Monday, September 21, 2015

Arab Liberals' Perspectives On The Arab Spring - Y. Feldner

by Y. Feldner

-- state and religion must be separated, and religious belief must be withdrawn from the public sphere and become, once again, a private and personal experience.

Iraqi politician and Shi'ite religious scholar Ayad Jamal Al-Din has emerged as a leading liberal voice in Arab media and politics, following the ousting of Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime. He espouses the separation of religion and state, advocates adherence to human and minority rights, in addition to individual liberties, and has been outspoken in his defiance of Al-Qaeda's use of terrorism and Iran's political influence in Iraq, at risk to his own life.

Jamal Al-Din, born in Najaf, Iraq in 1961, was involved in an anti-government protest at the age of 16, when Iraqi Shi'ites were prevented from performing their pilgrimage to Karbala. In 1979, he left Iraq to live in exile, spending most of his time in Iran, where he completed his religious studies. He then took up the position of imam for the Shi'ite community in Dubai in 1995, where he remained until the toppling of the Iraqi regime in 2003. Following his return to a post-Saddam Iraq, Jamal Al-Din joined Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National List coalition, and served as a parliament member. He later resigned from the List and founded a new political party, Al-Ahrar ("The Liberals"), which promoted his own reformist ideas. However, Al-Ahrar failed to win seats in the 2010 Iraqi parliament.

Jamal Al-Din combines his hawkish political positions with a liberal worldview of Arab and Muslim society. The future of a multi-sectarian and multi-ethnical society like Iraq's, he contends, lies with secularism and not with political Islam. Thus, state and religion must be separated, and religious belief must be withdrawn from the public sphere and become, once again, a private and personal experience. Jamal Al-Din believes that since the removal of the Baath regime, the nascent Iraqi democracy has fallen victim to the pernicious influence of reactionary regional powers.

Originally supporting the U.S. military presence in Iraq, believing that the democratization of Arab nations could be achieved only through Western intervention, Jamal Al-Din grew disenchanted and critical of American policy in the Middle East. His inspirational mid-2000s confidence in the democratic and liberal future of the region has been replaced by a fatalistic perspective about the radicalization of both the Sunni and Shi'ite camps, which are dominated by Al-Qaeda and Iran respectively. Believing that the Sunni-Shi'ite strife in the region might evolve into a genocide of the Shi'ites, Jamal Al-Din decided to support Bashar Al-Assad, whom he believed to be the only leader capable of averting such an outcome.[1]

Individual Liberties And Minority Rights

Jamal Al-Din believes the main problem of contemporary Muslim societies is that Islam has transformed from a personal spiritual experience into a rigid enforcement of codes and laws.The focus has shifted from God to the religious practices. In a TV interview, he once compared the religion of Islam to a car en route to Mecca. "Your goal is Mecca, not the car," he said. "If you start circling the car, worshipping and kissing it, you will never get to the Kaaba, which in itself is a symbol, a means. The goal is the Lord, not the Kaaba. If your goal, when making a pilgrimage, is merely the Kaaba, the Kaaba is no different from a pagan idol."[2]

Because religion is a personal experience, society and government should have no business imposing religious codes, even with regard to unequivocal injunctions like the Islamic prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. "Personally, I do not commit such a sin, which undoubtedly leads to Hell," Jamal Al-Din said. "But this is a personal conviction, which I do not impose on you or on anyone else. The others are free to do as they please."[3] According to Jamal Al-Din, individual liberties take precedence over religious norms. "People are free to do as they wish, and I respect any free human being," he said, adding that he despises a woman who wears a veil merely to get a job, but that he respects a woman who dons the veil out of her own choice in New York, for example, or who decides not to wear a veil even if she is in the holy city of Najaf, because "no religious commitment has any value if it is the result of duress."[4]

Separation Of Religion And State

Despite his status as a religious scholar, Ayad Jamal Al-Din advocates the separation of religion and state and the establishment of a secular regime. "Iraq can be ruled only by secularism," he said on Abu Dhabi TV in 2006, or else it is bound to disintegrate and be partitioned into separate Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish states. The only way to avoid this, he argued, is by rendering the country neutral – "an institution without color, taste, or smell that provides services to all citizens."[5] After all, he said, "a state does not pray, fast, or make pilgrimage. It is the individuals who do those things. A state has no religion."[6]

