Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Next Nobel Peace Prize?

In a March 20th op-ed for The New York Times, Tom Friedmann 'nominates' the man he thinks deserves to receive the next Nobel Peace Prize: "A Nobel for Sistani."

That's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the religious leader of Iraq's Shiites. If you have any interest in Iraq, then you should have heard of this man. Briefly, he's the Shiite authority who exhorted fellow believers to vote in the Iraqi elections, telling them it was their "religious duty to vote." And vote, they did.

Of course, with around 60 percent of the population, Shiites must have understood that it was in their overwhelming interest to vote, for this meant that they could rise from second- to first-class citizens in a new Iraq. Therefore, Sistani can't take all of the credit.

Friedman, however, emphasizes three other things that Sistani has done that have been good for democracy in Iraq and the Middle East:

"First, he built his legitimacy around not just his religious-scholarly credentials but around a politics focused on developing Iraq for Iraqis," and he did this "by focusing on a positive agenda for . . . [his] own people, not negating another."

Second, he "put the people and their aspirations at the center of Iraqi politics, not some narrow elite or self-appointed clergy," thereby helping "to legitimize 'people power' in a region where it was unheard of."

"Third, and maybe most important, Mr. Sistani brings to Arab politics a legitimate, pragmatic interpretation of Islam, one that says Islam should inform politics and the constitution, but clerics should not rule."

These three things are surely something, and Sistani has been better than one might have expected. As an ethnic Persian born in Iran, this Ayatollah might well have reacted to America's presence in Iraq in a far more negative fashion -- such as labeling America "the Great Satan. "

But a Nobel Peace Prize? Is Friedman serious? In his own words: "I'm serious."

It seems that we have to take this proposal seriously. Well, if Yassir Arafat can get a Nobel Prize, then the far superior Sistani can surely get one. But before we go jumping on this bandwagon, I'd like to caution us on two things:

First, peace has not yet come to the Middle East, and don't expect democracy to bring it anytime soon -- especially if democratic movements really do take hold. The old authoritarians won't go quietly into the night, and the Islamists will fight savagely against this innovative heresy called democracy.

Second, pay attention to the fact that Sistani issued a fatwa, a quasi-legal religious opinion, to legitimate voting. Clerics might not officially rule, but the issuing of religious opinions with binding legal status comes close.

And keep this in mind. According to Hala Jaber's report in the March 20 issue of The Sunday Times:

"Iraq's women are encouraged to vote as they wish but according to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful cleric, they should not shake the hand of a man other than a father, brother or husband. He also forbids women to leave home dressed in any clothes that allow strangers to see parts of their body."

This forbidding sounds foreboding. Is it a fatwa? If so, will fatwas have the force of law in a democratic Iraq? If they do, will they apply only to Muslims, or will they hold for all others: Christians, Mandeaens, and other Dhimmis?

Only time will tell.


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