ISIS terrorist group’s emergence in Iraq in 2014 was highly sweeping and surprising. The fundamentalist organization after seizing vast territories in Syria headed to the Iraqi territories for more ground seizures that could facilitate realization of plans for founding the so-called caliphate, or Islamic state.
ISIS ground captures in Iraq were considerable as it managed to seize control of nearly 40 percent of the Arab country’s territories. The fast ISIS progresses sent the Iraqi government and people in real bafflement, and the whole nation was driven to despair as a result.
ISIS’ licentious advancement news made the headlines of the Iraqi media, as they did already in Syria. The militants launched intimidation campaigns before any heading to the battlefields for more land captures, something made the army forces quit their posts for the fear of seemingly unavoidable loss of life. This process took the terrorist group to advance deep into the Iraqi soil without specific checks, reaching close to the capital Baghdad.
Amid political struggles between the internal rivals to pick a new prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the nation was taken aback to hear the news of fall of Mosul, the second-largest Iraqi city and capital of Nineveh province in north, to ISIS fighters on June 9, 2014. The Iraqi army was by no means in proper readiness as it was puzzled by the ISIS offensive on the one hand and was hit by structural problems on the other hand. At the time, the advancing ISIS terrorists’ heinous violence caused consternation across the country.
It was in such tense atmosphere in the country that the prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stepped in as he got a presumption of what the country’s conditions could look like if the terrorists were not deterred. The Grand ayatollah issued a fatwa for public jihad (holy war) against ISIS, uniting the nation around a single military leadership and transforming the gloomy conditions. The Shiite cleric’s call to arms against the terrorists recruited thousands of Iraqi youths who enthusiastically braced for the front line deployment. The fatwa indicated that ISIS psychological warfare can be rendered impractical if people positively respond to calls of this kind.
Ayatollah al-Sistani called the anti-terror jihad a “must”, and described those killed on the front lines as “martyr”. These two terms were enough for the Iraqi youths to mobilize in massive brigades and confront the barbarity of ISIS terrorists. Formation of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, was a direct outcome of the call.
And recently and after the strategic Mosul city was recaptured by the army, backed by the popular forces, Ayatollah al-Sistani once again issued a fatwa, saying that despite the fact that the battle for the major city has been concluded, the anti-terror voluntary forces should remain in the battlefields until full ridding of the nation of the terrorists.
As a widely respected religious leader, Ayatollah al-Sistani made some ethical recommendations in 2015 to the collection of the battle participants including the army and the PMF that proved of avail to the developments of war process and subsequent victories. He presented a list of 20 advices in relation to ethical principles of fighting and banning the mistreatment. The principles included avoiding extremism, killing the women and children, cutting the trees, looting the civilians’ assets, killing the suspects, torturing the captives, mistreating the non-Muslims, and anathematizing the Muslims even the ISIS members. The central idea in his advices was taking into consideration the human ethics with their full aspects. When the Iraqi army launched the operation to retake Fallujah from ISIS grasp in May 2016, Ayatollah al-Sistani called on the military to show restraint during the assault. In the middle of the battle for Mosul, the military captured many ISIS fighters. The cleric recommended that the captives and those suspected of being affiliated with ISIS should not be subjected to torture or revenge killing. He labelled any extrajudicial execution of the prisoners of war as “illegal”, both religiously and judicially. Stressing the need to save lives of the civilians, he called for submitting the suspects to the “fair and peaceful judicial process.”
The grand cleric felt the urgency of political parties’ unity to avert political crisis even before he issued his ISIS-related fatwa. At that time, the country was grappling with political infighting when ISIS rose to challenge the state’s sovereignty in 2014. The conflicts between different political blocs over performance of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid ISIS advances led the Ayatollah to recommend changing the PM. Subsequently, President Fuad Massum designated Haider al-Abadi for the post. The decision was faced the opposition of al-Maliki, the then president. However, Maliki later submitted to a call by the cleric to quit the post, taking first step towards tension de-escalation.
It seems that the main drive behind Ayatollah al-Sistani’s influence of the power and the politicians is his clerical authority and its independence. Otherwise, he has no political position according to the country’s constitution and holds no powers legally. The clergy is not part of the official political structure but is an influential factor in the society and the politics.
The Grand Ayatollah’s character can present a pattern for other Sunni and Shiite scholars. The clergy hold a special place among the people and can guide the political process out of critical conditions through a lofty and inclusive view of the political scene. This can help to reduce the costs the Muslim nations pay amid tough and complicated regional and international conditions.
Ayatollah al-Sistani’s effective role-playing in the middle of a messy political scene is indicative of the significant place and uniting power of the clergy in the Muslim world and among the masses.
Such an effectiveness triggers a need for other Muslim clergy who are less obsessed with the ongoing crises in their communities to be more attentive to what is going on in their countries and take appropriate steps towards social cohesion and mobilize people against destabilizing factors that largely serve the overbearing Western powers and the Israeli regime in the region. Such moves will guard the Muslim world against the prospective crises.