Middle East References
January 22, 2004
WSJ.com - Women's Rights Gain Foothold Amid Saudis' Cautious Evolution
WSJ.com - Women's Rights Gain Foothold Amid Saudis' Cautious Evolution: "By HUGH POPE

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- When Saudi banker Nahed Taher took the microphone in public before a sea of white-robed men -- a female first in Saudi Arabia -- she felt sure at last that change is edging forward in the ultraconservative kingdom.

"Once we were kept in a separate room, watching everything on closed-circuit TV. Last year we could come in, but just ask questions. Now we are speakers, leading discussions," said Ms. Taher, talking on the sidelines of the annual Jeddah Economic Forum, a three-day annual showcase for Saudi Arabia's liberal business elite that ended Monday. "We're seeing real political and economic progress."

Ms. Taher, 34 years old, symbolizes what a few Saudi women are achieving. Women's rights are the most visible symbol of wider changes slowly getting under way in Saudi Arabia, where an appointed 120-man National Assembly is taking on increasing legislative responsibility, the first municipal-council elections are due next year and efforts are being made to open up the economy and join the World Trade Organization.

Just three years ago, Ms. Taher was the first woman at the headquarters of the big National Commercial Bank, where there are now seven women and she has risen to become a senior economist. But the Jeddah conference marked the first time Saudi women -- who still must go about veiled, aren't allowed to drive cars and must get male approval to travel -- have taken the stage in public, though all wore abayas, the mandatory head-to-toe black cloaks. When the conference opened to a bold keynote speech by Lubna al-Olayan, the formerly publicity-shy female chief executive of one of the country's biggest corporations, Ms. Taher stood up to point out: "We have today made history."

The changes have gathered momentum since the Saudi royal family was shocked out of its isolated complacency and political stagnation by the Islamist opposition terrorist cells that supplied 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.

Women also could help revitalize the economy of a nation whose per-capita income has fallen to a quarter of its 1980s peak, even though Saudi Arabia has one-quarter of the world's oil reserves. Some already are using their small measure of freedom to start businesses -- a welcome development given that the population is booming and unemployment is rising.

In her speech, Ms. Olayan attacked the Saudi philosophy that her country could succeed without disturbing centuries of social rigidity. "If we want Saudi Arabia to progress, we have no choice but to embrace change," Ms. Olayan said.

While women are pushing into the workplace, they still make up just 5% of the work force in this country of 21 million people, one-third of whom are foreign workers. And not everyone agrees with opening up more. A day after the conference ended, Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz Al al-Sheikh condemned the Jeddah forum because "intermingling is the basis for all evil ... good and reform comes through following Islamic law."

At the forum itself, some thickly bearded Saudi men sat grimly silent as women spoke up with voices that trembled with excitement. Televised scenes of women active at the forum prompted angry condemnations in Saudi Internet chat rooms and a flood of protest telegrams to Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's effective ruler since 1995 and the man trying to lead the country toward the path of change. "We need this revolution. But we should be cautious," said Alaa Abdulhameed Naji, a Saudi Arabian Airlines legal adviser with a neatly shaved beard. "I don't think women should ask for equality. But they should ask for justice."

It isn't just the men who are conservative in a society that is just a generation or two beyond the tribal traditions of the desert. Madawi al-Hassoun, 40, chief convener of the women's part of the forum, said organizers offered to remove the wall of one-way mirror glass that shielded the women's section. But she declined, saying most Saudi women still feel uncomfortable being exposed to the stares of men.

"We're still a minority who want mixing of the sexes, maybe 30%. We'll be a majority, but it'll take time," said Ms. Hassoun, who runs a small complex of shops and a beauty parlor.

Still, women repeatedly took the floor and asked pointed questions about women's rights. Among the hundreds of men in the conference hall, at least, a majority clearly supported a greater role for women. Many clapped when former President Bill Clinton suggested women be allowed to drive. Leading Saudi princes and businessmen repeatedly included women in their comments and calls for questions. Women said the prince who is governor of Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca, and who co-sponsored the forum, now regularly meets leading Saudi women to discuss policy.

Amira Kashgari, a professor of linguistics, was invited two weeks ago to be one of the five women to take part -- via closed-circuit television -- in a newly launched national dialogue through which the Saudi royal family is seeking to re-establish its credentials with all segments of society and to develop new policies. On the third day, a conservative stood up to attack the fact that here too, women and men had started debating freely in the lobbies. To the astonishment of participants, one of the women argued back, pointing out that the Prophet Muhammad's first wife was a rich businesswoman and arguing that using Islam to justify sidelining women was a cover for backward social and cultural traditions.

