Ayatollah Sistani for Nobel Peace Prize?
Posted March 25, 2014
Translator(s)Pascale Menassa | Author Ali Mamouri
Journalist Colin Freeman wrote a March 4 article for The Telegraph's blog titled, “Forget Obama and the EU. The man who should really have the Nobel Peace Prize is an obscure Iraqi cleric.” In it, he offered up several pieces of evidence to support his theory that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize should be given to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, thus stirring a global campaign calling for Sistani’s nomination for the prize. This was not the first time that the idea has come up. In 2005, several parties, including specialists on Iraqi affairs and several Iraqi minorities, proposed this idea. The same year, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made the case for a Nobel for Sistani, writing, "If some kind of democracy takes root [in Iraq], it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the dominant Iraqi Shiite communal leader, Ayatollah Sistani."
Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been increasingly critical of the Iraqi government, is getting support for a bid for Nobel Peace Prize.
It is not surprising to see Sistani’s name come up for the prize, given his prominent role in deterring religious extremism, promoting forgiveness and peace and acting wisely during Iraq's occupation and sectarian strife. His behavior made him Iraq’s safety valve, and his absence in times of distress would have led to far worse humanitarian catastrophes in Iraq.
What is strange, though, is that these demands coincided with a violent attack against Sistani from state authorities and radical clerics. Media outlets reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had expressed his rejection of what he called the “interference of some foreign religious references,” adding, “Despite our respect for them, this is unacceptable.” Maliki made these statements during a meeting with Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari in early March regarding the personal status draft law, to which Sistani objected over possible violations of minority and human rights. Despite these objections, the cabinet recently passed the draft law for final voting before the parliament.
Maliki attacked Shiite clerics who strongly opposed the draft. Those clerics included Sistani, the three other religious references in Najaf and Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr living in al-Kadhimiya near Baghdad. Maliki felt that Iraq needs a purely Iraqi religious reference, and by that he meant the radical cleric Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, who firmly backed the proposed legislation.
Yaqoubi started a scathing campaign against Sistani once the disagreements over the proposed law surfaced. In his most recent statement in early March, Yaqoubi described the stances of Shiite references and Sistani himself as “discordant voices that should be silenced.” In Iraqi culture, this means completely destroying a person and silencing his voice.
Al-Monitor called several sources close to Maliki to verify the media's revelations about his attack on Sistani. The sources confirmed the news and added that the tensions between Maliki and Sistani began after the latter refused to welcome any government delegation starting three years ago. By doing so, Sistani wanted to express his disapproval of the spreading corruption in the Iraqi government and its failure to fulfill its duties in providing security and other services.
The tension peaked recently when Sistani openly criticized Iraqi officials and asked the Iraqi people to carefully distinguish the good from the corrupt in the upcoming elections.
Under such circumstances, nominating Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize would mean a lot, not only for Iraqi society, but for the whole region. Such a decision might shore up the reconciliation and moderation efforts in a highly flammable country and region, and might weaken the radical front both politically and religiously and prevent it from implementing its sectarian and extremist agendas.
Let us imagine what would have happened if Sistani hadn’t been present. The sectarian crisis in Iraq would have led to bloodier massacres and would have bred real civil wars between sectarian regions. The situation in Syria would have also been a lot worse. Sistani forbade his followers from going to fight there, and avowed his support for the decisions of the Syrian people without prioritizing the sectarian factor. As a result, massive numbers of ardent Shiites who were enraged by the radical Sunnis’ behavior toward their fellow Shiites and sanctuaries obeyed the fatwa of their religious guide and refrained from going to battle. Furthermore, in Sistani’s absence, Iraq would have become subject to the radical religious rule of religious parties. However, Sistani put his foot down by strongly refusing that Sharia be imposed on society and by defending the civil identity of the Iraqi state.
It is absolutely false that Sistani has radical religious views, although this has been claimed. For instance, Freeman reported that Sistani had issued a fatwa calling for homosexuals to be killed. However, Sistani has never issued a fatwa to implement Sharia-related punishment on people who violate Sharia. Sistani considers, as per jurisprudence, that neither the Islamic jurist nor any other person has the authority to implement these punitive measures, as they are restricted to the Prophet or anyone directly assigned by him.
This does not mean that Sistani is playing the role of a secular figure that defends absolute freedoms. His role must be understood in its clerical context. Likewise, we cannot expect the pope to act like Voltaire or Jean Paul Sartre. In fact, Sistani’s importance stems from two specific points:
First, he preserves religious devoutness by considering it a personal affair that should not be imposed on society. Second, he forbids the use of violence for religious and sectarian reasons and promotes forgiveness, love and peace among all sects of Iraqi society. Moreover, he represents an alternative to the Shiite velayat-e-faqih. Any weakness in Sistani’s stance would strengthen his radical counterpart that is linked to the religious crises and human rights violations in the region.
Given this importance and the unique role he plays in Iraq, Sistani is a strong candidate for the award. With instability across the region, especially in Iraq and Syria, an international endorsement of Sistani as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize would show firm and wide backing for his efforts and give the forces of stability much needed support.
Forget Obama and the EU. The man who should really have the Nobel Peace Prize is an obscure Iraqi cleric
By Colin Freeman World Last updated: March 4th, 2014
With the Oscars over, shortlists are now being drawn up for that other big awards ceremony for the great and the good. The beginning of March is when the Norwegian Nobel Committee starts considering nominations for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the winner to be announced in October.
If that seems like a long time, bear in mind that just like the Oscars, the judges in the Nobel Prize have their work cut out these days, sifting through all kinds of nominations that are far more about politics than peace.