The leading argument made by those who support the instating of shari'a law and the establishment of an Islamic state is that Muslims are commanded to model their state after the Islamic state established by the Prophet Muhammad in Al-Madina, after his hijra from Mecca. Jamal Al-Din rejects this logic out of hand. The Prophet Muhammad, he noted, was infallible, while all modern clerics are regular human beings who are prone to error. Fourteen centuries of attempts to emulate the Prophet Muhammad's Islamic state of Al-Madina have yielded more wrongs than rights. The negative consequences of the social and administrative implementation of Islam outweigh the advantages, said Jamal Al-Din.[7] Therefore, it is not that the state should become a replica of the Islamic state of Al-Madina, but that the people should strive to march in the path outlined by the Prophet.

Other Islamic scholars, Sunni and Shi'ite alike, have also advocated the separation of religion and state.[8] But Ayad Jamal Al-Din is unique in basing his arguments on lessons learnt from the Islamic state founded by the Prophet Muhammad. He divides the inception of Islam into three phases: In pre-Islamic times, the polytheist Arab was the "Servant-of-Me," with no commitment other than meeting his urges and needs; in Mecca, prior to the hijra of the Prophet Muhammad to Al-Madina, the believing Arab was the "Servant-of-Him" – the servant of Allah; and in Al-Madina, the Arab became the "Servant-of-the-State."[9] While the Prophet Muhammad was living in Mecca, among his Quraysh tribe, he served as teacher and spiritual leader. He did not have an army, a police force, or a state. Thus, the people of Mecca who had chosen to follow the Prophet Muhammad were true believers. During his Al-Madina phase, the Prophet became the ruler of a state, with an army and police force, which enforced religious laws. This was when the "hypocrites" emerged. The hypocrites pretended to be Muslims, "out of greed for the Prophet's money or fear of his armies," but were, in fact, infidels in disguise. The hypocrites were a reaction to the ideological Islamic state, not to Islam itself.[10]

These hypocrites, declared Jamal Al-Din, "have gnawed away at the Islamic nation, and have tarnished the religion to this very day,"[11] and the people who are deterred by the religious coercion of the Islamist movements develop an aversion to religion itself.[12]

Conciliation And Accountability In Domestic Politics

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, all the tensions that had been muzzled by the Baath dictatorship were released. Jamal Al-Din saw great similarities between the secular, pan-Arab Baath ideology, which advocated for a united Arab state from Iraq to Morocco, and the Islamist ideologies of Sunnis and Shi'ites alike, which champion the eradication of all national borders and the establishment of a pan-Islamic state from Indonesia to Nigeria.[13] Both the Islamists and the Baathists were trying to override the pluralistic national identity that Jamal Al-Din had envisioned with a monolithic pan-Arab or pan-Islamic identity, thus sowing division rather than union within Arab society.

In Iraq of the 2000s, divisive sectarianism was on the rise, hampering efforts to unify Iraqis under the umbrella of a nation state. Jamal Al-Din was struggling to bring about a national conciliation that would emphasize national Iraqi sentiment over sectarian affiliation. He urged his fellow Shi'ites, who had gained the upper hand politically following the fall of the Baath regime, to refrain from taking advantage of their majority status and from curbing the liberties of the religious, sectarian, and social minorities. "I believe my freedom as a Shi'ite and as a religious person will never be complete unless I preserve the freedom of the Sunni, the Christian, the Jew, the Sabai, or the Yazidi," he argued in a debate on Lebanon's LBC TV network. "We will not be able to preserve the freedom of the mosque unless we preserve the freedom of entertainment clubs."[14]

Yet when it came to Saddam's Baath party and the criminal practices of its leaders, Jamal Al-Din's conciliatory tone was replaced by relentless and uncompromising belligerence. He adamantly opposed pardoning Baathists who had shed Iraqi blood, presenting an approach more reminiscent of the Nuremberg Trials than of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. On the eve of the 2010 elections, at a time when many candidates were disqualified for suspected involvement in crimes during the Baathist regime, Jamal Al-Din announced that he was planning to take legal measures – "in cold blood" – to bring about their execution: "If I become prime minister, I will kill every Baathist killer, even if he clings to the Kaaba. Not a single drop of Iraqi blood will go unpunished – whether it was shed by the previous regime or by the current militias. I will not let a single killer of Iraqis take another breath, even if they promise me heaven and earth."[15]

