Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Not only is the great religious reference Ayatollah Hussein Ismail al-Sadr different from other religious references in Iraq because he is open to all faiths and sects but he is also open to the media and intellectuals, both Iraqis and others. He is also different because he is open to all that is contemporary and beneficial around the world.
Sayyid Hussein al-Sadr, who communicates with others through the Internet, owns a satellite channel called “Peace” [Al-Salam]. He also owns centers around the world in the name of “humanitarian dialogue,” in addition to periodicals and regular publications. More importantly his institutions oversee dozens of centers and private education institutions mainly for girls and secondly for boys where they learn computer skills, drawing, the art of delivering speeches, and science. This is in addition to the health centers, orphanages, colleges, and centers to protect women and the disabled, which extend from Baghdad to Al-Anbar. Al-Sadr sees the Iraqis as equal in their rights and that there is no difference between a Muslim and a non Muslim, between a Sunni and a Shiite, or between and Arab and non Arab.
In Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat visited some centers and institutions belonging to Sayyid Hussein Ismail al-Sadr before he went to his office in the city of Al-Kazimiyyah where there were a number of visitors including a percentage of women and non Muslim men. Asharq Al-Awsat conducted an extensive interview that touched on most aspects of the current Iraqi situation.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After touring your institutions we were briefed on the amount of effort made to care for orphans, the elderly, the disabled, and women; this is in addition to a university, public libraries and health centers. How did you get the inspiration to offer this level of service?
[Al-Sadr] In truth this is our understanding of our Islam and the heavenly message. We understood the heavenly message on the basis that it is a theory and practice and not theories and slogans that are not merely ideological adaptations. The heavenly message came to serve humanity and to offer the human being everything he needs in general, whether they are the sons of this faith or other faiths. We frequently say that the source of the heavenly messages is one source and that is God Almighty. The aim of these messages is one and that is the human being. Therefore, those who carry the message must focus their potentials and energies in order to serve humanity, especially those who need to be looked after and to whom attention must be given, most important in this category are orphans. This is why we built orphanages. Praise be to God there are many orphans from various faiths and they are all Iraqis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means that not all resident orphans are strictly Shia Muslims?
[Al-Sadr] Yes, they are not only Muslims and neither do they belong to one sect, they come from various sects, Islamic schools, and all Iraqi ethnicities. We embrace them and work so they live in peace and security and so they become educated. They have a special school for all grades; they have their own health center and even recreational halls. There is a section for males and another section for females. We receive orphans, both from our beloved daughters and our dear sons, from advanced ages and the orphan remains in the shelter until the age of 14 and after that we remain with them. We are responsible for them within the orphanage charter that we put in place. We are responsible for an orphan until he completes his education and marries, and he remains with us and we feel responsible for him. Praise be to God we have taken in many orphans and especially over the past years in which many were orphaned in our beloved Iraq because of the acts of violence that are carried out by the enemies of Iraq and by the enemies of God, human beings, and the enemies of the heavenly faiths and Islamic sects.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any coordination between the orphanage and your other institutions and between the state institutions such as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs?
[Al-Sadr] We wish there was coordination and our hearts are open for any effort to coordinate that will develop our own work and open new doors before us in order to serve our national, humanitarian, and faith goals. However, the state and the government in general are busy with politics since they believe this is the most important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some satellite channels showed reports about state-run homes that care for the handicapped and people saw handicapped children on the floor in a dismal condition. It was said that they were neglected, beaten, and their food was stolen by the employees. How far is this from religion and where is the state?
[Al-Sadr] Of course there are some employees who do not have the proper spiritual education that pushes them to feel responsible for human beings. There is a portion of employees who do not possess the right degree of nationalism to push them toward serving the sons of their country, especially for those who need attention, care, and service. There is a portion of employees that does not possess the humanitarian incentive to push them to protect and respect human dignity and human rights.
