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The School of Qom and the School of Najaf

A little background on the claque that has, for roughly the past three years, found Sistani to be the Man of the Hour in Iraq.

At My Weekly Standard the claque consists of Reuel Gerecht and the carriers of Weiss-Schwartz Syndrome. Fouad Ajami, whose usefulness is limited given his tiptoeing around the subject of Islam, was enchanted with his own reception by Sistani. In his book "The Foreigner's Gift" -- so tellingly mistitled (it ought to have been "The Infidel's Gift," but that would raise too many problems for Fouad Ajami) -- he describes, I am told, this meeting. But he does not explain what it was that prevented Sistani from meeting with any other American save for Zalmay Khalilzad. What could it be? And why shouldn't people have explained to them what it is that prevents this Holy Man of the Hour from meeting, say, with Bremer, or Rice, or any number of other Infidels?

In Washington, there are those who like to construct out of world politics something akin to soap operas, with the villains and the heroes. Everything is reduced to the "good guys" (i.e., the "moderate" Muslims in this case) and the "bad guys" (the "immoderate" Muslims). And a little shadow-play is put on, Chinese shadows, ombres chinoises. The Good Muslim needs to be supported to the hilt, because only he can stand up to the Bad Muslim.

In the case of Sistani, the Shadow-Play relies on the banal observation that the main Shi'a clerics in Iraq do not wish to support the idea, which Khomeini introduced as part of his new and improved Islamic Republic of Iran, of direct rule by clerics. In Khomeini's case, he thought that the best thing would be direct rule by the Most Enlightened and Deeply Learned Cleric. Apparently he had someone special in mind. And when that impressive Internal Candidate showed up -- he, Ayatollah Khomeini himself -- there was no need for any nationwide search, or even a résumé, much less that grueling day of interviews. No, Sistani does not want to rule directly. It's too messy. Besides, why should he and the rest of the marjiyah have to bother their decorously turbaned heads with garbage collection in Baghdad, or the municipal water system in Basra? They prefer to be eminences grises, behind the scenes, or in some cases burattinai, marionette-masters, tugging at strings as the occasion demands.

Yet, among those who should know better, this appears to be an important concession on Sistani’s part -- because they do not have any knowledge of Islam, and they are afraid or unwilling to do what is necessary to acquire that knowledge. They have gotten in the habit, over many decades, of not having to engage, even if only for a few months, in the kind of study that perhaps they once were capable of, but are not any longer.

So they posit a "Qom School" (bad) of Shi'a Islam, and a "Najaf School" (good) of Shi'a Islam. The Iranians are the Qommers, with Khomeini and then Khameini as representative figures, and the Najafians, with Al-Sistani at their helm, are the embodiment of wonderful Shi'a Islam.

Shi'a Islam is not wonderful. And if Chalabi, Allawi, Rend al-Rahim and Kanan Makiya are acceptable figures, are people one feels one can talk to, it is not because they are Shi'a Muslims. Rather, it is because having lived in the West for many decades, they have become, at least in part, westernized and secularized. They are rational people, even if their aims must be different from ours. But they do not, and dare not, make any connection between the political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual failures of the Islamic world, and the tenets, attitudes, and atmospherics of Islam.

That is something no true believing Muslim will do, whether he remains one out of filial piety (that pious and kindly grandmother), or embarrassment (and a desire therefore not to abandon, but to protect, Islam), or out of dislike of the West and a proud refusal to take lessons from that decadent West (how dare Westerners, with their own sicknesses, get on their high horse and preach to us) will do -- unless he is either a Muslim-for-identification-purposes-only Muslim, such as Bassam Tibi or Magdi Allam, or has jettisoned Islam altogether, as have Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, Azam Kamguian, Irfan Khawaja, and a cast of tens of thousands.

But it is the latter who could have told us all along how empty this Shadow-Play with Sistani really was.