Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Nonviolence in Najaf? Will We Recognize an Islamic Peace Movement When We See It?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Nonviolence in Najaf? Will We Recognize an Islamic Peace Movement When We See It?

Article excerpt

The BBC headline caught my eye: "Iraqi cleric in Najaf peace march." It's the kind of story that gets buried in mid-August, especially between the Democratic and Republican national conventions. But I was intrigued.

We rarely hear news about Islamic nonviolence. A few might remember 1930s Pakistani pacifist Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who led the Servants of God organization in nonviolent resistance against the British. But, in the West, Islam and nonviolence don't generally go together.

Is a new page opening in Islam's contribution to nonviolence? Iraq's leading Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, did what the U.S. military, the Iraqi troops, and the armed supporters of militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could not. He ended the three-week standoff in Najaf in which hundreds of people had been killed.

Ten thousand Shia Iraqis gathered peacefully in Najaf to support Sistani's peace plan to end the violence and reclaim the shrine of Imam Ali. "Sistani did not issue a fatwa (a religious order)," cleric Abdullah Mehdi told Baghdad-based Christian Peacemaker Team member David Milne, "but an invitation."

"I regard this action by Sistani and his followers as quite significant," Milne told me. "Iraq has such a violent history that a nonviolent action marks a significant beginning, especially when it had such strong support. The action appears to have achieved its goals quickly when other attempts--including repeated assaults on the shrine and other attempts to negotiate an agreement--failed."

Sistani brokered a five-point peace plan. Najaf and neighboring Kufa are to be declared weapons-free zones; all foreign forces will withdraw from Najaf; local Iraqi police are to take charge of security; the government will compensate those harmed in the fighting; and a census will be taken in preparation for upcoming elections.

Sistani's strategy was politically savvy. He appeared strong in resisting the unpopular U.S. forces. He allowed the weaker combatants, namely Sadr's militia, to save face and disappear into the crowd of peace marchers without retribution. He emphasized local civilian control of the city. And he presented an effective nonviolent model to Iraqis.

There is also severe criticism of Sistani, especially for protecting Sadr and his forces. …

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