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Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the definitive presence of traditional Shi’ite Islam, has warned that he “no longer has power to save Iraq from civil war,” and has withdrawn from politics (see Iraq loses its voice of reason, Asia Times Online, September 6).
ATol’s Sami Moubayed reported, “If Sistani lives up to his word, this means silencing the loudest – and only – remaining voice of reason and moderation in Iraqi politics.” He noted that Sistani’s followers have transferred loyalty toward the Iranian-controlled warlord Muqtada al-Sadr.
That Iraq would break up in bloodshed has seemed predestined since late 2003, when I predicted civil war and eventual partition (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance? December 23, 2003). But the collapse of Sistani’s influence is news indeed. It portends the end of Islam in the Persian Gulf, as much as pope Pius XII’s virtual incarceration in the Vatican during World War II augured the end of Christianity in Europe.
On the face of it the notion that Islam is in jeopardy seems absurd. Muqtada al-Sadr is a Shi’ite cleric of fanatic persuasion, close to and perhaps wholly owned by the fanatical mullahs of Tehran. But Islam is not defined by political allegiance, nor by a specific set of doctrines, but rather by a way of life. In the case of Islam it is the life of traditional society embedded in a circle of spears directed outward against the leveling empires. More than any man alive, Sistani personifies the traditional life of Islam. The end of his mission implies that his followers are thrust onto the stage of the modern world in the cruelest form, in this case a civil war of attrition. Islam, as Sistani teaches it, cannot survive the shock.
It is important to be clear that there is nothing at all religious about the present civil violence in Iraq. It is not 1572 in France or 1618 in Germany, in which both sides accuse the other of heresy and preach crusade to purify the true faith. The issues under contention have to do with caste and tribal privileges.
The Sunni insurgents stem largely from the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, who have no particular religious objection to the Iraqi Shi’ites. They simply wish to rule the country as they have since the British invented Iraq. As Professor Angelo Codevilla wrote in 2003, “Iraq was not a good idea in the first place. American and British Wilsonians decided to re-create something like the Babylon empire: Sunni Mesopotamian Arabs from the Baghdad area would rule over vastly more numerous southern Shi’ite Arabs, and Arabophobe Kurds. Why the ruled should accept such an arrangement was never made clear.”
Despite the secular character of the old Ba’athist regime in Iraq, traditional Muslim life flourished there even as it languished in Iran. A crisis of faith in the Islamic world underlies the desperation of the Iranian regime, I have argued in a series of essays during the past year. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the collapse of Iran’s fertility rate. As projected by the United Nations, Iran’s fertility rate already has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 births per female. Iraq’s fertility rate now stands at just below 4, compared with 1.79 for Iran. This has potentially catastrophic consequences, as I reported in an earlier study (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005). At present, six Iranian workers support every retiree. By mid-century the number will fall to 1.5 workers per retiree.
Sistani represented Islam, the real religion that permeates the lives of believers. “The ayatollah’s concerns hardly overlap with those of the American occupation officials whom he refuses to address directly. On the contrary, what preoccupies him are the minutest issues of daily existence, most of all the question of ritual purity within traditional society,” I wrote of him two years ago (Why Islam baffles America, April 16, 2004). His website, as I reported at the time, contains detailed instructions for regaining ritual purity after sodomy with an animal, for washing the anus after defecation, as well as for the precise posture and deportment during prayer.  Sistani, I wrote in the cited article, “addresses the inhabitants of traditional society for whom spiritual experience means submission, that is, submission to communal norms, whence the individual derives a lasting sense of identity. In the most intimate details of daily life, culture and religion become inseparable. For traditional society it is the durability of communal norms that lends a sense of immortality to the individual, a life beyond mere physical existence.”
Adherence to traditional society was the source of Sistani’s influence among Iraqi Shi’ites, because it is the wellspring of Islam itself. A birth rate comparable to that of secular Europe demonstrates that the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been a failure, for it failed to restore the norms of the traditional world. On the contrary, the fertility rate fell from 6.5 children per female in 1980, just after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, to only 1.79 today.
A great gulf is fixed between Islam and Christianity, which do radically different things for different people. Christianity is the permanent and irreconcilable enemy of traditional society, for it holds that the flesh of the Gentile itself is sinful. To become a Christian is to abandon Gentile origins and to be reborn into the People of God. The fact that Christianity grew by syncretism, incorporating traditional elements, is beside the point, for that approach to Christianity has all but died in Europe, whereas the United States, the land without ethnicity, has become more Christian during the past generation.
Islam is the revenge of traditional society against the encroaching empires – originally against the Eastern Roman Empire – which threaten the life of the tribes. Under Islam the tribes unite in the ummah, retaining their customs and character. The delicate task of clerical leadership in Islam is to regulate the most intimate details of daily life within the old tribal norms, while keeping the ummah intact. As strange as this may appear to Western eyes, it is a difficult job to execute.