Jamal Al-Din viewed post-2003 Iraqi politicians as "mini-Saddams," obstructing the emergence of real unity and democracy. The old opposition leaders in Iraq – and, indeed, in the rest of the Arab world – were a replica of the dictators they were trying to overthrow, and the one flaw he could find in America's ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime was that it did not rid the Iraqis of those corrupt opposition leaders in the same fell swoop.[16]

Jamal Al-Din emerged as a staunch critic of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians, whom he viewed as henchmen working for Iran. When Ayad Allawi, who had shared Jamal Al-Din's opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq, sent a delegation to Tehran on the eve of the 2010 elections, Jamal Al-Din decided to resign from the Iraqi National List. He formed the Al-Ahrar Party and declared that if he was elected, he would rather deal with "an obvious collaborator with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps," like Al-Maliki, than support a covert one, like Allawi.[17]

Jamal Al-Din believed that some of the Shi'ite political leaders in Iran were worse than collaborators with Iran. "They are not mobilized by Iran," he said in an interview on Al-Arabiya TV in February 2010. "They ARE Iran."[18] The ideological, and perhaps psychological, identification of Shi'ite Iraqi leaders with Iran surfaced time and again, when these Iraqi leaders seemed to prefer the Iranian interest over the interests of their own people. Jamal Al-Din believed that Iran, in contrast, was "very pragmatic"[19] and would forever protect its own interests. In 2005, when Iranian soldiers conquered the disputed Fekkah oil well, Jamal Al-Din lambasted Iraqi leaders for their lukewarm reaction, stating that these leaders "must realize that there is one country called Iraq and another called Iran. Their relations with Iran must not come at the expense of the interests and stability of Iraq."[20]

The Case For Foreign Intervention

The post-9/11 American engagement in the Middle East has heated the debate in liberal Arab circles on whether foreign intervention was a legitimate – perhaps even desirable – means to advance democratic change in the region. Foreign intervention had many adversaries, especially when American diplomacy evolved into the deployment of fleets and troops.

But foreign intervention had its advocates as well, and no Arab reformist has been more unequivocal in supporting it than Ayad Jamal Al-Din. Particularly remarkable was Jamal Al-Din's wholehearted endorsement of military means in order to dispose of Saddam Hussein and other Arab dictators and in order to launch Western-style democracies in the Middle East. "Democracy can be established in our region only through force," he declared in 2006, "and only America can do it."[21] Moreover, Jamal Al-Din stressed the need for prolonging the American military presence in Iraq, in order to chaperone its nascent democracy and defend it from perils – domestic and foreign.

Jamal Al-Din believed that American military intervention in the Middle East was warranted not only because of the unavoidable security concerns dictated by surging global Islamist terrorism or a possible clandestine WMD program. Foreign intervention was, in his view, morally justified in light of the chronic tyranny that had taken root in the region. Only a few years before the Arab Spring had broken out, the peoples of the Middle East seemed to be in a political slumber, and the monarchs and the eternally-incumbent presidents seemed more interested in hereditary succession than in liberal democratic change. Thus, in the absence of signs heralding internal reform, Jamal Al-Din believed that American intervention was necessary in order to impose democratic reforms in the region.[22] Only the Americans, who had disposed of the Saddam regime, seemed serious in their democratization designs. 

"We must maintain human rights, which we have neglected, for 1,300 or 1,400 years, to this day – until the arrival of the Americans, the Christians, the English, the Zionists, or the Crusaders – call them what you will," Jamal Al-Din bellowed at fellow guests in a TV debate. "They came to teach you, oh followers of Muhammad, how to respect human rights."[23]

In April 2003, Jamal Al-Din participated in the Al-Nasiriya meeting, the first attempt to organize the Iraqi opposition after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, in preparation of the establishment of an interim government. In the meeting, Jamal Al-Din thanked the United States and Britain "for assisting the Iraqi people" in their liberation from tyranny. "No matter what the goals of this war were, and no matter what its consequences will be, getting rid of Saddam is the utmost blessing."[24] Thus, the official casus belli – namely, Saddam Hussein's assumed WMD program – were of marginal importance; the international community had, in Jamal Al-Din's view, "a moral obligation" to intervene militarily in order to liberate Iraq thus introducing modern-age democracy. At the same time, the peoples of the Middle East had a moral obligation to seek and support such intervention. During a 2006 interview on a Lebanese TV show, Jamal Al-Din further expounded on this:

