Good news is hard to come by in Iraq these day. In the last few months, thousands of people have been killed in violent clashes across the country. In addition to direct violence, groups organized along sectarian lines often seek to intimidate one another and instigate more violence. The latest clashes involved a group of young Shia men who marched into a Sunni neighborhood, chanting and cursing Sunni holy figures and labelling them "Nawasib," a derogatory term. To make matters worse, the protesters marched alongside the Iraqi security forces who were protecting them.
That Iraqi security forces protect and abet anti-Sunni protests should be no surprise to many Sunni and Shia leaders in Iraq. Nouri Al-Maliki has been accused of running a sectarian government by both Sunni and Shia religious leaders. Earlier this year, thousands of Sunnis marched against the Al-Maliki government complaining of institutional discrimination, high unemployment, and corruption. The wave of demonstrations was referred to as the "Sunni spring." But what makes the latest incident perplexing is that while it's clear that the state discriminates along sectarian lines, influential Shia clergy are opposed to it.
Iraq's most influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa, or religious decree, condemning the anti-Sunni protests. He said, "This is to be condemned and denounced, and is contrary to the instructions of Shiite Imams." The Imam Al-Khoei Foundation, which is highly influential amongst religious Shia leaders, also condemned the protests. It called for all sides to respect each other. Muqtada Al-Sadr called the protesters "feeble minds," and paid tribute to "non-extremist Sunnis." Even the Iranians condemned it with Ayatollah Ali Khomeini issuing a fatwa that said, "It is forbidden to abuse our Sunni brothers."
It is important to note that clergy members condemning sectarianism is not a recent development. Al-Sadr has previously accused al-Maliki of waging a sectarian war on non-Shia minorities. The clerics don't always agree with each other. Over Syria, Al-Sadr attacked Hezbollah (and indirectly Iran) for their involvement in the crisis and has backed the Syrian opposition. Ayatollah al-Sistani's is Iraq's most important religious leader and has a large following across the Shia world. But he is not Iraqi. He was born in Iran and still holds an Iranian passport. However, he is opposed to the Islamic Republic in Iran and he has always made the Iranian authorities nervous.
This reveals the complex nature of sectarianism in Iraq and the Middle East. In the media and academia, there is a popular trend that seeks to reduce events in the Middle East into sectarian boxes. Sectarianism has certain connotations. Sunnis and Shias hate each other over irrational, theological issues devoid of politics and the modern world. But what this incident in Iraq and the reaction illustrates is the opposite of this. The clergy who act as religious spokespeople are opposed to sectarianism, and the politicians are the agitators of sectarianism. The sectarianism in Iraq is political, not religious, and this is not a war about events that happened 1,400 years ago. It is about power and control in the here and now.