That is precisely what Ayatollah al-Sistani sought to accomplish. As the cited ATol report recalls, “This is the same man who used his paramount influence to silence the guns of two Shi’ite insurgencies in 2004. He then wisely ordered his supporters to vote in last year’s national elections, claiming that it was a ‘religious duty’ to join the political process and jump-start democratic life in Iraq.” Sistani attempted to preserve the ummah in Iraq so that his Shi’ites might devote their energy to the compulsions and taboos of traditional life as prescribed by the Islamic clergy.
Sistani frequently was described as a “moderate” by Western media, which seems strange given the all-encompassing character of his religious prescriptions. The ayatollah’s instructions follow the faithful from mosque to bedroom to bathroom. He was not at all a moderate in religion, but a thinker to the extreme right of the most fanatical integralism the Western world has ever seen. But as the spiritual leader of Mesopotamian Arabs, he resisted sacrificing them to the imperial ambitions of neighboring Persia, unlike the opportunist Muqtada al-Sadr. Now he has abandoned his political mission. Unable to protect his Shi’ite followers against Sunni attacks, and deeply frustrated by his inability to influence events, Sistani reportedly told his staff, “I will not be a political leader anymore. I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters.”
As an Islamic leader, Sistani understood much better than any Western observer that the search for a “moderate” Islam, an Islam of personal conscience rather than an established state religion, was a fool’s errand. It is not simply that Islam cannot easily be transplanted from traditional society. That transition challenged all religions. Except in the United States, Christianity has failed as a religion of personal conscience throughout the industrial world, disappearing with the last vestiges of traditional society. Judaism’s fate outside of traditional society is uncertain, and this ancient religion appears comfortable only in the Orthodox creation of the traditional world. But that is beside the point. Just as Christianity is the People of God called out from amongst the nations of the traditional world, Islam is the traditional world whose tribes have united against the oppression of the Cosmopolis.
Civil war in Iraq, even if it is led by sectarian fanatics, spells the end of traditional society in Mesopotamia, just as the Khomeini revolution turned out to be the end of traditional society in Persia. Islam is the focal point of the civilizational crisis, precisely because the sudden leap into the modern world puts the severest test to Islamic faith. Christianity barely survived the end of traditional society in the industrial world, flourishing as a religion of personal conscience only in the United States. Yet Christians had half a millennium to prepare for the transition. Islam’s prospects for survival outside of traditional society are poor. It is a fallacy to imagine that a deeply religious Muslim world confronts a secular West. On the contrary, Islamic radicalism is a response to a deep – I believe fatal – crisis of faith in the Muslim world.
Western observers, including religious authorities who should know better, display no sensitivity whatever to the existential trauma that afflicts the Muslim world. On the website of First Things magazine (www.firstthings.com), the premier journal of conservative religious opinion in the US and perhaps the world, for example, Father Edward T Oakes clicks his tongue over “the asymmetry between Western and Islamic values.” By way of elaboration he quotes the columnist Mark Steyn as to the final words of Mohammed to his disciples: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.'” … Mohammed is saying fight all men until they submit to your truth: It’s not a plan for converting an existing empire (as Christianity did) but for establishing a new empire. Islam was born and spread as a warrior’s creed and, while that can be sedated, the intensity of anger of today’s Western Muslims suggests that the Mohammedan fighter endures at the heart of their faith, albeit significantly augmented by greater firepower.
I ask the reader’s pardon for losing patience, but this sort of selective quotation reminds me of the doctrinal disputes among the Trotskyite micro-splinter groups who infested university cafeterias two generations ago. Theologically it is incompetent, even sophomoric, and Father Oakes, SJ, should know better. Tossing about quotations from Mohammed is a two-sided game, and for every unpleasant utterance Mark Steyn might mention, Professor Juan Cole can find another that sounds far more benign. Islam is not a doctrine, I reiterate: it is a life, just as Christianity is not a doctrine, but a life. Jihad is not an evil doctrine, an unfortunate afterthought, or an expression of Mohammed’s aggressiveness. It is a sacrament, the Islamic cognate of the Lord’s Supper. Through the Lord’s Supper, the Christian communes with the god who has sacrificed himself so that Gentiles might be reborn as children of Abraham. Through jihad, the Muslim sacrifices himself to the severe sovereign of the universe who demands obedience and rewards service.
That is precisely what hangs in the balance in Iraq today. The traditional world in which Muslims order their lives, the system that (as Bernard Lewis put it) gave meaning to drab lives, has lost its moorings in the modern world, and the capacity of Islam to provide such meaning has eroded past the point of no return. That is why Muslims will lash out with the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr. Nothing less than their lives is at stake.
1. For example:
“It is obligatory to conceal one’s private parts in the toilet and at all times from adult persons, even if they are one’s near relatives (like mother, sister etc).
“It is not necessary for a person to conceal the private parts with any definite thing, it is sufficient, if, for example, he conceals them with his hand.
“While using the toilet for relieving oneself, the front or the back part of one’s body should not face the holy Ka’bah [shrine in the Great Mosque, Mecca].”
See also Why Islam baffles America, April 16, 2004.