Friday, August 22, 2003

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

Matthew Yglesias is watching for the emergence of an inspirational leader in Iraq. I think the closest thing we have right now is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most important figure in the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Najaf. Although he is a Shi'ite who favors a state governed by Islamic law, figures from across the political spectrum have gone to consult with him, and his attitude toward the provisional government is treated as important by people like Juan Cole, who have a much better sense of the ground situation than I do. True, not everyone agrees with him on social issues, but I'd venture that his current importance comes from his role as a symbol and an important voice no one can silence. Think Pope John Paul II in the fight against communism. That is the same sort of power Sistani wields in the fight to build a better Iraq, and why I think it would be smart for the U.S. to win him to our side.

Incidentally, a word about "Great Man" history: True, history is not just the record of heroic figures of the past, but nor is it the inevitable result of abstract historical forces. Leadership sometimes matters: That's why I bother to vote in elections. Ask Iraqis today if they think Gore getting another 1000 votes in Florida would have affected their history. These effects diminish over time as the "historical forces" of social and technological change are more sweeping: I doubt particular succession disputes in ancient Egypt have any impact today, but they did once.


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