accreditation for the global "Twelver" Shi'a ulama) are Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Virtually all Shi'a ulama of any stature have studied in both centers of learning (Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini spent most of his formative years in Najaf, while Iraq's Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani spent his in Qom). The Iraqi Shi'a ulama are thus all deeply enmeshed in networks of patronage and authority that tie them inexorably and inseperably to their counterparts in Iran (and vice-versa).
Before the 20th century this did not pose a major problem (though even then it did cause some tension), as the political communities in which Muslims then lived did not function as the nation-states of today. Prior to the 20th century most Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, lived in dynastic realms such as the Ottoman Empire or the Qajar Regime of Iran. These dynastic realms were not seperated by clear territorial boundaries, they excercised variable claims to their subjects' loyalty and service that attenuated the further those subjects lived from the seat of dynastic power. At the frontiers between dynastic realms (like Iraq) people could, without major contradiction, offer political fealty (in varying degrees) to both the Ottoman Sultan and the Qajar Shah (this was sanctioned by the sovereigns themselves, as the Turkish Qajars occasionally paid nominal deference to the suzerainity of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul). In this climate the close functional ties between the Arab and Persian ulama did not create a major political dilemma.
This situation was permanently altered by developments of the 20th century. Not only were political boundaries redrawn after WWI to clearly demarcate (majority Arab) Iraq from (majority Persian) Iran, but the new ideology of nationalism fundamentally reshaped the way people throughout the Middle East conceptualized the political communities within which they lived. Nationalism was embraced by the people of the Middle East in angry defiance of European colonialism. In the views of many Turkish, Arab, and other leaders, these groups had been left prey to foreign domination, oppression, and economic exploitation in part because, unlike their European antagonists, they were not sufficiently united. In response to what these leaders perceived to be a catastrophic crisis they embraced the ideal of nationalism as the last hope for the salvation of their people.
A nation-state differs conceptually from a dynastic realm in that it operates within clearly identifiable demographic and territorial boundaries. Membership in a nation, unlike that in a dynastic realm, is not a matter of degree (so that it was possible to be part-Ottoman subject, part Qajar subject), it is an all-or-nothing proposition (one is either Iraqi or Iranian, never both). A nation offers its citizens unequivocal protection against foreign enemies, but demands from them unequivocal loyalty.
The profundity of this mutual commitment leads naturally to the question of which criteria determines membership in a nation. If membership in a nation were wholly arbitrary one could hardly expect a robust commitment to its flourishing from its citizens. This fact has posed a real challenge to the fostering of nationalism in most majority Arab countries, as these countries did not, prior to their founding, have long histories of independent existence. The frontiers of most Arab nations were set by European diplomats in the wake of WWI, "national" identity was thus an almost wholly arbitrary product of historical circumstances. In these conditions, the fact of shared Arab ethnicity has taken on profound significance in the conceptual architecture of nationalism in many Middle Eastern countries. The saga of the Arab people and their struggle for autonomy and dignity (even before the onset of European colonialism many Arabs were forced to live under the political domination of non-Arabs such as the Ottoman Turks) provides much more compelling soil for the roots of personal commitment and loyalty than the shallow and somewhat arbitrary narrative of states like Jordan or Syria. Most Arabs are loyal to their nations, but this loyalty is founded on the assumption that the nation itself serves (at least in theory) the cause of Arab advancement.
This is especially true in Iraq, a "nation" cobbled together out of the territory of three Ottoman imperial provinces. In thinking about Iraq past and future the wonder is not that Iraq might be headed toward civil war, but that it has maintained its territorial integrity from its founding in 1920 until now. The Iraqi people are deeply divided along ethnic (75% Arab, 20% Kurd, 5% Turkoman, Assyrian et. al.) and sectarian (65% Shi'ite, 32% Sunni, 3% Christian) lines. The only force that has kept Iraq from disintegrating is Arab nationalism- the belief among Iraq's Arab majority that the nation stands for the furtherance and protection of Arab rights. Arab nationalism in Iraq is rooted in the same experience of colonialism that engendered it throughout the Arab world. It is deepened and intensified, however, by the fact that (unlike many Arab nations) Iraqis live in close proximity to (and under threat from) many non-Arab peoples along their borders. To the north are the Turks who were their former imperial masters, to the east are the Iranians with whom they fought a brutal eight-year war.
This last fact demonstrates especially well the hold of Arab nationalism among Iraq's people. Like Iraq, Iran is a majority Shi'ite nation (89% Shi'ite), and as I noted above the Shi'a communities of both nations are inextricably intertwined. Under the Ba'ath regime of Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), the practice of Shi'a Islam was brutally repressed (in large part because it's free practice requires interaction between Iraqi Shi'ites and their coreligionists in Iran). If Iraq's Shi'ite majority did not feel some loyalty to their nation there is no way to explain how Iraq could hold out for eight years against Iran, a nation with almost three times the population of Iraq. Had Iraqi Shi'ites sided with the Shi'a ulama in rising against their own government Iraq would certainly have been defeated by Iran. Iraq's strategic stalemate with Iran would not have been possible unless some significant portion of Iraqi Shi'ites had remained (at least provisionally) loyal to their nation. Since that loyalty ran completely counter to their religious sympathies, it dramatically illustrates the powerful sway that Arab nationalism holds over all Iraqi Arabs, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Against this context, one can appreciate the terribly ambiguous situation of Iraqi Shi'ite leaders such as Grand Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani. On the one hand the intrinsic political utopian impulses of Shi'a Islam make the establishment of an Iraqi theocracy strongly appealing to a man like Sistani. But given the inherent dynamic of the Shi'a ulama (its inexorable tendency to bleed across the Iraqi-Iranian frontier) the functional establishment of an Iraqi Shi'ite theocracy independent from that of Iran is a practical impossibility. As Shi'a ulama in Iraq and Iran are already functionally inseperable, a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq would perforce become united with (and most probably dominated by) that of Iran. This is a situation which the vast majority of Iraqis (even Shi'ite Iraqis) would not tolerate, as it would violently offend their deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism. The only other alternative would be a radical schism between the Shi'a ulama of Iraq and that of Iran, a possibility that would no doubt horrify a Shi'ite leader of Sistani's prestige and commitment (and which might, in any case, be impossible).
These considerations taken together cast much light on the very ambivalent stance of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who though he has kept an active hand in Iraqi politics continues to avow that he would not want Iraqi ulama to hold the same type of political authority that they do in Iran. One might doubt his sincerity in this regard, but Sistani is no fool, and he is no doubt aware of the forces and contingencies outlined above. There is nothing to guarantee either that Sistani will remain consistent in his stance or that some other Shi'ite leader (such as the notorious Moqtada al-Sadr) will not attempt an Islamic revolution like that of Iran. But given the powerfully paradoxical forces that hold sway within Iraqi culture and society the viablity of such a revolution would be very, very tenuous. Were Iraq to fall into civil war a faction would almost certainly emerge geared toward creating a Shi'ite theocracy, but given the irresoluble contradictions between that goal and the imperatives of Arab nationalism such a faction would not likely succeed in gathering the numbers and support it would require to prevail. There are many contingencies about which to worry in contemplating the future of Iraq, but the creation of a Shi'ite theocracy must be ranked very low on the list of probable outcomes.