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August 31, 2006

Headlines about bombs usually grab us — except when they include the word “Iraq” — and they almost always do. We get numb.

It now takes plus-sized death tolls or the mildest rumor of good news to turn our heads toward the sandy winds of Iraq. This week we got both.

The good news came when we heard Iraqi troops bagged a supporter of the country’s most powerful militant cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

The bad news: 73 were dead, including 23 Iraqi soldiers, in the violent battle with militia fighters in Diwaniyah — a derelict Shiite market town about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

The operation was part of the Iraqi government’s strategy to weaken the illegal militias and halt sectarian violence.

The objectives are not new.

What is new, however, has to do with Muslim clerics, and what they’re up to. Do you remember when droves of civilians were lining up for their first democratic vote, when novice politicians were pounding the sand in their campaigns for parliamentary seats, when seasoned ethnic leaders bickered with ex-patriots over a Constitutional referendum? During these times we could almost put up with the bombs that blew. Through the tears, we heard strong local cries for patience and calm.

It was the voice of a cleric, not of a politician: “Times will be better.” “Avoid revenge.”

The man behind those words of wisdom was the stalwart backbone of Shiite and national unity, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He was the relatively-trustworthy, relatively-moderate cleric who stood up even against fellow Shiites, including the young, charismatic Muqtada al-Sadr. He condemned acts of violence, collaborated with coalition forces, and pointed his countrymen in the direction of ethnic cohabitation and democratic rule.

That voice is now almost silent. In fact, today in Iraq, such voices have been hushed by rapid and continuous sounds of quick-fix revenge.

What has happened to al-Sistani? Why is he silent? What has happened to other voices of reason? Why is there none?

Much has to do with the popularity of another cleric we mentioned above, al-Sadr. Tucked away in a city that bears his name, he has increasingly won over the hearts of the impoverished Shiites of the South. He is radicalizing the masses, and has made considerable inroads into the current government. His movement holds 30 of the 275 seats of parliament and heads five Cabinet ministries.

The once outspoken al-Sistani has resorted to a non-confrontational approach, as he sees his spiritual leadership diminish before the populist appeal of al-Sadr and others.

He is saying less because he fears fewer people are listening — and he’s right about that. But people can’t listen to what is not being said. As always occurs in vacuums of moral silence, the bad guys don’t hush with the good guys. In fact, they love when good people go quiet. They shout. And as crazy as their plan is, some are sure to follow.

Today in Iraq, and also at home, we need more voices of reason — clear and strong messages. At times it may feel like nobody is listening, that nobody cares, that all is lost. But hope is only lost when there is no good men and no good women left. Until then, we must speak up, even if only to avoid a vacuum somebody else will fill.

I think that’s what we can learn from the mixed news out of Iraq, al-Sistani and the rest of us.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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