The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

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