March 20, 2006 | National Review Online

Sistani and the Democracy Project

A useful measure of the divide between "To Hell with Them" and "Anything Goes."

There are new revelations about the teachings of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme religious authority of Shiite Iraq, who has been lavished with praise here and elsewhere as a leading voice of Muslim moderation, perhaps even worthy of Nobel Peace Prize consideration.

A human-rights group in London which lobbies for homosexuals alleged last week that Sistani had held a press conference in which he'd issued a fatwa setting forth his judgment on gay sex. According to the group, Sistani pronounced that the conduct was “forbidden” and that those who engage in it should be “punished, in fact, killed. The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.”

Not wanting to take an interest group's allegation at face value, this report stirred the operators of a blog called “Healing Iraq” to check Sistani's website. I discussed that site here on NRO a few weeks ago in connection with Sistani's stated view that non-Muslims should be considered in the same category as “urine, feces, semen, dead bodies, blood, dogs, pigs, alcoholic liquors, and “the sweat of an animal who persistently eats [unclean things].”

Healing Iraq found a relevant page in the Arabic section of Sistani's site. The page is evidently not available in the English section (suggesting that the grand ayatollah is familiar with the practice, turned into an art form by Yasser Arafat, of shielding gullible Westerners with whom one is ingratiating oneself from some of the more alarming things one says to Arabic-speaking audiences). The Arabic page is here. I've confirmed with language experts that the following translation of the relevant passage is accurate:

Q: What is the judgment on sodomy and lesbianism?

A: Forbidden. Those involved in the act should be punished. In fact, sodomites should be killed in the worst manner possible.

Now, NR's editor, my friend Rich Lowry, has written an extremely interesting cover article, called “The ‘To Hell with Them' Hawks,” in the current print edition of National Review (subscription required). Even for those, like me, who disagree with Rich's conclusions, he has with characteristic insight captured the foreign-policy divide among conservatives as visions of the war on terror edge beyond the waning years of the Bush administration.

Nonetheless, I confess to not being thrilled to recognize myself as among those being labeled a “‘To Hell With Them' Hawk” — any more, I imagine, than those of a different bent of mind would appreciate being called “Anything Goes” conservatives, willing to tuck the manifest flaws on which they would base policy under a rug of “polite fiction” — such as that Islam simply must deemed be a “religion of peace,” notwithstanding the abundant evidence of sense.

More useful than labels in analyzing the divide are the comparative perceptions about Sistani, who has been regarded as a crucial figure by both supporters and skeptics of the administration's democracy project.

From the skeptical side of the house, these pearls of Sistani's wisdom, including this latest raving about the appropriate Islamic response to gay sex, cannot be blithely disregarded as, to borrow Rich's phrase, “beliefs that seem bizarre to a Westerner” — as if the problem here is our alien ear rather than Sistani's seventh-century mind. Sistani is not merely saying homosexuality is condemnable, a view shared by many a religious tradition. He holds, authoritatively within his tradition, that those who engage in it should be brutally murdered.

It is neither naïve nor reflective of a “lack of imagination” to observe that Sistani's fatwas are powerfully indicative of a coarse view of human life. In fact, they are powerfully indicative of a view that rejects the very humanity of those who do not adhere to Islam (indeed, Islam as Sistani rigorously construes it).

That view is a sine qua non of terrorism. It matters little that Sistani, in the fashion of lip service, is, as Rich observes, “consistent in condemning terrorism.” He is a central influence in the Islamic world. That is the world which is, undeniably, the font of virtually all modern terrorism. How surprised, then, should we be to find him giving animating voice to beliefs integral to the pathology that is spurring global barbarism? The pathology that says there is an us and a them, and the them is a sub-human species, not fit to be touched and, at least occasionally, worthy of being “killed in the worst manner possible.”

What is dangerously naïve is to conflate two very different, and at times contradictory, goals of American foreign policy: opposition to terrorism and democratic reform in Muslim countries. Let's say one is inclined to suspend disbelief and regard as an “ally” in the struggle against Islamist terrorism someone whose profoundly influential views actually bolster core conceits of the jihadists. That would still not make Sistani an ally in the related but distinct project to build a democracy recognizable as such.

The only democracy the United States should be building is one based on liberty, equality, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the conviction that authority to rule is reposed in the people rather than in some external theological or political force. That, surely, is the democracy of President Bush's soaring rhetoric, if not his administration's on-the-ground practice. If we are going to sacrifice American blood and treasure on this project, that better be what we are sacrificing them for.

That project calls for a very long-term cultural evolution, one that may take decades if it can happen at all. It is not achieved by a mere election or two's being given the green-light by a savvy Shiite imam — one who can count, and who sees Shiites outnumbering everyone else by about two-to-one. It is not achieved by a celebrated constitution's being given the green-light by such an imam only after Islam has been installed as the official state religion and the sharia made a primary source of fundamental law.

To believe Sistani is an ally in that project is to hallucinate.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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