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Iraq, Shia Islamic Authorities, the State, and Crisis

18 June 2020

Dome of Al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala, IraqDome of Al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala, Iraq

Through the case of Iraq’s coronavirus response and the role of Shia religious authorities within it, this piece will argue for a rethinking of central and hegemonic analytical categories in the direction of critically grounded analysis of the West Asia region.
With a population of around 38 million, Iraq has so far confirmed under 25, 000 COVID infections and less than 800 deaths. In line with global concern over coronavirus’ uncontrollable spread and Iraq’s state of destruction under imperial interests  – including the severe dismantlement of its health system – the pandemic has dominated political and public debate in the country over the past months.
A key issue in Iraq’s containment measures has been that of its many and reputed religious sites. Spaces of pilgrimage, collective prayers, mass marches, regular commemoration of various religious occasions, and scholastic engagement and teaching, among many other things, these sites form a hub of Islamic and Iraqi life and a nexus of various forms and instances of encounter and interaction. A major economic sector comprising more than half the Iraqi non-oil economy, their role in the possible spread of coronavirus figured prominently from the health crisis’ earliest days.

Pilgrims in Karbala, IraqPilgrims in Karbala, Iraq

It is worth noting here that these sites have rarely been closed in their decades-long history. Most importantly, they have remained open throughout the past 20 years of conflict in the wake of the U.S. invasion of the country and the resulting ongoing looting, impoverishment, strife, and systematic destruction. 
Further, from the mass uprising that had begun before the protests to a radical lack of trust in the political elite and to the very ongoing challenge to the Iraqi nation-state itself, the current government’s potential and resources to contain the virus were few and limited and its authority over the Iraqi population appeared extremely restricted. With a political system in crisis and increasingly challenging external and internal conditions, the government eventually seemed ill-fitted to impose a closing of sites with such stature and presence for the Islamic and Iraqi social beings.
Indeed, with the complex structure of Iraq and with the ethnic and sectarian tensions plaguing it, such containment measures were widely feared to either fall on deaf ears, failing to deliver the needed protection, or incite an unaffordable backlash against the government that will further alienate the population.
In addressing this, Iraq’s religious institutions and authorities emerged as key actors across divides.
Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s supreme Marja‘ (religious jurisprudential authority), is a key example in this regard. As the highest Shia authority in Iraq and the head of the Najaf Hawza (the world’s second most influential Hawza in the Shia world today, after the Hawza of Qom, Iran), Sistani expressed strong support to the government’s containment measures and issued fatwas asking Muslims to heed the ministry of health’s regulations and support the ‘struggle against coronavirus’. Striking a strong tone, he asked people to respect physical distancing guidelines and stated that he ‘supports the prohibition of any gathering the state prohibits’.
In this respect, Sistani has highly commended health workers caring for coronavirus patients, describing those who lose their lives performing such roles as ‘martyrs who may be seen as being on par with heroic [military] fighters protecting the frontlines defending the nation and its people’. Further, Sistani has issued a jurisprudential permission to spend khums money – alms paid by Shia Muslims – in the fight against coronavirus.
As to the holy shrines themselves, the atabas – keepers of the sites – played a similar role in line with the guidance and direction of the marji‘ya. As the highest authority in charge of preserving these sacred Islamic sites, the atabas hold access to large swathes of resources, geography, employees and volunteering networks, as well as a highly functional organisation. Engaging the ministry of health and  other government institutions, they have gradually become deeply involved in the Iraqi government’s coronavirus response and have repeatedly issued strong statements of support to the authorities urging believers to refrain from behaviours that would jeopardise others.
In this respect, multiple makeshift hospitals have been built in facilities owned and operated by the atabas across Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad – at the religious establishments’ own expense and under their direction. Further, protective equipment has been provided by the atabas to healthcare workers and other essential workers across Iraqi governorates. Similarly, their large networks of apartments that used to house guests to the shrines were offered as spaces for quarantine for Iraqis from various backgrounds. Additionally, their material resources and manpower were put at the forefront of the coronavirus response, a response they sometimes seemed to be managing themselves with some support from the Iraqi government. 