"It was ugly for a while. But after the meetings ended, he was so polite, so understanding, so moderate," said Ms. Kashgari, noting that the next national forum meeting would focus solely on women's issues. "We're actually all a bit schizophrenic, both men and women. But we are showing that we are pluralistic, we can co-exist. I'm proud of what we have achieved."

Write to Hugh Pope at hugh.pope@wsj.com

Updated January 22, 2004

WSJ.com - Backed by Millions, Iraqi Cleric Pursues a Long-Held Ambition. Ayatollah Sistani's Vision
WSJ.com - Backed by Millions, Iraqi Cleric Pursues a Long-Held Ambition: Of Islamic State Roils
American Election Plans
Shifting Relations With Iran

NAJAF, Iraq -- On a recent morning in this ancient holy city of Shiite Islam, a clutch of young clerics quietly entered a drab white building at the end of a winding alley -- the home of Iraq's most influential man.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani received them in a humble room furnished with carpets and cushions along the wall. "Our country is going through a very critical time," Ayatollah Sistani told them, according to Seyed Shakir Dinawani, who attended as the representative of a huge Shiite slum near Baghdad.

At the gathering, the grand ayatollah, 73 years old, clad in a black turban and robe, and with his son seated beside him, gave his marching orders: Spread the word that Ayatollah Sistani insists that any new government be chosen through a direct election, not by the U.S. or U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders.

The grand ayatollah is the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq and one of the leading figures of Shiite Islam, a position that gives him tremendous sway over the 60% or more of Iraq's population of 25 million that count themselves as Shiite Muslims. His followers, numbering in the millions, adhere to his guidance on everything from which secular laws to obey or defy to proper sexual practices. In the last three months, as debate over the shaping of Iraq's future government has intensified, he has emerged as an essential player.

"Ayatollah Sistani has the last word," says Sheikh Qasem Hashemi, the head of the Committee of the Friday Prayer Imams in Najaf. "He is above any president, and his words are above the law."

Emanating from meetings such as the recent one at his home, Ayatollah Sistani's complaints and pronouncements upended the U.S. government's first plan for handing over power to Iraqis. His continued opposition forced the top U.S. official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, to travel to the U.S. for meetings this week with United Nations officials aimed at trying to mollify the grand ayatollah.

U.S. officials say a direct election is too vast an undertaking for Iraq right now. The Americans plan an indirect election in which caucuses of appointed Iraqis would choose the new Iraqi leadership. On Monday, as tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad to show solidarity with Ayatollah Sistani's demands for elections, the U.S. asked the United Nations to investigate whether a direct election by May is feasible -- and to abide by the U.N.'s call. Ayatollah Sistani had previously said he would accept a delay in elections if the U.N. decided they couldn't be held as early as June.

The maneuvering is just one part of the reclusive grand ayatollah's grander plan, one he fashioned for decades under the ruthless repression of Saddam Hussein's regime, according to close associates and others familiar with his thinking. That plan is to make Iraq a Muslim state and return the Shiite religious capital of Najaf to its former glory as the epicenter of that faith.

Mr. Hussein's removal and the prospect of a democracy that would empower Shiite Muslims created an enormous opportunity for the grand ayatollah. Since the war, he has activated a very large and rich organization he quietly built up since attaining the highest rank in the Shiite clerical hierarchy in the early 1990s.

His statements, conveyed by followers, indicate that he isn't aiming for a cleric-run government similar to Shiite Iran's next door. And his designs aren't necessarily hostile to the U.S., his underlings say. He has counseled his followers to refrain from violence and even cooperate with the U.S. occupation. That restraint is credited with helping keep Shiite-dominated southern Iraq relatively peaceful.

But the grand ayatollah also makes many U.S. officials nervous. While they acknowledge the long-repressed Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq should be empowered, they are pushing Iraqis to establish a secular democracy, not an Islamic state. "The new Iraq will be formed with greater Shiites' voice than ever," says a senior American official. "But will it include the kind of Shiites the clerics want? Not if the Americans have a say."

