live by the sword, die by the sword

I'll admit to being all over the pessimism-optimism axis on the issue of Muqtada Sadr and the threat he poses to both eventual Iraqi liberty and the fate of the holy sites in Najaf. But Juan Cole has reported a real reason to hope:

Some teachers in the Najaf seminaries called upon radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to leave the shrine of Imam Ali, just as the Imam Husayn had departed from Mecca (when he led his uprising against the Umayyad empire in 680-81). This according to the Iranian newspaper, Baztab. The seminarians said that it was obvious that Muqtada's bloody confrontation with the US was doomed to fail, and that he should do the right thing and take his fight out of Najaf so as to protect it, just as Imam Husayn had protected Mecca.

This is precisely the correct manner in which to address the misuse of religion - by fighting fire with fire. If Sadr - or Osama bin Laden for that matter - choose to wrap themselves in religious justification for their essentially political causes, then they must be forced to discover that the mantle of religion has thorns of responsibility.

Sadr has likened the occupation forces to Yazid, the tyrannical caliph who ruled Damascus and upon whose orders Imam Husain AS was martyred. Sadr was very quick to adopt the rhetoric of Husain's AS martyrdom - now he must be held to that standard.

There has been a lot of critique against Ayatollah Sistani for not doing enough, but I detect his hand in the message above. The point here is that Sistani at all costs wants to avoid the fate of the earlier British imperial adventure in Iraq, where the Shi'a rose up in religious war and ultimately lost any influence over its governance, ensuring decades of oppression under the Ba'ath. Diana Moon has argued that Sistani wants the same outcome as Sadr, namely a theocratic state on the model of Iran, but that's just not accurate. Sistani has consistently moved to support the cause of direct democracy, and criticized the CPA and Bremer for not moving quickly enough. Direct democracy is incompatible with the Iranian model, as we saw last year with the full-scale boycott of the Iranian elections by the reformers. Sistani does not want that path, and has supported the constitutional process. Sadr is the one who sees democracy as a threat, and he is rightly the one who needs to be marginalized. In doing so, however, lies great risk, and only Sistani's behind-the-scenes maneuvering can prevent Sadr from achieving the notoriety he desires.

UPDATE: There are some Shi'a in Najaf willing to take up arms against those who wrap themselves in the flag of Islam, unjustly:

In a deadly expression of feelings that until now were kept quiet, a group representing local residents is said to have killed at least five militiamen in the last four days.

The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadr�s presence and come amid simmering discontent at the havoc their lawless presence has wreaked.

The group calls itself the Thulfiqar Army, after a twin-bladed sword said to be used by the Shiite martyr Imam Ali, to whom Najaf�s vast central mosque is dedicated.

Residents say leaflets bearing that name have been circulated in the city in the last week, urging Sadr�s al-Mahdi army to leave immediately or face imminent death.

The name Thulfikar is very significant indeed, to a Shi'a. This is the highest form of jihad I have seen, because they fight not against non-muslims doing their duty, but against pseudo-muslims who try to subvert the faith. I've engaged in a verbal form of jihad against the same enemy myself. Sadr's little blasphemy is also triggerring a larger, non-violent backlash that has yet to crest.

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