Of course the handicapped person did not become handicapped by choice or desire, but they became handicapped by circumstances beyond their desire whether through certain hereditary circumstances or through terrorist circumstances that caused his disability. Therefore, it is not out of choice that he is handicapped. Therefore he needs attention and more care.
Thus, there is a portion of employees who lack the proper religious, nationalistic, and humanitarian dimension and it seems that sometimes the necessary monitoring does not exist. Accountability comes as a result of monitoring and employees are accountable based on the outcome of monitoring. However, without this monitoring then the official or the minister will not be able to know what this employee is up to and therefore he cannot bring him to account.
What pains us and is very regrettable is that there is one-upmanship in many centers and departments in a way that forgives those who are causing harm by their actions since they are related to such and such an official or follows the same party, sect, or ethnicity. On the other hand, sometimes some miscalculations are made especially when the political aspect comes in to play and forgives some of those who are not performing well because they belong to a certain party, ethnic group, or sect, and people turn a blind eye to their mistakes or wrongdoings to satisfy a particular party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mentioned that the state has been preoccupied with politics and did not pay attention to caring for orphanages because it (the government) believed it was not important. Is it possible that a state does not pay attention to such an important portion of society such as children, the disabled, and women because they are focused on politics?
[Al-Sadr] Politics in the view of many politicians means position and interests and not serving people and caring for them. Therefore, what really hurts us is what many Iraqis and non Iraqis say in the media and other outlets that one of the few decisions that the Council of Representatives has unanimously agreed on was the issue of their own salaries and privileges. However, many decisions that affect the people have been on hold for one or two years and have yet to be ratified. This is what happens when official quarters, at all levels, are born from such a Council of Representatives. There is no doubt that they will inherit and follow the pattern of this council. This is why we have not seen enough attention being given to many important aspects that affect people’s daily life, such as health. This is exemplified in many ways, including: first these health centers do not exist in many areas; second, if they do exist in some areas, they lack the necessary equipment to do the job; and third, if the equipment did exist then more often than not it is out of service either because it has broken down or because there is nobody who can operate this equipment; and sometimes it is only used based on who you know.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why does all this happen in Iraq and not in the rest of the world where such issues have become obvious? Where is the problem? Does the problem lie in politics? Does it lie in management? Or does it lie in the society?
[Al-Sadr] I believe there are a number of reasons: first, there is no true accountability for those who are not performing, and the lack of accountability is a given result of the lack of monitoring. The second reason is that many of our official centers are crammed with people who have been employed not based on their competence and qualifications but on nepotism and because of party, sect, and ethnic belonging. When the person is in charge of employing these people is unprofessional and not qualified to do the job and was appointed in this position based on other than the interest of the nation and his qualifications then of course his performance will be handicapped. This is what we are witnessing in our Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] He who visits Baghdad finds that it is ruined and painful and the majority of people in the streets are begging, while others are physically incapable. So if we blamed the politicians then we must ask about the role of the men of religion especially since God Almighty holds you responsible for protecting the faithful and the human beings?
[Al-Sadr] Of course. I believe that our responsibility is very great. It is so great that the Prophet [Muhammad] mentioned in his Hadith: “Those who stand longest [before God on Judgment Day] are the scholars.” This is because their role is so great. I say our responsibility first lies in the need to give advice to the officials and to bring to their attention where their work is weak and show them negative aspects and the difficulties the Iraqi people are facing, this is the first thing that needs to be done.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you given advice to the officials?