Would you nominate this man? Edward Snowden
Gone are the years where the award would simply go to some statesman who'd worked behind the scenes to end some long-term conflict. These days, a far more flexible definition of peace is deployed. On the 2014 list, for example, is the whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been nominated by a Norwegian socialist for re-introducing "trust and transparency in global security policies." Has he? I don't think anyone's told Vladimir Putin.
Then in 2009, the prize went to a newly-elected President Obama, long before he'd had a chance to prove himself in bringing peace to Syria or stopping World War III in Ukraine. At least, though, Mr Obama had the humility to sound surprised about winning it. Unlike the EU, which, when given the prize in 2012 for promoting "democracy and human rights," issued a press release describing it as the "the strongest possible recognition."
Indeed, given the number of peacemaking gongs they've notched up already, one can't help thinking that the the EU and US should be wiping the floor with Mr Putin over Ukraine. How can he possibly resist such pacifist expertise? Shouldn't he be out there in Sebastopol already, shoving flowers into his soldiers' gun barrels? Maybe, in the peace and love spirit, Mr Obama should revert to his old drug habit and pass Mr Putin a spliff… in which case, bring in also Uruguay's President José Mujica, who is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee this year for legalising marijuana.
Yet those who cling to the unfashionable idea that Peace Prize nominees should have some track record in stopping people killing should not despair. There are still plenty of worthy candidates out there, and I can think of one myself. His nomination papers would read roughly as follows:
A [ man ] who has preached peace [ and ] between two warring sides. A man who has urged his people never to retaliate, even when provoked by the murders of thousands of their men, women and children. A man who lives quietly and modestly, who seeks neither personal gain nor political office – much less any recognition via a peace prize.
No, I'm not talking about a posthumous award for Nelson Mandela (he won it in 1993). Instead, the man I have in mind is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest ranking Shia Muslim cleric in Iraq, who has done arguably more than anyone to turn the country away from all-out civil war.
Grand Ayatollah who? No, you may never have heard of him. Unlike some Iraqi religious leaders, he doesn't make a habit of going on television and waving a Kalashnikov around. Nor has he ever been pictured with Bush or Blair. Indeed, to my knowledge, he has never consented to meet a single Western politician.
Instead, the 83-year-old mullah just gets quietly got on with his job, living in a modest house down a side street in the holy city of Najaf, and issuing various edicts for his followers, who make up the vast majority of moderate Iraqi Shias.
True, some of these edicts are not very progressive as far as the average Scandinavian Nobel prize judge is concerned. Like most Shia clerics, Sistani doesn't approve of dancing or drinking. And in 2006, he issued a fatwah calling for homosexuals to be killed "in the most severe way" (it was later retracted, with some claiming it was issued erroneously by an aide).
But by Iraqi standards, he's been an outstanding voice of moderation, peace and tolerance, without whom the country would probably be a far bloodier place than it already is.
To get an idea of this, you have to go back to just after the US invasion, when the ex-Baathists of Iraq's Sunni minority formed their unholy alliance with the Sunni zealots of Al-Qaeda. While killing Americans was one of their priorities, their other real passion was killing Shias, whom they viewed not just as US collaborators but as apostates too.
In the decade since, the Shia community has suffered the most appalling provocation. Most of the car bombs that have gone off in Baghdad over the years have been targeted at Shia neighbourhoods, killing thousands. Sunni death squads regularly ambush Shia pilgrims as they head to Sistani's city of Najaf, turning the annual holy festivals into a ritual slaughter. In 2006, al-Qaeda also bombed the Shia holy shrine at Samarra, an act roughly the equivalent to destroying St Peter's Basilica.
Yet throughout all this bloodshed, Sistani has beseeched ordinary Shias not to retaliate. No, he has not been entirely successful. In the year that followed shrine attack, a low-level Sunni-Shia civil war broke out, with tens of thousands dying in tit-for-tat violence.
But as with so many things in Iraq, the horrors that actually took place were nothing compared to how bad it could have been. In telling his fellow Iraqis to turn the other cheek, sometimes when it was quite literally stained with their loved one's blood, Sistani has helped averted all-out disaster, and is credited as such by many Western diplomats. He continues in this role today, as a resurgent al-Qaeda continues to re-ignite the civil war.
What makes Sistani all the more statesmanlike, though, is that he preaches peace while getting precious little thanks for it from those around him. Fellow Shias accuse him of being too timid in the face of Sunni aggression. Al-Qaeda hate him for unsportingly refusing to join in their sectarian civil war. But these are not the only matters on which he has gone against the grain. During the American occupation, he refused to ever sanction attacks on US troops, despite the street cred this would have won him in some Iraqi circles. And to the irritation of his fellow Shia mullahs in neighbouring Iran, he remains resolutely of the "quietist" school of Islam, which says religion has no place in government.
Yet unlike Mandela or the Dalai Lama, this reclusive, media-unfriendly cleric has no armies of bein-pensant wellwishers in the West. Indeed, the man who has arguably done more than anyone else for Middle Eastern peace has virtually no recognition among the keffiyah-wearing classes.
True, a group of Iraqi Christians nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, for giving "Muslims all around the globe a good example how to follow peaceful ways". But to my knowledge, he's never made the shortlist, and today, rather than going on global lecture tours, he's still holed up in that alleyway in Najaf, trying to bring peace to Iraq.
In other words, perhaps he's just a bit too "quietist" to be a modern Nobel Peace Prize winner…