"Blessed be America for giving Saddam a good kick, sending him straight into the abyss of jail. Blessed be America for giving Mullah Omar a good slap, sending him straight into the garbage bin of history and into the dunghills of oblivion. These people were tiny idols, who humiliated their peoples and turned Allah's property into states and His servants into slaves. It was the moral obligation of America, as the greatest and strongest power in this world, to topple these rodents, who treated their people ferociously... We did not know what democracy was until America brought it, doing it against our will."[25]

Jamal Al-Din believed that the liberation of Iraq was not sufficient. The political culture in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East was not ready for democracy without Western guidance. While democratic institutions such as parliaments and elections may be instated in a relatively short period, the absorption of the values of democracy requires more time. He compared the Iraqi people to a bird born in a cage – "the bird's father and mother were born in the same cage, and so were its ancestors for the past 1,400 years." Now, the bird has been released, but it does not know how to use its wings. "We do not know what to do with the values of freedom, because we were born slaves, the sons of slaves – for the past 1,400 years, with this inferior culture," said Jamal Al-Din. "This is why we do not know what to do with the modern values of democracy."[26]
Jamal Al-Din's support of foreign intervention did not stem solely from its promise to implement Western values. He also used utilitarian argumentation in his advocacy of American intervention, believing that a significant American presence in Iraq would help to fend off the ideological expansionism and political clout of Iran. If the United States withdrew its forces, he feared, Iraq would fall prey to Iranian influence and would eventually be engulfed by endless sectarian confrontations.[27]

Economically, Jamal Al-Din argued, Iraq could only benefit from tight relations with a superpower like the United States, which "spends $37 billion annually on toilet paper alone."[28] He defied Islamist and pan-Arab nationalist naysayers "who whine about Iraq's natural resources and oil," claiming that the Americans had come to plunder them. These naysayers, he said, had never enjoyed the fruits of those natural resources, which were plundered by the previous tyrannical rulers.[29] Moreover, if the U.S. was, in fact, economically motivated to intervene in Iraq, this, in Jamal Al-Din's view, would constitute a blessing rather than a curse. These American economic interests would perpetuate U.S. involvement in the region, leading to a transformation in Arab society and politics, to the benefit of the Arabs themselves. A prosperous economy and democracy, he believes, go hand in hand.[30]

As late as February 2010, ten months before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, Jamal Al-Din believed that the Obama administration would uphold the promise made by President George W. Bush and maintain an American presence in Iraq. "The U.S. brought the seed of democracy and planted it in a land alien to democracy," he reassured the Iraqis. "It will continue to cultivate this seed until the tree grows and offers shade to the region in its entirety."[31] Five months later, however – with the resounding collapse of his liberal political party in the parliamentary elections – he became disgruntled with the policies of the new Obama administration, which sought nothing but withdrawal from the region, leaving Iraq – and Iran – to its own destructive devices.[32]

Between The Al-Qaeda Rock And The Iranian Hard Place 

Jamal Al-Din, who championed Western intervention, was extremely hostile to the notion of regional intervention within Iraqi affairs, especially by Saudi Arabia and Iran, believing that the meddling by regional dictators in Iraqi politics was a clear obstacle on the path to democracy. Jamal Al-Din urged Iraqis to spurn the influence and money of "both catastrophes" – the Iranian Rule-of-the-Jurisprudent regime and Saudi Wahhabism.[33] Jamal Al-Din even went as far as to threaten retaliation against the Arab regimes in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, which he believed were responsible for financing and facilitating Al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks in Iraq in the 2000s. His fiercest criticism, however was reserved for Iran, for attempting to export the Khomeini revolution and for interfering in Iraq's domestic affairs. 

Jamal Al-Din's criticism of Iran is rooted in Shi'ite ideology. He rejects the Rule of the Jurisprudent (Wilayat Al-Faqih) – the Iranian constitutional principle that provides the supreme religious leader with custodianship over the people. According to this principle, the "Jurisprudent" – Ayatollah Khomeini and, after his death, Ayatollah Khamenei – were awarded authority that exceeds that of elected officials.