[Al-Sadr] Of course we have, at all levels directly and through all the media outlets, especially since we have a satellite channel. In many of our conferences and important seminars that we have held and which most media outlets ban, we mention the difficulties and problems from which the Iraqi people are suffering, most important of which is the health aspect. Three years ago we even opened a health center in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Governorate of Karbala. During the center’s opening ceremony we witnessed great problems that were a result of the lack of a health center in that area and its surrounds. I remember this incident as an example. Yet, political party headquarters exist throughout Iraq, from the north to the south and they are equipped with the best equipment and the fanciest furniture. At the same time, people in the neighborhood complained that they did not have water. As a result, we dug a few wells in the Karbala Governorate. At the same time, we opened health centers in Al-Fallujah and a health center in Al-Ramadi Governorate because of their dire need. We also rebuilt part of the mosques that were destroyed by the evil people and the enemies of God, Iraq, and all Muslim sects. We have many centers that we consider within our religious, nationalistic, and humanitarian responsibility and we stress that we do not differentiate between our responsibilities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the religion’s edict on such situations and on those who steal the money of the people and the state?
[Al-Sadr] Of course, stealing is a major sin and is forbidden. He who steals public money is stealing the money that belongs to 30 million people and not only one person since the number of Iraqis now has reached around 30 million. Therefore it is a major crime and he who commits it must be punished and removed from his position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the religious edict on such cases and on those who cover up for the thief?
[Al-Sadr] As for the religious edict in terms of the need to feel responsible, Prophet Muhammad said: “He who spent his day and night and did not pay attention to the needs of the Muslims then is not a Muslim.” Therefore, it is a religious requirement for a believer to pay attention to the needs of the people. Secondly, he who is put in charge and does not take responsibility to serve his people is no doubt a sinner, and this is forbidden. If he is unable to serve the people then he must stand down and give way for those who can serve the people and the nation. If someone covers up for a thief who steals the people’s money and he knows about it, then he is party to the theft.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the religious edict against those who know they are unable [to serve people] and commit all the above sins and insist on remaining in their positions?
[Al-Sadr] Of course, the result will be that he is not allowed and is not permitted to remain in his position because the official responsibility is the ability to serve, and this must not be the end but the means. Therefore, when he is able to serve the others and the official position becomes a means to serve other people, then the presence of that official is legitimate and blessed. However, if the official is unable to utilize his position to serve the people then he must stand down and be replaced by another official who is able to serve the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What if his presence comes from the fact of taking advantage of religion and sect?
[Al-Sadr] I say it over and over in my conferences that he who politicizes religion abuses religion. He who politicizes the sect abuses the sect. This is because religion is above politics and anyone who politicizes religion harms and trades it. Nobody can trade in religion or sect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it better that a country be governed by people who separate religion from politics?
[Al-Sadr] We often reiterate in the media that he who is in charge must have three characteristics: first and foremost is patriotism and faith in the homeland; second is competence and professionalism; and third is fairness and honesty. I constantly stress that religion must be separate from the practical side of politics. I distinguish between politics and patriotism because politics today means the art of possibility; and second, politics, at least in the understanding of Iraqi politicians is sectarian, personal, patriotic, and party gains. Religion is above all this. Therefore, in my opinion he who carried this heavenly message cannot become politicized. There is nothing wrong in a politician being religious but this does not mean he can politicize his faith. If a politician prays and fasts then I believe he is more capable of carrying his message and performing his duties. If he is aware in the way he worships God and his relationship with God opens him for serving people and works in accordance with the Hadith “The best of people is he who benefits people” and interprets every Koranic verse that says ‘for the sake of God’ to mean for the sake of mankind and for the service of mankind. This is what we constantly stress when we interpret religious texts that whenever there is a mention of ‘for the sake of God’ it means in order to serve the people because God is not in any need, is strong, and does not need the service of people. Therefore we serve God in his project of existence and God’s existence project is humanity. Human beings are the most important and dearest possessions of God on earth since He created the heavens and earth for him and therefore it is incumbent on us to serve man.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a problem that we in Iraq did not know before and that is the so-called sectarianism, and separating the Sunnis from the Shittes, and creating divisions between them. However, we are aware of your great efforts to fight this issue and trying to bring Muslims together.
