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Ayatollah Hussein Al-Sadr: Arab states must embrace Iraq - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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File photo of Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

File photo of Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Prominent Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr said that there is more that unites Sunnis and Shi’ites than divides them, calling on all Muslims to stand together against the threat of terrorist and extremist ideology as represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Sadr, who is the founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, called on regional and international states to embrace Iraq and provide the Iraqi government and people with all possible forms of assistance to help it overcome the threat of terrorism. He issued repeated calls for Muslims of all “schools of though” to conduct dialogue and reach consensus on how to deal with extremist ideology.

The well-known Iraqi cleric, who previously championed the Baghdad Religious Accords in 2004, called for a “revival” and “renewal” of religious thought.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The region is currently witnessing unprecedented consensus regarding the importance of addressing and combating extremist thought while an international alliance, comprised of more than 40 states, is seeking to combat extremist militants on the ground. What is your position on the latest developments on the ground in Iraq?

Ayatollah Hussein Ismail Al-Sadr: I believe that this is a positive development and part of the ideological and political growth of the region which is something that is taking place slowly but surely after many experiments, some of which have been harsh and difficult. What all parties should do at the present time is to exploit this development in the right way in order to help this process along and go beyond these interim agreements to combat terrorism and ISIS to create a permanent state of equity and agreement between all regional forces and allow all the people of the region to enjoy the fruits of this.

Accordingly, we are calling for all parties to be more open to all parties taking part in the front that is confronting terrorism and extremism so that we can stand together, hand in hand, against extremism in all its forms. Terrorism threats all states and people, seeking to target everybody without exception.

I am therefore calling on Arab states to embrace Iraq and provide all possible forms of assistance to this wounded country. I am also calling on Iraq to open up to all its Arab brothers, and particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is our strategic depth and which stood—along with the rest of the Arab Gulf states—with our people. Ultimately, there is much to link Iraq with its [Arab] surroundings.

On the other hand, Iraq is the front-line in the fight against terrorism and extremism. If Iraq is successful, then the region as a whole will be successful. While if Iraq fails or suffers [to confront extremism], then this will affect all other regional states.

Q: However some parties in Iraq and region believe that this international alliance is not doing enough to confront terrorist and extremism. Do you agree?

The current exceptional situation [in the region] means that everybody must be open to all attempts to combat extremism and welcome any efforts in this regard. We must overcome differences and focus on the common threat, for ultimately there is far more that unites us than divides us. So when any party says that it is willing to help and is extending the hand of assistance, we must respond to this positively and expand the circle of participation.

Q: Isn’t it true to say that accusations are being exchanged by certain Iraqi parties over who is responsible for the situation that the country is facing today? As well as broader accusations regarding who is responsible for the situation in the region as a whole? In light of all this, how can we work together to reach common goals?

Firstly, now is not the time to blame one side or another [for this situation]. We are facing a massive threat, and this is a threat that is targeting all regional states so we therefore share a joint fate. The situation today requires that we unite more than at any time before so that we are ready to confront this challenge and move towards a better future.

Secondly, we must move away from such generalizations that will only lead to bad decision-making. No party can be completely blamed or held responsible [for this situation]. There are always parties who are not involved who find themselves subject to accusations when sweeping judgments such as this are made. God Almighty has forbidden us from this. He said: “When you go forth (to fight) in the way of Allah, be careful to discriminate, and say not unto one who offereth you peace: ‘Thou art not a believer.’” [Surat Al-Nisa; Verse 94].

We must also discriminate between terrorists coming from certain countries and the positions taken by these countries and their people towards terrorism. They [terrorists] represent only a tiny minority of the people who we share a common religion, culture and language with. So what we must all understand is that there is no absolute solution to worldly conflicts, so we must learn how to reach compromises to resolve such differences, rather than resorting to threats. The essence of politics is to reach practical and inclusive solutions that serve the interests of all parties and assess risk accurately and confront this with the lowest cost and the highest reward possible.