U.S. officials are also keenly aware that Shiite clerics have helped foment violent resistance in the past. They played a decisive role in chasing the British out of Iraq early in the last century. And the Shiite revolution in Iran in 1979 created a theocratic state deeply antagonistic toward America and its ally Israel. However they may differ in political structure in the future, Iraq and Iran could form a formidable Shiite alliance. The specter of resurgent Shiite power deeply alarms leaders in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

Ayatollah Sistani "is a public-opinion leader. It's madness to not take him seriously," says John Berry, the representative of the U.S. civilian government in Karbala, another Shiite holy city that is near the grand ayatollah's base in Najaf.

Iran's clerical regime has its own reason to view Ayatollah Sistani's rising fortunes with some wariness, despite extensive personal ties between Iranian clerics and the Iranian-born grand ayatollah. One of his main goals is for Najaf to leapfrog the Iranian city of Qom as the Shiite religious center. Qom rose to prominence after the Iranian revolution and Saddam Hussein's brutal suppression of Shiism in Iraq. Iranians are loath to surrender the spiritual leadership symbolized by Qom's ascendancy.

In Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani doesn't leave his home or speak with journalists. He refuses to meet with U.S. officials, as well, communicating with them only through intermediaries on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. But interviews with dozens of clerics working closely with him in Iraq and Iran, as well as others familiar with his operations, provide a picture of his organization and how he built it. Aides say his goal -- toward which he is investing millions of dollars a month -- is an Iraqi state that strongly encourages Islamic law in all aspects of life, from controlling women's dress to mandating prayer for school children to setting rules for marriage and divorce.

Precocious Scholar

Ayatollah Sistani was born in a small town in Iran near the holy city of Mashad to a family with a long line of prominent clerics. He was named after his grandfather, a prominent cleric who had studied in Najaf. Ayatollah Sistani is said to have begun memorizing the Quran by age 5. At 11, his religious education began in earnest at a seminary in Mashad. Before turning 20, he had moved to Qom, where he developed a reputation for challenging religious interpretations of far more senior clerics.

In 1952, Ayatollah Sistani arrived in Najaf and immediately became a disciple of the preeminent Grand Ayatollah Abul Qassim Khoei. Central to Mr. Khoei's teachings was the notion of "quietism" -- that clerics should push for observance of Islamic principles in public life but stop short of themselves grabbing the reins of political power. Activist clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini later broke with this tradition, taking over Iran after toppling the secular rule of the shah.

Over the years, Ayatollah Sistani rose through the ranks to the status of grand ayatollah and taught in Najaf's seminaries. Mr. Khoei appointed him to lead Friday prayers at his al Khadra mosque, a sign Ayatollah Sistani was being groomed as his successor.

In the 1980s, Najaf was entering one of the most painful periods in its long history. The city was revered in the Shiite world as home to the shrine of Ali, the sect's first leader, or imam. The Shiite-Sunni split dates to the seventh-century fight over who would lead Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Over the centuries, the rivalry has remained fierce and often bloody, with Sunnis dominant in most Muslim lands. (Iran and Iraq, with their large Shiite populations, are among the exceptions.)

Shiites Repressed

In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein's secular Baath party, which is dominated by Sunnis, subjected Najaf's clerical community to a brutal wave of repression. By 2003, student enrollment in the city's seminaries, which once drew Shiites from across the world, had shrunk to less than 1,000, from 7,000 in the early 1980s. Foreign students stopped attending, and frightened clerics flocked across the border to Qom. The government banned the Najaf clerics from publishing or importing religious books.

When Grand Ayatollah Khoei died in 1992 after being placed under house arrest, Ayatollah Sistani was selected by other senior Shiite clerics to head Mr. Khoei's foundation. That gave him a huge flock of new followers -- and control over the millions of dollars they contribute as part of their religious obligation to donate 20% of their annual income.

The Baathists put Ayatollah Sistani under house arrest in 1994. He could no longer teach in seminaries, hold lectures or spend his followers' money locally on decaying religious schools for fear of being accused of financing Shiite opposition. Instead, his close associates say, he diverted his attention and resources to Qom, becoming a leading figure in its rise.

Since the late 1990s, Ayatollah Sistani's foundation has been spending more than $5 million a month on student and teacher stipends alone in Qom, according to several senior clerics in his organization and in Iran. The foundation also funded housing for clerical students in Iran, a digital library of Islamic texts, clinics and publishing houses. Additional millions of dollars a month also flowed to theological schools in Syria, Pakistan, India and Azerbaijan, these clerics say. Sistani aides say they were able to do all of this by moving money through a network of bank accounts in Iran, London and elsewhere.