[Al-Sadr] We constantly stress that there is no sectarian issue among the people of Iraq. The problem is, however, between the Iraqi politicians and with some politicians who do not have a strong popular base. Those politicians try to make sectarian division a way for them to gain benefits and to create a popular base. Therefore, the problem is not one between the Iraqi people. There has never been a sectarian problem between the Iraqi people. This is why during the most difficult period between the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 we met and received all spectrums of Iraqi society from all faiths: Christians, Sabeans, Azidis and all Islamic schools. During the conferences, seminars, and meetings we discussed and consolidated the issue of the unity of the Iraqi people. There was no problem whatsoever. The problem is that some politicians tried to create problems through specials benefits for themselves such as gaining certain positions. Regarding these attempts, which we see as lowly attempts to plant the seeds of the sectarian culture by those who carry this culture whether or not they are politicians. Then, we convened many conferences and meetings that underlined the ties of faith, Iraqi nationalism, and humanitarianism. Praise be to God the results were felt on the Iraqi scene even though the Iraqi scene is suffering from many problems.
A few moments ago I spoke about the health issue and how it is neglected. There is also the educational issue that is no less important than the health issue. Iraq was, and will continue to be, a beacon of knowledge and civilization with its achievements and symbols; however, today it is the second most illiterate country in the world. In all honesty, this means the death of Iraq. This is all because of the lack of attention by Iraqi politicians and them not paying attention to the most important point in the life of Iraqi people and that is education, culture, and awareness. A person cannot be cultured and aware if he is not educated.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that this is something that is done consciously by the state or by some politicians because keeping the citizens in a state of ignorance means they will not object to the policies of the rulers?
[Al-Sadr] In the science of logic they divide ignorance into two types of ignorance: simple ignorance and complex ignorance. The simple ignorance is that the ignorant knows he is ignorant. The complex ignorance is that the ignorant does not know he is ignorant. In my opinion, there are some people who do wrong intentionally, especially if they do it after they were warned. There are those who do not have the capability or ability to do the job or they are ignorant and they do not realize that they are ignorant. The result is the same and that is that education has greatly deteriorated in Iraq and many areas lack schools, and some areas have schools but do not have desks, teachers, or water and electricity facilities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this not shameful in a country whose annual budget has reached 80 billion dollars?
[Al-Sadr] This is not only shameful, but a crime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Today, there are those people who use sect to rule Iraq under the pretext that governance must be in the hands of a certain sect and not another. What do you think of this proposal?
[Al-Sadr] In all honesty, one of the greatest problems we are suffering in Iraq is the quota system. We have been reminding the politicians of this since the former regime collapsed and up until now. We continue to remind them that the quota system does not serve Iraq and Iraq cannot be built on the basis of quotas. What is required is patriotism, competence, and fairness. As long as the person who is ruling is an Iraqi then he is close to me. He is part of me, is a brother to me and the closest of people. I have often said in the media that the Azidi, who is the furthest away from me in terms of faith, is my son because he is an Iraqi. He has as much right in Iraq as I have. He has as much responsibility toward Iraq as I have. I have to serve him and give him whatever I can because he is an Iraqi. In my opinion, citizenship and practical patriotism require this. My faith and religion force me to do this because my faith respects the human being before anything else. The humanitarian message imposes this upon me because he is a human being.
Heavenly messages in general and our faith respect the opinion of others and allow us a space to interact with others. This is why when I established our first institution after the fall of the Iraqi regime we called it the Institution for Humanitarian Dialogue. I said what was meant was not to have dialogue over faith, but what was meant by the name of the institution was to know about the others’ faith and for everyone to get acquainted with the faith of the other. It did not mean to discuss the faith and to rectify and change the ideology, but to let others know about their faith. If someone knows about a faith then he will respect it and its symbols.