Q: What about claims that rival Islamic sects cannot carry this kind of dialogue owing to theological differences and the reality of the rift that has divided them for centuries?

I would like to emphasize something that I have repeated on numerous occasions, namely that I do not believe in the presence of different Islamic sects or doctrines, rather there are different Islamic schools of thought, nothing more. All Muslims can agree on the basic principles and foundations of the religion of Islam, so these differences are nothing more than the differences between schools of thought.

Conflict did not emerge from these ideological differences; rather this is the result of the ignorance and intolerance of worshipers who are promoting a culture of violence and exclusion against others who they share a majority of beliefs with. The proof of this is that when the emotions subside and we sit down to talk at the same table, we see that the differences of opinion are not as broad as we had previously thought. I personally believe that the largest part of the problem of religious violence today is not the differences that are present between the different schools of Islamic thought but the moral barriers and spiritual ailments that lead us to take the path of enmity and violence rather than [the path of] dialogue, understanding and mutual acceptance.

Q: Have you reached agreements with other religious leaders regarding how to reduce religious violence?

There is ongoing communication that link us with all schools of Islamic thought in Iraq, as well as other schools of thought in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, not to mention Al-Azhar [in Egypt]. We are happy today regarding the convergence in our views [towards extremism] and the fatwas that are being issued by different parties criticizing and rejecting extremism and calling for moderation. Nevertheless, we are calling on all parties to take a more aggressive and openly critical stance against the sources of violence and hatred.

There are many views regarding how to deal with followers of other religions which need to be updated and renewed. We are calling for all parties to establish and promote a humane approach to religion and eradicate all the roots of violence and hatred. We are calling for the provision of a different and realistic version of the true religion [of Islam] which is characterized by its representation of the values of mercy, compassion and love . . .that the message of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was based on. This is the meaning behind the famous story that religion needs to be renewed and revived every one hundred years. Therefore, we have formed the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation to be inclusive of all regions and sects and schools of thought without exception.

Today, we are living in a global village that brings together people of all different beliefs and backgrounds, and we must face all these major challenges together. Therefore, we must be open towards other people and work together to overcome the dangers facing mankind. As for the Abrahamic religions, a special institute has been formed called the Abrahamic Center for Convergence and Dialogue under the umbrella of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation to support this. We are open to all noble efforts by other similar organizations, such as the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue and the ecumenical council for dialogue at the Vatican. We must all work together on the basis of the objectives that unite us, and they are many.

Q: The region today is witnessing a mass exodus of religious minorities, with many suffering at the hands of extremist militants owing to their religious beliefs. What is the reason for this intolerance and how can we best confront it?

As I said in my previous answer and as I have said in a number of previous statements and fatwas regarding our brothers the Yazidis [in Iraq] and other religious minorities, the problem is the result of the loss of the humane approach from religious understanding. For when this is not based on the foundation of citizenship and equality, we see these kinds of problems.

The evacuation of the region, and Iraq in particular, from [religious] minorities has particularly harmed our cultural diversity and reduces the capacity for tolerance in our society, expanding the vision of violence and hatred. The militants attempts to “purge” religious minorities are endless and will lead us to a spiral of unending violence and hatred. When you begin by driving out the minorities, you will subsequently see [other] Islamic schools of thought being excluded due to theological differences of opinion with the militants, and then there will only be one extremist interpretation being offered. This means that extremism is equally a threat to Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, as much as it is a threat to the religious minorities themselves. We are all in one ship; if a lunatic decides to drill a hole in the ship’s keel, we will all drown together.

To be frank, heritage is the source of [religious] extremism, to a large extent. What we are seeing today is the result of the accumulation of a heritage rooted in a culture of violence based on a wrong interpretation of religion. Therefore, we religious preachers are calling for a comprehensive and sincere reform initiative that comprises all aspects of religious understanding, from jurisprudence to theology to morality. We must also stand courageously and openly against the misuse of religion by groups that have political agendas and which are simply seeking to reach power. All of this harms religion and makes it a tool in the hands of extremism that can be used to serve political agendas.