In Twelver Shia, it is believed that the 12th imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan Al-Mahdi, who disappeared in the 9th century, is the Mahdi who will reappear at the End of Times as the savior of humankind. The Shia is "the nation of waiting," anticipating the arrival of the Mahdi, Jamal Al-Din explains.

But,"what if the Mahdi does not come in a million years?"[34] asks Jamal Al-Din. Throughout the ages, he argues, Shi'ite scholars have agreed that as long as the Imam Mahdi is in a state of occultation, people should be ruled according to "a rational, civil law," and that the establishment of a religious regime before the arrival of the Mahdi "is as forbidden as drinking alcohol."[35]
It was Ayatollah Khomeini who challenged this consensus by introducing the principle of "Absolute Guardianship of the Jurisprudent." According to this principle, as long as the Imam Mahdi is in a state of occultation, the Jurisprudent assumes custodianship, extending to all the responsibilities of the Imam; the Jurisprudent becomes, as Jamal Al-Din puts it, "Allah upon Earth, more or less."[36]

Jamal Al-Din's argument against the Rule of the Jurisprudent is derived from the inception of Shia Islam. Shi'ites believe that Ali bin Abi Taleb was the rightful successor as imam, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Consequently, the Shi'ites reject the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman, who preceded the Imam Ali. Jamal Al-Din contends that the only thing that differentiates Sunnis from Shi'ites is that the Shi'ites reject the government of Abu Bakr, who was not infallible yet took upon himself all the authorities of the infallible Prophet Muhammad. Fourteen centuries later, in the wake of the 1979 triumph of the Iranian Revolution in Iran, "one Shi'ite jurisprudent, Khomeini, who everybody concurs was not infallible, took upon himself all the authorities of the Infallible."[37]

"To my understanding," Jamal Al-Din argues, "the rule is reserved for the 12 infallible imams only. We don't have a 13th imam called Khomeini, or a 14th imam called Khamenei, or a 15th, who will come after him."[38]

Jamal Al-Din developed a contentious position towards Iran, which, he believes, was employing doubletalk vis-à-vis with Iraq. Although Iran was the first country to recognize the Iraqi Governing Council, and despite the political process in Iraq following the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the IRGC and Iranian intelligence, thus contended Jamal Al-Din, were acting covertly in order to sabotage that very process. 

"Iraq also has cards up its sleeve that it can use against Iran," Jamal Al-Din warned on the eve of the 2010 elections. He declared that if he won the elections, he would use the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq and other opposition groups against Iran unless the Islamic Republic ceased to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs: "If words do not deter them – just like they train militias, we can mobilize the Mojahedin-e Khalq against Iran... Any neighboring country – Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Turkey – that destabilizes Iraq's security – if I have the power, I will use these methods to destabilize their domestic security. If they treat us with respect, we will respond in kind, and if they destabilize our security, we will respond in kind as well."[39]

Both his political hawkishness and his liberal worldview have turned Jamal Al-Din into the enemy of many, and he has survived a series of assassination attempts over the years. Jamal Al-Din always believed that it was not Sunni Jihadists, but rather Iraqi Shi'ites acting at the behest of Iran, who were responsible for these assassination attempts.

"Al-Qaeda does not miss the target, so it was definitely not Al-Qaeda,"[40] he half-jested after a failed assassination attempt in 2007. 

"Iran does not tolerate any Shi'ite voice opposed to the Rule of the Jurisprudent. They are willing to tolerate it when it comes from a Communist or a liberal, but not when it comes from a Shi'ite man of religion,"[41] he said another failed attempt on his life in 2011.

The "Shi'ite Holocaust"

The aftermath of the Arab Spring has ushered in some considerable changes on the ground, as well as in the media. Liberal intellectuals like Jamal Al-Din, who had a significant presence on major Arab TV channels in the mid-2000s, have virtually vanished from the screen. While countries in the region disintegrate politically, and as a sectarian war escalates in Syria and Iraq, liberal discourse has lost its public appeal.

Even for sworn optimists, Jamal Al-Din's vision of a Western-style secular democracy seemed farfetched and utopian against the backdrop of the regional upheaval. His TV appearances became increasingly rare, and in his occasional essays posted on the Internet, he was compelled to reexamine his ideas.

