Baghdad, Iraq – A mosque demolished by tractors, angry protesters torching buildings and arrests by police: Despite their relatively small scale, recent events in a few cities in Iraq have been enough to surprise the country in the last month , and all of them were linked to a controversial Muslim scholar – Mahmoud al-Sarkhi.
The trigger for the latest round of what has become an increasingly tense dispute between Shiite leaders was an uneventful Friday sermon in early April when Ali Masoudi, a representative of al-Sarkhi, who is a a former student of the late prominent Shiite Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, demanded the demolition of shrines, or tombs of Shiite imams, across Iraq.
“We must follow the teachings of the Prophet [Muhammed] and Imam Ali and not build any structures over the graves,” Masoudi passionately told a group of people watching the sermon.
Unsurprisingly, the request was rejected by the majority of Iraqi Shia Muslims, but the reaction was violent: angry protesters, mostly supporters of Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr, son of Sadiq al-Sadr and currently the most major political player in Iraq, took to the streets and burned down some of al-Sarkhi’s offices in a number of cities, including Babil, Karbala and Basra.
Iraqi security forces quickly arrested a number of al-Sarkhi supporters. Babil Governorate, where al-Sarkhi’s movement is based, quickly decided to close all of the leader’s offices, and one of al-Sarkhi’s mosques in the governorate was demolished.
Moqtada al-Sadr himself also warned al-Sarkhi that unless the scholar disavowed the representative who called for the shrines to be destroyed, he would resort to “legal and customary methods”, according to a memo. al-Sadr posted on Twitter, although it was unclear whether al-Sadr would follow through on his threats.
In the weeks following the controversial sermon, al-Sarkhi became the subject of widespread discussion in Iraq, sparking debates about his ideology and the threats he could pose to the now stable Iraqi security.
Despite criticism of al-Sarkhi’s request to demolish the tombs, some experts are expressing concern about how the government’s response risks further fueling violence and conflict in a deeply scarred country.
“The state has been reactive instead of proactive in recent years, and none of [the reactions were] to take the lead in fighting sectarianism,” Ruba Ali al-Hassani, a UK-based sociologist who studies Iraq, told Al Jazeera. “Instead of initiating arrests of al-Sarkhi people, there should have been more repair and correction efforts.”
For al-Sarkhi, this is not the first time he has managed to attract attention. This time, however, it coincided with a chaotic government formation process that was permanently stalled by intra-Shia political division.
“He realizes that Shias, in general, are going through a very chaotic period with low trust in all religious political parties and movements,” the founder of the Independent Institute of Administration and Management told Al Munqith M Dagher. civil society studies based in Iraq. Jazeera. “As a result, now is the best time to find more followers who hate current players and welcome all the different voices.”
Al-Sarkhi and his movement did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
A figure who first emerged after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, al-Sarkhi had a rather low profile and periodically reappeared in public discourse with sometimes contentious claims and sometimes violent clashes with the United States or Iraq. security forces.
Initially fighting alongside the formidable Mehdi Army, a now-disbanded paramilitary group led by Moqtada al-Sadr, against US forces at the start of the Iraq War, al-Sarkhi quickly split from al-Sadr .
Building on his dogged resistance to American and Iranian influence in Iraq, al-Sarkhi has so far amassed a modest number of tens of thousands of supporters.
“Unlike Moqtada, who changes position every five days, al-Sarkhi remained determined to reject American and Iranian influence in our country,” Hassan, an al-Sarkhi follower living in Karbala, told Al Jazeera, referring to the sometimes changing nature. political positions of Moqtada al-Sadr.
“He may have views that I don’t fully agree with, but I think he’s the one who really cares about Iraq and its people,” he added.
Al-Sarkhi has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq. During mass protests in Iraq in 2019, for example, al-Sarkhi’s movement allegedly encouraged protesters to burn down the Iranian consulate in Karbala, which turned out to be one of the most dramatic nights of all. demonstrations.
He even dismissed Ali al-Sistani, the most revered scholar among Iraqi Shia Muslims, based on his claim that al-Sistani had too much Iranian influence behind him. However, some experts say his rejection of Iran has often extended beyond his borders.
“He argues that Iran has attempted to shape Shia public discourse and threaten national security in Iraq,” al-Hassani said. “However, he goes too far in claiming that there is no Shia public discourse in Iraq and that he was entirely Iranian.”
Negotiating with ISIL?
Al-Sarkhi has also been criticized for his role in the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in 2014. At the time, al-Sistani issued a fatwa, a religious edict, calling on all capable Iraqis to take the weapons to fight against the armed group that has taken over a large swath of land in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
To most people’s surprise, al-Sarkhi refused to respond to the fatwa and instead called for conversations and negotiations with ISIL, despite the group’s crimes and failed diplomatic efforts to reach.
“Even now, many question his stance towards ISIS,” al-Hassani said. “Even as someone who works on peacebuilding, I wouldn’t agree to negotiate with ISIS while the group was on a rampage.”
His controversial claims, however, have rarely caused major problems for Iraqi security and, according to experts and ordinary Iraqis who spoke to Al Jazeera, his relatively small supporters are unlikely to pose a real threat in the future. , despite the controversy generated recently.
“You hear about him like you hear about some clowns on TV, and I think the reason people are protesting is because they need something to express their anger at the current political mess in Iraq.” Baghdad resident Ali Saleem told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think it’s because of al-Sarkhi’s importance.”