Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraq’s Shi’ite community remained divided this week ahead of nationwide elections on April 30 after Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr criticized a controversial fatwa banning the election of secular candidates.
Kazem Al-Haeri, a prominent Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah in Iraq, issued a fatwa last month banning the election of any “secular” candidate. Haeri is the former member of the Islamic Dawa Party currently led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Large banners appeared across Baghdad in late March depicting the ayatollah and bearing the text of the fatwa, raising fears of inter-Shi’ite division at the elections.
Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr issued a statement on Thursday criticizing the fatwa, saying candidates are only required to have “patriotism, integrity and competence,” regardless of their religious beliefs. Sadr is the founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, an intellectual organization based in London concerned with promoting inter-religions dialogue, in addition to the owner of the religious Al-Salam satellite TV channel.
“Religion should not be a condition for election. Perhaps a candidate of a different religion from that of the voter may be fitter than a candidate of the same religion. [Religious] doctrine is a personal issue related to individuals’ convictions and does not necessarily indicate one’s competence, patriotism or integrity,” the statement said.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Haidar Al-Gharab, who is close to Sadr, said: “Secularism has two concepts, one based on the separation of religion from the state and politics and another aimed at reducing [the role of] religion and giving humans the freedom to do everything, including the freedoms of disbelief and engaging in immoral acts.”
Gharabi also warned against the Iraqi electorate being deceived by self-proclaimed Islamist parties in Iraq: “They use sectarianism when it benefits and serves them while they work to reduce the role of [religious] authority when it contradicts their interests.” He criticized parties such as this for “sowing the seeds of sectarianism in Iraqi society.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki secured a second term in office in 2010 largely due to the backing of Iraqi Shi’ite parties, including the Sadrist Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). He is facing a strong challenge in this campaign from the majority Sunni Moutahidoun Coalition led by Parliamentary Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, while ISCI and the Sadrists have been openly critical of his performance, particularly over security issues.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is the highest-ranking Shi’ite cleric in Iraq; he traditionally does not get involved in politics, choosing to remaining equidistant from all political parties on the scene. On February 24, he issued a statement calling on Iraqi voters to actively take part in the April 30 elections and “choose wisely.” He called on the Iraqi electorate to differentiate between politicians who work to serve the public and fight corruption and those who work to benefit themselves, without explicitly referring to any side.