In an act not seen since 2003, an Iraqi politician has criticized the Shiite religious authority in Najaf, accusing it of seeking to dominate the state. The criticism triggered a strong reaction in political and cultural circles, even more harsh than in the religious ones.
The politician in question is State of Law coalition MP Izzat al-Shahbandar, who used to be close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Before that, Shabandar was an MP in the rival Iraqiya coalition. He then switched to the prime minister’s coalition, but lost in the last parliamentary elections. When Maliki became prime minister, he gave his parliamentary seat to Shahbandar.
In two consecutive press statements in the first week of August, Shahbandar said, “The religious authority [in Najaf] is trying to [take the place of the state’s authority] by appealing to people’s emotions. The religious authority and most clerics have huge financial resources. Who holds them accountable? Which authority oversees the disbursement of [the religious authority’s] financial resources?”
Although Maliki has distanced himself from Shahbandar’s statements and gave orders for Shahbandar to stop speaking in the name of the State of Law coalition, it is likely that Shahbandar did not act out of his accord, but rather on behalf of the coalition. He indicated so when he justified his criticisms against the religious authority as coming after “the religious authority and its representatives had disregarded in their latest speeches the Iraqi state, its politicians and officials, and accused them of having no conscience.” That was a clear reference to the Najaf authority stepping up its rhetoric over the past year against the political elite, especially the government, due to the continued failure to maintain security, provide public services and improve standards of living. Over the past two years, major Najaf figures refused to receive political leaders participating in the government because the latter broke their electoral promises.
In recent months, there has been increased criticism of Maliki’s government and the entire political class. Two senior representatives of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been taking turns expressing Najaf’s positions during the Friday sermons in Karbala. In the two weeks before Shahbandar's statements, one of those representatives, Ahmed Safi, angrily said that the people have lost hope that state officials would be able to reform themselves. He said, “The ordinary citizen [has despaired] because of the many crises and the indiscriminate killings and bombings.”
A week before that, another representative, Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, strongly condemned the state’s laxity, which has reached a point where the Islamic State of Iraq (an al-Qaeda branch) was able to easily free hundreds of its men detained in Baghdad prisons. Karbalai said, “The operation of smuggling prisoners out of Abu Ghraib and Taji was a major scandal and indicates how fragile and weak the government’s security preparations are. The operation of smuggling hardened al-Qaeda criminals [has harmed the reputation] of the security services and was a blow to the honor of the Iraqi military. It also points to a fundamental security defect in the system Iraq.”
Karbalai has also criticized parliament’s preoccupation with quickly passing a budget and by remaining indifferent to the al-Qaeda prisoners’ escape. He drew a contrast between the atmosphere in which the Iraqi people live and that in which the deputies live.
The public and repeated criticisms by the religious authority’s representatives have received great attention from the public. This was reflected in newspaper headlines and news broadcasts on satellite channels and radio stations. In Karbala’s Friday sermons, the neglected and marginalized people have found voices speaking on their behalf. The role being played by the religious authority largely resembles the “liberation theology” of 1970s Latin America, when the church sided with the disadvantaged against the rich elite and didn’t hesitate to support the revolutionary movements.
The religious authority’s position has of course infuriated many politicians, especially the prime minister and his team. Its position greatly lowers the electoral chances of these politicians in the parliamentary elections slated for spring. Shahbandar’s remarks were an attempt to suppress Najaf’s popular role.
Adnan Hussein is the executive editor-in-chief of Al-Mada newspaper and head of the National Union of Iraqi journalists.