With Sistani’s backing and that of other major Shia scholars, these sites also fully closed down to visitors and activities, cancelled collective prayer and religious festivals, and ceased all teaching held on their premises. A measure that would have been impossible for the Iraqi government to take, the sites have remained shut for months to both foreign visitors as well as Iraqis as virtual visits have become popularised and livestreamed classes have entered the daily lives of many.
The Iraqi minister of health Hassan al-Tamimi, has repeatedly expressed gratitude and indebtedness to the marji‘ya and the atabas. Indeed, top-figures in the Iraqi government have consistently drawn on the statements of Sistani and other prominent religious figures in their appeals to the Iraqi people to heed health regulations, offering fatwas and the words of high-ranking scholars as grounds and justifications for various measures. In this respect, the marji‘ya and the atabas have become a normalised basis of legitimising state actions, and the mediators between the state and its citizens.
In this respect, the Najaf governor, opening a newly established health centre that will focus on contagious diseases including the coronavirus pandemic, expressed his gratitude to ‘the marji‘iya, and the holy Husaini ataba, and the Amir Almouminin hospital, and to the alliance of powers and the president of the Iraqi parliament Mohammad Al-Halbousi, and to the health ministry, as well as other central and local government institutions. In this statement, which is far from being uncommon, the health ministry and the state clearly tailed the marji‘ya and the ataba as state functionaries appeared dependent on the religious institution.
In observing this, one cannot but note parallels with the role the marji‘ya and the atabas played in the combat against ISIS over the past years. Indeed, one cannot but note the central role of the religious establishment in Iraq – as a ‘religious establishment’ – in such moments of emergency; how they have funded, coordinated, and executed highly-planned swift and effective responses as well as how they have managed to appeal to the population, enlist support, and ensure the state’s legitimacy.
In this sense, religious authorities in Iraq have emerged as central political and military actors, without becoming ‘political’ and without entering the field of Iraqi government or formal rule. Affirming authority over security and health, they have increasingly become pivots around which the Iraqi space is organised, and under whose gaze it is structured. Most importantly, these institutions are doing this through their own religious identity and methods, without transforming into a formal  political actor, organisation, or institution. While the Shia religious establishment in Iraq has tended to shy away from politics at multiple historical moments, politics appears to have not afforded shying away from it and has rather extended a strong invitation for the religious authorities to exert control across spheres and divides.
As a religious establishment that does not identify as an actor in state related politics or on Iraq’s power scene, it now appears foundational for the very survival of the Iraqi state and the protection of the Iraqi population both in terms of health and security as it increasingly becomes established as a prime actor across divides and fields.
Consequently, the relationship between the public and the private, between civil society and political society, between the formal and the informal, between the sacred and the profane, between the civic and the religious, between the civil and the non-civil, between the spiritual and the material, are suggested as problematic concepts, perhaps even hollow constructs, in the Iraqi lived experience. In this regard, the complexity of citizen-state relationship, and the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious actors, are offered as invaluable fields of study and research where the very imagination of the modern/colonial ‘nation-state form’ (Mignolo 2011) itself is challenged, even inverted, and its study may be destabilised.
Surely, the health crisis and Iraq’s security are each highly complex events where local, regional, and global geopolitics intersect with multiple economic, material, and religious factors at various scales. In this sense, an elaborate analysis of Iraq’s Shia Islamic authority’s role in the response to each, the comparison between these responses, and the conclusion that may be drawn around the relation between the Iraqi state, citizens, and religious authorities, is well beyond the scope of this piece. Therefore, this is not an argument about any continuities or extant structures, or a statement about a particular emergence within Iraq. It is not an attempt to analyse the conditions of this emergence or its characteristics. Similarly, a normative statement around the productivity or the unproductivity of the Shia religious authorities’ impacts, and the value or harm thereof, is outside the argument being made here. 
Rather, the argument is that the religious establishment in Iraq is an emergent actor whose mode of functioning strongly defies central categories of analysis and neat binaries prevalent in social and political analyses both within academia and outside of it. In this sense, this is a calling for much-needed research with wide implications to the very understanding of the Iraqi state and the political configuration of the wider West Asia and North Africa region that promises much in the direction of delinking from dominant Eurocentric constructs and narratives.

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By: Jacob Norris
Further information: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/menacs/blog
Last updated: Thursday, 18 June 2020

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