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What Do You Know About Sistani's Fatwa?

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Co-authored by Abbas Kadhim* and Luay Al Khatteeb**

Before the security collapse in Mosul, the conventional wisdom among Iraq experts was that Iraq had two options to guarantee security when faced with challenges above the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF): the United States and Iran. Following this thinking, many of the critics of President Obama's reluctant show of support for Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki government argued that the slow U.S. response will force Al-Maliki to resort to Iran and might even open the door for Iranian military intervention. As the U.S. placed impossible political conditions before providing any help and Iran had elected to wait for a more suitable timing before offering assistance, the recur came in the most timely fashion from an unexpected source. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a religious edict (fatwa) calling on Iraqi "Citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places."

Naturally, the fatwa was headed by millions of Iraqis, who consider Grand Ayatollah Sistani a spiritual leader above any doubt. The numbers were more than enough to turn the disastrous collapse of morale into a moment of unshaken confidence. Tens of thousands who are serving in the Iraqi military and police often show questionable commitment to the defense of their country because of their mixed ethnic and sectarian loyalties and poor preparation, as we have seen in Mosul. Grand Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa has given a green light to form a truly committed second army with a clearly defined doctrine.

However, not all interested parties were as positive in their response as the people. Media outlets of some Sunni Arab countries have unjustly attacked the fatwa as an irresponsible move that may enable sectarian violence and other Sunni scholars went as far as calling it a war declaration against the Sunnis. In fact, the fatwa was a call to all Iraqis to defend their country and the volunteers included all factions in various Iraqi provinces. The skepticism raised caused the representatives of Sistani to issue an explanatory addendum to clarify the meaning of the fatwa so as not to leave any chance for misunderstanding. The fatwa also caused some undeclared disappointment in Iran, whose role was rendered less necessary than it originally had been when ISIS first attacked. This is evidenced by the lack of Iranian official enthusiasm about it.

In the United States, Iraq experts and research institutions reacted to the fatwa in ways that reflected their levels of expertise. Many of them, not knowing what it all meant, ran to their experienced colleagues to have it explained before going on Twitter to enlighten their followers. However, the most unexpected reaction came from General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in a press conference, "the call that the Ayatollah Sistani put out for volunteers is being answered and it complicates the situation, frankly, a bit." If anything, General Dempsey should have welcomed the fatwa because any further collapse in the Iraqi security forces would have exposed further the poor job he did when he served in Iraq "for two years in August 2005 to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces as Commanding General of MNSTC-I" as his official biography indicates.

What is Sistani's Fatwa?

The Shia are generally very cautious when speaking about Jihad. The fundamental difference between them and the Sunnis on this subject is that the Shia consider the call for offensive jihad the prerogative of the infallible Imam of the time. In current times, the Imam is the Mahdi - the Shia believe he disappeared in 874 AD and will return at the end of time. In his absence, the religious scholars can only call for a defensive jihad when an aggressive enemy attacks their community or sacred places. While the Sunnis give the decision to call for offensive or defensive jihad to the political ruler and the scholars of religion. Being consistent with this doctrine, Shia religious scholars rarely called for jihad. The few previous calls for jihad were all calls for defense, as it was the case with the call for jihad to resist the British invasion of Iraq in 1914. The current fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Sistani was no different. It was clearly indicating that the call was to "Citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places."

Like all previous occasions, Sistani's fatwa was not a sectarian call for jihad. For in 1914, the fatwa by Sayyid Kadhim Al-Yazdi was to defend Iraq by fighting by the side of Ottoman generals, although the Sunni Ottomans were major oppressors of the Shia. Sistani too called on all Iraqis to defend Iraq and its citizens. The first line of defense is not the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but Sunni Mosul and Tikrit, whose people have been hit hard by the crisis and great numbers of their families became internally displaced refugees. Furthermore, Sistani directed all interested volunteers to enlist in the army, according to the law and to fill the deficit in the Iraqi Security Forces. He also made the objective crystal clear: "the number of volunteers does not need to exceed the sufficient force that can accomplish the objective of protecting Iraq, its people, and its sacred places."

Finally, it is worth noting that Sistani has rejected many calls in February 2006 to issue a Fatwa for Jihad after the bombing of the Samara Holy Shrines, a sacred mausoleum of Shia Imams. Much of the recent outcry against the fatwa, is based on western ignorance of the history of the Arab people and their faith. Much more, it is a failure of both ISIS and the west to recognize that Islam is the faith of peace and righteous deeds, whether you are Shia or Sunni, especially in this holy month of Ramadan. The fatwa is not about revenge or attack but the need to defend religious freedoms, sacred places and land from those whose aim is remove peaceful Muslims' freedoms to believe in Islam as they currently do, remove their shrines and to remove them from their lands. This aggressive ideology and behavior of ISIS are unfortunately far too common in the Arab world now and far removed from our true faith and the teachings of Islam.

*Senior Fellow, SAIS, Johns Hopkins
**Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Centre

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