Forget Obama and the EU. The man who should really have the Nobel Peace Prize is an obscure Iraqi cleric

March 7, 2014 at 1:11 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment

Colin Freeman

Colin Freeman is the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph. His latest book is Kidnapped: life as a hostage on Somalia’s pirate coast.

Forget Obama and the EU. The man who should really have the Nobel Peace Prize is an obscure Iraqi cleric

By  World Last updated: March 4th, 2014


With the Oscars over, shortlists are now being drawn up for that other big awards ceremony for the great and the good. The beginning of March is when the Norwegian Nobel Committee starts considering nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the winner to be announced in October.

If that seems like a long time, bear in mind that just like the Oscars, the judges in the Nobel Prize have their work cut out these days, sifting through all  kinds of nominations that are far more about politics than peace.

Would you nominate this man? Edward Snowden

Gone are the years where the award would simply go to some statesman who’d worked behind the scenes to end some long-term conflict. These days, a far more flexible definition of peace is deployed. On the 2014 list, for example, is the whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been nominated by a Norwegian socialist for re-introducing “trust and transparency in global security policies.” Has he? I don’t think anyone’s told Vladimir Putin.

Then in 2009, the prize went to a newly-elected President Obama, long before he’d had a chance to prove himself in bringing peace to Syria or stopping World War III in Ukraine. At least, though, Mr Obama had the humility to sound surprised about winning it. Unlike the EU, which, when given the prize in 2012 for promoting “democracy and human rights,” issued a press release describing it as the “the strongest possible recognition.”

Indeed, given the number of peacemaking gongs they’ve notched up already, one can’t help thinking that the the EU and US should be wiping the floor with Mr Putin over Ukraine. How can he possibly resist such pacifist expertise? Shouldn’t he be out there in Sebastopol already, shoving flowers into his soldiers’ gun barrels?  Maybe, in the peace and love spirit, Mr Obama should revert to his old drug habit and pass Mr Putin a spliff… in which case, bring in also Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee this year for legalising marijuana.

Yet those who cling to the unfashionable idea that Peace Prize nominees should have some track record in stopping people killing should not despair. There are still plenty of worthy candidates out there, and I can think of one myself. His nomination papers would read roughly as follows:

A who has preached peace and between two warring sides. A man who has urged his people never to retaliate, even when provoked by the murders of thousands of their men, women and children. A man who lives quietly and modestly, who seeks neither personal gain nor political office – much less any recognition via a peace prize.

No, I’m not talking about a posthumous award for Nelson Mandela (he won it in 1993). Instead, the man I have in mind is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest ranking Shia Muslim cleric in Iraq, who has done arguably more than anyone to turn the country away from all-out civil war.

Grand Ayatollah who? No, you may never have heard of him. Unlike some Iraqi religious leaders, he doesn’t make a habit of going on television and waving a Kalashnikov around. Nor has he ever been pictured with Bush or Blair. Indeed, to my knowledge, he has never consented to meet a single Western politician.

Instead, the 83-year-old mullah just gets quietly got on with his job, living in a modest house down a side street in the holy city of Najaf, and issuing various edicts for his followers, who make up the vast majority of moderate Iraqi Shias.

True, some of these edicts are not very progressive as far as the average Scandinavian Nobel prize judge is concerned. Like most Shia clerics, Sistani doesn’t approve of dancing or drinking. And in 2006, he issued a fatwah calling for homosexuals to be killed “in the most severe way” (it was later retracted, with some claiming it was issued erroneously by an aide).

But by Iraqi standards, he’s been an outstanding voice of moderation, peace and tolerance, without whom the country would probably be a far bloodier place than it already is.

To get an idea of this, you have to go back to just after the US invasion, when the ex-Baathists of Iraq’s Sunni minority formed their unholy alliance with the Sunni zealots of Al-Qaeda. While killing Americans was one of their priorities, their other real passion was killing Shias, whom they viewed not just as US collaborators but as apostates too.

In the decade since, the Shia community has suffered the most appalling provocation. Most of the car bombs that have gone off in Baghdad over the years have been targeted at Shia neighbourhoods, killing thousands. Sunni death squads regularly ambush Shia pilgrims as they head to Sistani’s city of Najaf, turning the annual holy festivals into a ritual slaughter. In 2006, al-Qaeda also bombed the Shia holy shrine at Samarra, an act roughly the equivalent to destroying St Peter’s Basilica.

Yet throughout all this bloodshed, Sistani has beseeched ordinary Shias not to retaliate. No, he has not been entirely successful. In the year that followed shrine attack, a low-level Sunni-Shia civil war broke out, with tens of thousands dying in tit-for-tat violence.

But as with so many things in Iraq, the horrors that actually took place were nothing compared to how bad it could have been. In telling his fellow Iraqis to turn the other cheek, sometimes when it was quite literally stained with their loved one’s blood, Sistani has helped averted all-out disaster, and is credited as such by many Western diplomats. He continues in this role today, as a resurgent al-Qaeda continues to re-ignite the civil war.

What makes Sistani all the more statesmanlike, though, is that he preaches peace while getting precious little thanks for it from those around him.  Fellow Shias accuse him of being too timid in the face of Sunni aggression. Al-Qaeda hate him for unsportingly refusing to join in their sectarian civil war. But these are not the only matters on which he has gone against the grain. During the American occupation, he refused to ever sanction attacks on US troops, despite the street cred this would have won him in some Iraqi circles. And to the irritation of his fellow Shia mullahs in neighbouring Iran, he remains resolutely of the “quietist” school of Islam, which says religion has no place in government.

Yet unlike Mandela or the Dalai Lama, this reclusive, media-unfriendly cleric has no armies of bein-pensant wellwishers in the West. Indeed, the man who has arguably done more than anyone else for Middle Eastern peace has virtually no recognition among the keffiyah-wearing classes.

True, a group of Iraqi Christians nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, for giving “Muslims all around the globe a good example how to follow peaceful ways”. But to my knowledge, he’s never made the shortlist, and today, rather than going on global lecture tours, he’s still holed up in that alleyway in Najaf, trying to bring peace to Iraq.

In other words, perhaps he’s just a bit too “quietist” to be a modern Nobel Peace Prize winner…


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