A pro-American fatwa…and a rule of thumb

We can’t tell the Shiites without a scorecard, and when I see references to a “Shiite schism” I start thinking about the linguistic possibilities rather than the substantive meaning. Thus when it was first reported on Friday that a Shiite cleric had issued a pro-American fatwa, I didn’t make much of it. In case you missed it, one of the stories reporting the fatwa came via Bloomberg News: “Shiites told to stand aside.”
The story recounts the fatwa of the Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Sistani ordering Muslims in Iraq not to resist U.S.-led coalition forces. Despite the kind of man bites dog newsworthiness of the story, I didn’t see much about it in the news over the weekend and attributed no special significance to it. For the record, it should be noted that, according to IslamOnline, the existence of the fatwa is disputed: “Al-Sistani denies fatwa not to resist invasion.”
In the Wall Street Journal today (unavailable online), however, Amir Taheri not only confirms the fatwa, he documents its significance. Taheri notes initially that the Marines literally liberated the ayatollah; for the first time since 1988, he is not only free from house arrest, he is free to travel wherever he wishes. After he learned of the fatwa, Taheri spoke by satellite telephone with the ayatollah.
Taheri’s Journal column confirms the ayatollah’s fatwa, reporting that the ayatollah said he had advised “believers not to hinder the forces of liberation, and help bring this war against the tyrant to a successful end for the Iraqi people.” According to Taheri, the ayatollah is the undisputed “most learned of the learned” of the Shiite ayatollahs. The news of his fatwa is therefore potent and “potentially tectonic in its impact.” Keep an eye out for additional news related to this important story.
Yesterday’s Washington Post Web site also carried a dramatic and important story on the Marines’ takeover of Salman Pak, the Iraqi training camp for terrorists: “U.S. searches shattered Iraqi guard HQ.” The story notes in passing that “[t]here were pictures of Saddam everywhere.”
Learned observers of politics have studied the the phenomenon of tyranny since the days of Xenophon and Aristotle. Modern writers such as Hannah Arendt and Alan Bullock have described the contemporary variant of tyranny known as totalitarianism in works of some brilliance. But I don’t recall seeing it pointed out that totalitarian tyranny seems to require omnipresent likenesses of the tyrant — in Cuba, for example, in North Korea, and in Iraq. In Iran, likenesses of the Ayatollah Khomeni may be the functional equivalent.
It appears that we may deduce the proper membership of the Axis of Evil with some reliability by listing those countries in which the leader is publicly depicted at intervals of 100 feet or less.

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