Two years after his retirement from politics following his defeat in the 2000 elections, Jamal Al-Din resurfaced, positioning himself squarely in the camp of Bashar Al-Assad. In a November 2012 public letter[42] to his sworn enemy of the past, Nouri Al-Maliki, Jamal Al-Din called upon the Iraqi prime minister to implement the Joint Defense Agreement in order to protect the territorial integrity of Syria. In the same letter, Jamal Al-Din stated that Iraq has a moral, political, and legal obligation to intervene on behalf of stability in Syria and in support of the Syrian people and "its legitimate government." If Syria disintegrates, Iraq will follow suit, he warned. "The religious terror that storms Syria will knock on our doors if we do not stand united against hatred and rancor."

Jamal Al-Din was now advocating the same belligerent tactics with which he had once threatened Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, directed toward a new enemy – Turkey, which sponsors some of the opposition groups fighting the Al-Assad regime. He advocated a carrot-and-stick approach: punishing Turkey economically and by means of the PKK, while rewarding Jordan with free Iraqi oil in order to dissuade it from the anti-Assad coalition.

Jamal Al-Din believed that the fall of the Al-Assad regime would have a lethal snowball effect on the Middle East. Therefore, he argued, a pragmatic blind eye must be turned to the Syrian president's relations with Iran, "despite the filthy nature of that relation."[43] Viewing Bashar Al-Assad as the last barrier to the formation of a Sunni-Islamist empire in the Middle East, he wrote that the options are "few and extremely bitter." "Either the secular dictatorship in Syria survives or we will help in the establishment of a new Othman Muslim-Brotherhood empire."[44]
Jamal Al-Din's support of Al-Assad has become total. In another public letter,[45] this time addressed to Bashar Al-Assad himself, Jamal Al-Din went so far as to declare that "humanity owes a debt of gratitude to proud Syria, its proud and persevering people, its wise leadership, and to you, oh triumphant leader." In his letter's conclusion, Jamal Al-Din warned the Syrian president, "out of love for you and for beloved Syria," to refrain from granting amnesty to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, "because they are more dangerous, sly, and hateful than Al-Qaeda's ignoramuses."[46]

The remarkable and enthrallment in which Jamal Al-Din held Bashar Al-Assad did not go unnoticed by the pundits. "What is the difference between the angel leader Bashar Al-Assad and the murderous criminal Saddam Hussein?" mused columnist Fawaz Al-Fawaz,[47] stating that Jamal Al-Din was driven by sectarian motives to write an "ode" to Bashar Al-Assad.

Jamal Al-Din's admittedly-awkward praise of Bashar Al-Assad reflects his new priorities, dictated by the sectarian war and the rise of the Sunni Jihadi movements. The top priority has now become averting an imminent Shi'ite genocide. Jamal Al-Din believes that the fall of the Al-Assad regime would result in the annihilation of the Alawites, and that the Iraqi Shi'ites would be next. In his letter to Al-Maliki, he wrote: "The Alawites will not present their necks to be slaughtered once again. They were subjected to several holocausts in the past and will not allow a repetition of this dark history."[48]

His fear for the survival of Shia Muslims in the region is rooted in the traditional balance of power between the Shi'ite minority and Sunni majority. The pro-active militancy of modern Shi'ite leaders – Ruhollah Khomeini followed by Ali Khamenei, Hassan Nasrallah, Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi and others –is uncharacteristic of the traditional passivity of the Shi'ite spirit. While the Sunnis have formed global empires, the Shi'ites, "the nation of waiting," were waiting for the Mahdi to resurface.

The disparity between traditional passivity and modern belligerency among the Shi'ites is best exemplified in the different characters of the two largest centers of Shite erudition: the seminars of Najaf and of Qom. The Arab media reported that the leading Najaf authority, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, issued a ruling – in opposition to the Qom ayatollahs - that Iraqi Shi'ites should refrain from joining the war in Syria. Jamal Al-Din explained that Najaf and Qom represent two different approaches: The tendency of Najaf is to avoid acute political disputes, which involve blood and killing.[49]

