Faced with the perennial question of how democracy or something resembling it could ever come to the Middle East, few would argue for getting clerics more involved in running the state. Indeed, there is ample history showing how political Islam has posed significant challenges to republican rule. And yet it is Iraq’s most senior religious figure who has defied conventional wisdom multiple times and effectively ended political stalemates to promote nationalism, not factionalism.
In a country of car bombs, a resurgence of ISIS violence, warring sectarianism among Shi’a and Sunni communities, and profound corruption among politicians and tribes, national unity would seem an elusive objective. According to CIA statistics, Iraq’s population is 75–85 percent Arab and 15–20 percent Kurdish, with about 5 percent of the country belonging to various other ethnic groups, including Turkmen, Yazidis, Bedouin, Assyrians and Persians.