Benedict Robin-D’Cruz is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark where he works on the Bringing in the Other Islamists (TOI) project. He specializes in the Shia politics of Iraq and the country’s Sadrist movement. Recently, he published an article at Carnegie, titled “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Authority,” which corresponded with tensions in Iraq between the two broad Shia alignments. Diwan interviewed Robin-D’Cruz at the end of September to discuss his article, but more broadly to get his perspective on Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement at a crucial political moment in Iraq.

Michael Young: You recently wrote an article for Carnegie, titled “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Authority.” What is your main argument in the piece?

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz: The article sought to evaluate the likely impact of the recent intervention of the Qom-based marjaa, or source of religious emulation, Ayatollah Kazem Husseini al-Haaeri, in which he sought to strip Muqtada al-Sadr of his authority. Haaeri is often referred to as the Sadrist movement’s marjaa due to his designation for that role by Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, prior to his assassination. However, I argued that Haaeri’s move was unlikely to challenge Sadr’s authority in a radical way due to Haaeri’s already fraught relationship with the Sadrist movement, dating back to his rejection of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s claim to the status of marjaa in the pre-2003 period.

The article also highlights how religious authority within the Sadrist movement is more pluralistic than is commonly thought, with Haaeri being only one of several sources of legitimation contributing to Sadr’s overall religious authority. So, the article also used the Haaeri intervention as an opportunity to discuss the broader issue of Sadr’s religious strategy—in other words how he has built and sustained his dominant position within the Sadrist trend as a religious figure.

Here, Sadr has used various techniques, including associating with a range of marjaas through study or by aligning his public statements with those of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and establishing a Shura Council of senior clerics to advise him on religious matters. The aim is draw on the religious legitimation of more established clerics without allowing any one source of authority to become too dominant and capable of challenging Sadr’s preeminent status.

Sadr also engages in a range of other techniques to bolster his religious authority. He continues to pursue religious studies with a view to increasing the level of his clerical training. He also engages in ascetic practices, has alluded to a mystical connection with the Hidden Imam, and draws on a personal-charismatic authority through the use of sacred objects connected to Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr (for example using his father’s staff and sometimes driving a Mitsubishi Galant, the same model in which his father was riding when he was assassinated.

Such practices are often regarded as heterodox and lacking in religious credibility. However, from a sociology of religion perspective, the heterodox-orthodox dichotomy is built into the dialectic of religious practice and explains how religious authority is constructed and reproduced over time. Consequently, the article also tries to deexoticize the Sadrists as a religious phenomenon, showing that in some respects the movement reflects general patterns of religious practice seen across multiple historical and contemporary spaces of religious struggle.

MY: One of the points you make is that “Sadr’s potential vulnerability could arise from missteps that undermine his followers’ perception of their leader as a protector, guide, and unifier of the Sadrist community.” What did you mean by this, and are we at a stage where Sadr may be threatened by such missteps?

BRD: I wanted to try and unpick the puzzle of how Sadr’s authority, his ability to mobilize his followers, seems resistant to political failure—in other words the inability of the Sadrists to deliver reforms, quality governance, or achieve specific political goals, such as their recent failure to form a government. Understanding Sadr’s authority primarily in religious, rather than political, terms can help here. The Sadrist base is not bound to its leader merely by transactional exchanges for material benefits, or by rationalist calculations about political utility, or the widespread adoption of a particular political ideology. Rather, politics can also act as a space in which the Sadrist base demonstrates religious devotion and loyalty (for instance, ethical acts without a strong sense of political instrumentality), in part by making sacrifices—whether in time, resources, and the risk of physical harm to themselves—on behalf of Sadr and his movement. However, this implicates Sadr in this enactment of communal solidarity; that is, he must uphold his role as protector, guide, and unifier of the movement. What I’m trying to draw attention to here is the centrality of a moral authority, rather than a political calculation, in sustaining Sadr’s authority with his base.

Recent leaks of audio recordings by senior figures in the Sadrist movement, particularly Mustapha al-Yaaqubi, a longtime member of Sadr’s inner circle, and Hamid al-Ghazi, the Sadrist proxy in the Council of Ministers, indicate that Sadr’s recent missteps in his confrontation with the Shia Coordination Framework (SCF) are causing significant disruption within the movement. The wasting of Sadrist lives and Sadr’s subsequent condemnation of his own people fighting in the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad and elsewhere were significant errors.

However, Sadr’s leadership position is not under threat. I think we are more likely to see a weakening of his authority, but not his displacement. This will undermine Sadr’s ability to be a broker among the personalities and factions within the Sadrist movement, resulting in less stability and coherence in Sadrist political behavior.

MY: In recent weeks we seem to have seen a relative calming of the situation in Iraq, especially on the inter-Shia front, even if we seem no closer to a resolution of the post-election deadlock. What happened, and where do you see this leading?

BRD: The chaotic escalation between the Sadrists and the SCF at the end of August resulted in the Sadrists stepping back, allowing the SCF, Sunni, and Kurdish factions some space to figure out a way forward. However, I think this is more of a pause than a deescalation. Most analysts are now looking to October and planned protests by the Tishreen movement, the youth-led protest movement that has sought to radically reshape the Iraqi political system. The first of these took place on October 1 in Baghdad. This will provide an opportunity for the Sadrists to reenter the protest sphere.

It has been clear since Sadr’s withdrawal of his parliamentarians from parliament that the Sadrist movement is trying to achieve a rapprochement with Tishreen to add to their own protest power and increase the Sadrists’ leverage by threatening to bring down any government that does not have Sadrist representation through street protests. Most Tishreen groups are opposed to cooperation with the Sadrists, but not all. Cooperation between the two factions is likely to provoke an aggressive response from the SCF and allied paramilitary groups who see a Sadrist-Tishreen accommodation as a major threat to political stability. However, this response is likely to fall most heavily on Tishreenis themselves, who are more vulnerable, and less risky, targets for the SCF and its allies.

MY: Ultimately, how do you see Muqtada al-Sadr’s relations with Iran playing out? In the past, the Iranians have sought to clip his wings, but he has always been careful to keep a line open to Tehran. Do you think this is likely to change in the future?

BRD: Sadr has repeatedly sought to reshape his movement’s relationship with Iran in recent years. After the assassination of Qassem Suleimani and Abou Mehdi al-Muhandis, Sadr travelled to Iran, but his apparent plans for taking a more central role in the Shia Islamist bloc were rebuffed. Sadr again appeared to try and prove his movement’s unique strategic importance to Iran by using violence to crush the Tishreen Movement in 2020, something which paramilitary groups more closely tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been unable to achieve up to that point, despite deploying extreme violence. However, Iran refuses to assist in constructing a Sadr-centered Shia Islamist political bloc, preferring to maintain a balance of competing political forces and alliances (including Sunni and Kurdish factions). This strategy is likely to persist. I expect a resolution of the nuclear deal with Iran will see Tehran taking a more active role in trying to organize the Shia Islamist political scene in Iraq, which will also entail brokering a deal with Sadr.