A turning point was reached the moment Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority in Iraq, opened the doors of his office in Najaf to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Oct. 20, and then to President Fouad Massoum on Nov. 11.
For years, Sistani had refused to meet with politicians, rejecting every attempt to drag him into the political arena or to use his position for their climb to power. Thus, the symbolic significance of the moment is more important than the two recent meetings themselves.
Sistani’s welcoming of the politicians has naturally raised questions involving his resuming these types of meetings, which could reinterpret the role of the religious authority in political life in the future. Some essential questions have yet to be asked, however:
Why did Sistani boycott politicians? Is Sistani dealing with the politicians from a political perspective to mitigate power and expand his influence? Is his stance a religious one, in particular, seeking to protect Najaf from Shiite politicians’ grasp? Was his welcoming of Abadi a political or a religious signal?
Concerning Sistani’s previous position of boycotting politicians, there is a fine line between intervention of the religious authority in politics and isolation from it. This is why Sistani insisted on forgoing a political position or interfering in politics. It would not be in line with the democratic path.
At the same time, he has been protecting the country’s democratic and civil framework through his social authority. This policy sustains the independence of both the state authority and the religious authority within a cooperative and constructive context.