These activities helped Ayatollah Sistani forge close ties with the ruling clerics of Iran, who were bitter foes of Ayatollah Sistani's enemies in Iraq, the Baathists. "If it weren't for Ayatollah Sistani, Qom would not be what it is today," says Ayatollah Mohammad Hadi al-Mudarrasi, a prominent cleric who recently returned from Qom to his hometown of Karbala. "It's now time for Najaf's and Karbala's renaissance."

When the Baathist regime crumbled last April, the seminaries under Ayatollah Sistani's control in Najaf, known collectively as the Hawza, along with his mosques, were the only homegrown institutions that retained legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis, especially Shiites. Ayatollah Sistani deployed his underlings to oversee hospitals, schools, museums and even neighborhood security. Soon, Shiites across Iraq began chanting slogans such as "Yes, yes to Hawza" and "Hawza is our leadership," as the long-repressed majority experienced an almost-ecstatic release of energy.

Trying to hold together the internally fractious Shiite community, Ayatollah Sistani and less influential ayatollahs in Najaf have closed ranks, issuing unified religious edicts about elections. They have also opposed a younger, militantly anti-American cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.

But while his supporters say he isn't hostile to the U.S., the grand ayatollah's ties to Iran sometimes lend an antioccupation tone to his activities. An Islamic educational conference he sponsored earlier this month in Baghdad opened with the playing of an audiotape of Iran's hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging Iraqis to resist allowing the American occupying forces to rule their destiny.

Wide Influence

Ayatollah Sistani's influence reaches beyond Najaf to many parts of Iraq. In addition to giving every clerical student in Najaf a monthly stipend of $25 from his foundation, the grand ayatollah sends tens of thousands of dollars a month to various representatives around the country to help the needy and poor. Seyed Mohammad Ali Alwaez, the imam of the Kazemiya Shrine in Baghdad, says he received $25,000 at the end of the Ramadan fasting period in November. The imam says he spent the money on rice, meat and new clothes for Ayatollah Sistani's followers.

Ayatollah Sistani is funding projects such as the al-Murthada Institute in Najaf, an educational and publishing organization putting out the Hawza's first monthly magazine "Holy Najaf." His organization has opened Islamic centers in the Shiite strongholds of Karbala, Diwaniyah and Kut. There are plans to build housing complexes for theological schools, restore and expand the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala and build tourism centers catering to visiting Shiite pilgrims. Construction for numerous other centers and an Islamic University in Najaf are well under way, and Ayatollah Sistani plans to launch a Hawza satellite-television station, his supporters say.

In addition to cementing Ayatollah Sistani's influence, the new religious centers around Iraq encourage people to revere Islamic law and teachings above all else -- including secular law. At this month's educational conference at the Qamar Bani Hashem Mosque in Sadr City, the Shiite slum of Baghdad, a representative of the grand ayatollah advised about 100 women school teachers that they must ensure that every school has a designated prayer room. The representative ticked off other instructions: Teachers should observe the Islamic dress code, including the hijab covering their hair. In addition to the secular curriculum, they should teach the Quran and Islamic texts. They should forbid "un-Islamic" student behavior, such as watching music channels on satellite television and wearing tight jeans.

The situation could become even more complicated if more clerics migrate to Najaf from Qom, a trend some predict will accelerate and could ultimately create friction between Ayatollah Sistani and the hard-line clerical regime in Iran. "Give it time, within a year or two Najaf will become a free and open environment and Iranian dissident clerics will migrate there and will begin debating the divine ruling of the clerics here," says Saeed Montazeri, an Iranian whose father, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, is under house arrest in Iran for questioning the ruling mullahs' legitimacy there.

American officials scrambling to counter the Sunni-dominated insurgency are also increasingly anxious over the grand ayatollah's intentions. They say he could effectively nullify any political transfer to Iraqis he doesn't consider acceptable. That could create an opening for more-militant leaders, such as Mr. Sadr, who have long called for armed resistance against U.S. coalition forces.

On the other hand, some U.S. and Iraqi officials privately worry that making too many concessions to Ayatollah Sistani might set a dangerous precedent that the cleric gets the last word on every major decision made by the fractured Iraqi governing body.

"This is just the beginning," says Wamid Nadhmi, a political-science professor at Baghdad University who is a Sunni. "Ayatollah Sistani's influence will only grow. Already his followers are willing to die for him if he asks."

Write to Farnaz Fassihi at farnaz.fassihi@wsj.com

Updated January 22, 2004 12:16 a.m.

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