In light of the sectarian escalation and the continuous attacks on Shi'ite holy places in Syria, the peaceful nature of the Najaf religious leadership has become increasingly irrelevant. Iraqi Shi'ites have become more extreme than even the Qom ayatollahs themselves, explained Jamal Al-Din.
In 2005, he was optimistic regarding the independence of Qom from Najaf and the general removal of Iranian influence in Iraq. Despite Shi'ite Iraqi politicians behaving "as if they were Ahmadinejad's cousins," the public was not enamored by the Iranian ayatollahs, and people did not hang posters of Khamenei in their homes.[50] But out of fear for their lives, and rage over the attacks on Shi'ite holy places in Syria, the Iraqi Shi'ites have turned to the only existing Shi'ite military power – Iran. By supporting the Sunni militancy, Turkey and the Arab countries have been pushing moderate Shi'ites into the arms of Iran and the Rule of the Jurisprudent,[51] thus debilitating the moderate religious leadership of Najaf. When Sunnis in Syria chant: "We will dispatch the Christians to Beirut and the Alawites in coffins," explained Jamal Al-Din, "they ignite fire in the hearts of the (Shi'ite) people, who are terrified."


In 2012-2013, driven by a premonition of an imminent "Shi'ite holocaust," Ayad Jamal Al-Din felt compelled to resurface from his political reclusion and assert his support for Iranian proxies like Al-Maliki and Al-Assad. But with the passing of time, Jamal Al-Din has found his liberal voice again, focusing on the need for a secular regime in Iraq. Despite the aggravation of the Sunni-Islamist threat with the invasion of ISIS into Iraq in 2014, he criticized the leaders of Iraq for dealing with this threat through intensified Shi'ite sectarianism. Instead of uniting Iraqis in the war against ISIS, he said, these Shi'ite leaders launched an anti-Sunni war under Shi'ite slogans. He compared Iraq's Shi'ite leaders, who had been handed the rule in their country, to children who get a pile of toys and break them, because they do not know what to do with them.[52]

The 2010 elections have proven that the liberal ideas of Ayad Jamal Al-Din have limited political presence in Iraq of today, which, like Syria, is overwhelmed with blood-soaked sectarianism. But the worldview of this Shi'ite scholar should be considered in an historical context. When Iraq and the entire region eventually emerge from the sectarian feud in which they are engulfed and from the attempts of political Islam to take the helm from the collapsing tyrannical regimes, the fight for true democracy and secular governance will be picked up by others where Ayad Jamal Al-Din has left it.

*Y. Feldner is Director of MEMRI TV and MEMRI Vice President for Operations.

[2] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.
[3] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.
[4] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.
[5] Abu Dhabi TV, August 19, 2006.
[6] Abu Dhabi TV, August 19, 2006.
[7] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.
[8] For example, Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of Islamic law at Qatar University, and Shi'ite Lebanese scholar Sayyed Muhammad Hassan Al-Amin, speaking on Murr TV (Lebanon), June 29, 2009; Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), August 12, 2010; Ali Al-Amin, on Future TV (Lebanon), April 26, 2007.
[9] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), November 4-18, 2010.
[10] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), November 4-18, 2010.
[11] Abu Dhabi TV, August 19, 2006.
[12] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.
[13] Alaan TV (UAE), January 9, 2010.
[14] LBC TV (Lebanon), July 31, 2005.
[15] Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq), February 14, 2010.
[16] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), December 28, 2006.
[17] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2010.
[18]Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2010.
[19] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), January 3, 2005.
[20] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), January 3, 2005.
[21] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), December 28, 2006.
[22] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2005.
[23] LBC TV (Lebanon), July 31, 2005.
[24], posted June 27, 2013.
[25] LBC TV, September 10, 2006.
[26] LBC TV (Lebanon), September 10, 2006.
[27] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), December 28, 2006.
[28] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2010.
[29] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2005.
[30] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), December 28, 2006.
[31] Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq), February 9, 2010.
[32] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), July 12, 2010.
[33] Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq), February 9, 2010.
[34] Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq), February 23, 2010.
[35] Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq), February 23, 2010.
[36] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), November 4-18, 2010
[37] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007
[38] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), August 5, 2011
[39] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2010.
[40]Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007
[41] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), August 5, 2011
[42] November 14, 2012.
[43] February 26, 2013.
[44] February 26, 2013.
[45] February 23, 2013.
[46] February 24, 2013.
[47] February 24, 2013.
[48] November 14, 2012.
[49] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), July 21, 2013.
[50] Al-Arabiya TV (Saudi Arabia), January 3, 2005.
[51]Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV (Saudi Arabia), July 21, 2013.
[52] Al-Baghdadiya TV (Iraq), July 13, 2015.

Y. Feldner is Director of MEMRI TV and MEMRI Vice President for Operations.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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