Baghdad, Iraq – A mosque demolished by tractors, angry protesters setting buildings on fire and arrests by police: Despite being relatively small-scale, recent events in a few cities in Iraq were enough to startle the country for the past month, and they were all linked to a controversial Muslim scholar – Mahmoud al-Sarkhi.
The latest round of what has become an increasingly tense intra-Shia leadership conflict was an otherwise quiet Friday sermon in early April, when Ali Masoudi, a representative of al-Sarkhi, who is a former student of the late prominent Shia scholar Mohammad Sadiq, -Sadr, demanded the demolition of shrines or tombs of Shia imams across Iraq.
“We must follow the teachings of the Prophet [Muhammed] and Imam Ali and do not build structures on the tombs,” Masoudi passionately told a group of people attending the sermon.
The demand was unsurprisingly rejected by the majority of Iraqi Shia Muslims, but then came the fervent response: outraged protesters, mostly supporters of Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr, the son of Sadiq al-Sadr and currently the largest political player in Iraq. names took to the streets and set fire to some of al-Sarkhi’s offices in a number of cities, including Babil, Karbala and Basra.
Iraqi security forces soon arrested a number of al-Sarkhi’s followers. The Babil Governorate, where al-Sarkhi’s movement is based, promptly 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 rejected the representative calling for the destruction of the shrines, he would resort to “legal and customary methods,” according to a note al-Sadr posted on Twitter. . , although it is unclear whether al-Sadr would follow through with his threats.
In the weeks since the controversial sermon, al-Sarkhi has become the subject of widespread debate in Iraq, fueling discussions about his ideology and what threats he might pose to Iraq’s now generally stable security.
Despite criticism of al-Sarkhi’s demand to demolish graves, some experts express concern about how the government’s response risks fueling further violence and conflict in a scarred country.
“The state has been reactive rather than proactive in recent years, and none of the… [the reactions were] about taking the initiative to fight sectarianism,” Ruba Ali al-Hassani, a UK-based sociologist who studies Iraq, told Al Jazeera. “Instead of launching arrests of al-Sarkhi’s people, there should have been more recovery and correctional efforts.”
For al-Sarkhi, this is not the first time he has managed to attract attention. This time, however, it has coincided with a chaotic government-building process that has finally come to a halt due to intra-Shia political divisions.
“He realizes that Shias in general are going through a very chaotic period with little faith in all religious political parties and movements,” Munqith M Dagher, the founder of the Iraq-based Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies, told Al. jazeera. “Therefore, now is the best time to find more followers who hate the current players and welcome other voices.”
Al-Sarkhi and his movement have not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Al-Sarkhi, a figure who first emerged after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, had a rather unremarkable profile and has regularly resurfaced in public debate with sometimes controversial claims and sometimes violent clashes with the US or Iraq. . security forces.
Initially, al-Sarkhi fought alongside the once formidable Mehdi army, a now disbanded paramilitary group led by Moqtada al-Sadr, against US forces during the early days of the Iraq war, but al-Sarkhi soon parted ways. from al-Sadr.
Building on his staunch opposition to both US and Iranian influence in Iraq, al-Sarkhi has so far amassed a modest following of tens of thousands.
“Unlike Moqtada, which changes its stance every five days, al-Sarkhi has remained committed to rejecting US and Iranian influence in our country,” Hassan, an al-Sarkhi supporter who lives in Karbala, said. to Al Jazeera, citing the sometimes changing nature of Moqtada al-Sadr’s political positions.
“He may have some opinions that I don’t quite agree with, but I think he’s the one who really cares about Iraq and the people,” he added.
Al-Sarkhi has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq. For example, during the mass demonstrations in Iraq in 2019, al-Sarkhi’s movement is said to have encouraged protesters to set fire to the Iranian consulate in Karbala, which turned out to be one of the most dramatic nights of the entire protests.
He even rejected Ali al-Sistani, the most respected scholar among Iraqi Shia Muslims, on the basis of his claim that al-Sistani had too much Iranian influence behind him. However, some experts say his rejection of Iran has often crossed its line.
“He argues that Iran was trying to shape the Shia public debate and threaten Iraq’s national security,” al-Hassani said. “However, he goes too far by claiming that there is no public Shia discourse in Iraq and that it was completely Iranian.”
Negotiating with ISIL?
Al-Sarkhi has also been criticized for his role during the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in 2014. At the time, al-Sistani had issued a fatwa, a religious decree, calling on all Iraqis to take up arms to fight against the armed group that captured a huge swath of land in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
To most people’s surprise, al-Sarkhi refused to answer the fatwa and instead called for talks and negotiations with ISIL, despite the crimes committed by the group and the failure of diplomatic efforts to contact them.
“Even now, many are doubting his stance against ISIS,” al-Hassani said. “Even as someone who works on peacebuilding, I would not agree to negotiate with ISIS if the group sparked a murderous eruption.”
However, his controversial claims rarely caused major problems for Iraqi security and according to experts and ordinary Iraqis who spoke with Al Jazeera, his relatively small following is unlikely to pose an actual threat in the future, despite the controversy that has arisen recently.
“You hear about him the way 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,” said Ali Saleem, a resident of Iraq. Baghdad, to Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think it’s because of how important al-Sarkhi is.”