Baghdad, Iraq – A mosque pulled down by tractors, indignant protesters setting buildings on hearth, and police arrests: regardless of their comparatively small-scale, latest occasions throughout a number of cities in Iraq have been sufficient to startle the nation over the past month, and all have been linked to a controversial Muslim scholar – Mahmoud al-Sarkhi.
The set off within the newest spherical of what has change into an more and more tense intra-Shia leaders’ dispute was an in any other case uneventful Friday sermon in early April, when Ali Masoudi, a consultant of al-Sarkhi, who’s a former scholar of the late distinguished Shia scholar Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, demanded the demolition of shrines, or graves of Shia imams, throughout Iraq.
“We should always observe the teachings of the Prophet [Muhammed] and Imam Ali and never construct any buildings on the graves,” Masoudi passionately advised a gaggle of individuals attending the sermon.
The demand was unsurprisingly dismissed by nearly all of Iraqi Shia Muslims, however then got here the fiery response: livid protesters, largely supporters of Muslim chief Moqtada al-Sadr, the son of Sadiq al-Sadr and presently the largest political participant in Iraq, took to the streets and burned down a few of al-Sarkhi’s workplaces in plenty of cities, together with Babil, Karbala, and Basra.
The Iraqi safety forces quickly arrested plenty of al-Sarkhi’s followers. Babil governorate, the place al-Sarkhi’s motion relies, promptly moved to shut the entire chief’s workplaces, and considered one of al-Sarkhi’s mosques within the governorate was torn down.
Moqtada al-Sadr himself additionally issued a warning to al-Sarkhi that until the scholar disavowed the consultant who referred to as for the destruction of the shrines, he would resort to “authorized and customary strategies”, based on a be aware al-Sadr posted on Twitter, though it’s unclear whether or not al-Sadr would observe via together with his threats.
Within the weeks following the controversial sermon, al-Sarkhi has change into the topic of widespread discussions in Iraq, igniting debates on his ideology and what threats he may pose to the now total steady Iraqi safety.
Regardless of the criticism in direction of al-Sarkhi’s demand to demolish graves, some consultants are voicing their concern over how the federal government’s response has run the danger of additional stoking violence and battle in a deeply scarred nation.
“The state has been reactive as an alternative of proactive over the previous few years, and none of [the reactions were] about taking the initiative to combat sectarianism,” Ruba Ali al-Hassani, a UK-based sociologist who research Iraq, advised Al Jazeera. “As a substitute of launching arrests of al-Sarkhi’s individuals, there ought to have been extra restorative and correctional efforts.”
For al-Sarkhi, this isn’t the primary time he managed to seize consideration. This time, nonetheless, it coincided with a chaotic authorities formation course of that has been definitively stalled by intra-Shia political division.
“He realises that Shias, generally, are passing via a really chaotic interval with low confidence in all non secular political events and actions,” Munqith M Dagher, the founding father of the Iraq-based Impartial Institute of Administration and Civil Society Research, advised Al Jazeera. “Accordingly, that is the perfect time to search out extra followers who’re hating the present gamers and welcome any totally different voices.”
Al-Sarkhi and his motion didn’t reply to Al Jazeera’s request for remark.
A determine who first emerged following the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Sarkhi had a fairly low profile and would periodically re-emerge within the public discourse with at occasions controversial claims, and generally violent clashes with both US or Iraqi safety forces.
Initially preventing alongside the once-formidable Mehdi Military, a now-disbanded paramilitary group led by Moqtada al-Sadr, towards the US forces in the course of the early days of the Iraq warfare, al-Sarkhi quickly parted methods with al-Sadr.
Constructing on his staunch resistance in direction of each American and Iranian affect in Iraq, al-Sarkhi has to this point collected a modest following within the tens of 1000’s.
“Not like Moqtada, who adjustments his place each 5 days, al-Sarkhi has remained dedicated to rejecting the US and Iranian affect in our nation,” Hassan, an al-Sarkhi follower dwelling in Karbala advised Al Jazeera, referring to the generally altering nature of Moqtada al-Sadr’s political stances.
“He could have some opinions that I don’t utterly agree with, however I believe he’s the one who truly cares about Iraq and the individuals,” he added.
Al-Sarkhi has repeatedly voiced his opposition to Iranian affect in Iraq. Throughout Iraq’s 2019 mass demonstrations, for instance, al-Sarkhi’s motion reportedly inspired protesters to set hearth to the Iranian consulate in Karbala, which turned out to be one of the vital dramatic nights of the complete protests.
He even rejected Ali al-Sistani, essentially the most revered scholar amongst Iraqi Shia Muslims, primarily based on his declare that al-Sistani had an excessive amount of Iranian affect behind him. Nonetheless, some consultants say his rejection of Iran has typically overstepped its boundary.
“He argues that Iran tried to form the Shia public discourse and threaten nationwide safety in Iraq,” al-Hassani mentioned. “Nonetheless, he overreaches by claiming that there isn’t any public Shia discourse in Iraq and that it was solely Iranian.”
Negotiate with ISIL?
Al-Sarkhi has additionally confronted criticism for his function in the course of the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in 2014. On the time, al-Sistani had issued a fatwa, a spiritual decree, to name on all in a position Iraqis to take up arms to combat towards the armed group that seized an unlimited swath of land in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
To most individuals’s shock, al-Sarkhi refused to reply the fatwa, and as an alternative referred to as for conversations and negotiations with ISIL, regardless of the crimes dedicated by the group, and the failure of diplomatic efforts to succeed in out to them.
“Even now, many are questioning his stance in direction of ISIS,” al-Hassani mentioned. “At the same time as somebody who works on peacebuilding, I wouldn’t agree to barter with ISIS when the group was occurring a killing rampage.”
His controversial claims, nonetheless, hardly ever precipitated any huge points to Iraqi safety and, based on consultants and customary Iraqis who spoke with Al Jazeera, his comparatively small following will unlikely represent an precise risk sooner or later, regardless of the controversy generated lately.
“You hear about him such as you hear about some clowns on TV, and I believe the explanation why individuals are protesting is as a result of they want one thing to vent their anger in direction of the present political mess in Iraq,” Ali Saleem, a Baghdad resident, advised Al Jazeera.
“I don’t assume it’s due to how essential al-Sarkhi is.”