This is clear in the Holy Koran and in God Almighty’s methodology with his prophets and dialogue with others. He told his prophet: “Say: Will ye dispute with us about Allah, seeing that He is our Lord and your Lord; that we are responsible for our doings and ye for yours.” [Koranic verse; Al-Baqarah 139] This is the ultimate acceptance of the opinion of others. I have my duties and you have yours. He did not say this is only my God and not yours and my efforts are accepted while yours are not. In another verse he says: “Either we or ye” as though Prophet Muhammad is talking to another faith and to another opinion, and says: “It is Allah; and certain it is that either we or ye are on right guidance or in manifest error!” [Koranic verse; Saba:24] This is equality because he is assuming he could be right and the other wrong or he [the Prophet] is wrong (and he never is) and the other is right. This is a great method for dialogue. The Prophet did not say my opinion is right and all other opinions are wrong even if he believes it from within. When he was in a discussion with others he made all things equal and this is our school for dialogue and how we hold dialogue in our institutions. We have to respect the opinion of others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the religious edict against those who murder in the name of religion, for example under the concept of jihad?
[Al-Sadr] Of course, all heavenly faiths are distant from this. Humanity is distant from this. Islam and all its schools of thought and sects are distant from this. Islamic scholars have all agreed that he who renders a Muslim as a non believer is a kafir [non believer]. He who says the Shahadah is a Muslim. Therefore, his belongings, blood, and honor are protected. A Muslim is not to kill another Muslim. Imam Ali said in his message to Malik al-Ashtar: “Know that people are two kinds either a brother for you in faith or an equal to you in creation.” This is the greatest level of respecting the other. I want to point to the paragraph that says: “a brother of yours in faith,” which means any heavenly faith and not a certain faith or sect. In fact, even if he is not a follower of a heavenly faith then he is brother of yours in creation; i.e. on a human basis. This is our faith. This is our Islam. Therefore, he who kills or orders killing, sheds blood, violates honor, or steals money then he does not belong to any heavenly faith. Al heavenly faiths distance themselves from him. What is happening in the name of jihad today in terms of murder then this is not our faith. It is a political agenda that is wearing the garments of faith. It is hiding behind religion but has nothing to do with religion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on claims by Iran that it is a guardian over the Shiites in Iraq and around the world?
[Al-Sadr] We constantly stress the need to respect nations, countries, their sovereignty, and their opinions. Each nation has its history and civilization. Its present must be in harmony with its own civilization, symbols, and positions. The Prophet’s Hadith addresses parents and says: “Do not force your children to follow your ethics because they have been created in a time different to your own.” Therefore, if a parent cannot force his child then nobody has the right to force anyone [to do anything] or to claim a certain thing.
Each nation has its traditions, civilization, and history. We must respect and appreciate all nations. We must underline the need to work in a way that respects these nations and their sovereignty. We also say that we must be respected as a nation. They must respect our sovereignty, patriotism, and our Iraq. This opinion is not directed to a certain country but is directed to everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you follow the world news? What media means do you use? The television, the radio, or both?
[Al-Sadr] Regarding how I learn what is happening around the world, those beloved people around me tell me what is happening around the world day by day. I feel what the Arab and Muslim world, and the world as a whole are suffering in terms of positive, negatives, and developments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you watch television?
[Al-Sadr] Yes I watch television, read the newspapers, and read news sites on the Internet.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your daily program?
[Al-Sadr] Generally, when I wake up in the morning for the early morning prayers at around 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. I return to bed after performing my prayers because I sometimes go to bed late. I sometimes stay awake until it is time for the morning prayers and this is why I sometimes wake up late. I read the newspapers over breakfast. The first newspaper I read is your newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat because it is a very credible newspaper and I enjoy reading it. I read some stories on the Internet and respond to some questions that I receive on the institution’s email address. There is someone in charge of responding to questions related to fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and non-fiqh matters and they are run by me in order to rectify them.
I sometimes make time in the morning to read books or to write. I have two types of writings: the first is general educational and ethical writing. I always have a notebook for these matters and whenever I get the opportunity, even 15 minutes or so then I write something. The second type of writing is the scholarly writing in matters of fiqh, philosophy, or interpretation of the Koran. I often do this at night when I return from the office.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When do you meet with people?
[Al-Sadr] I meet with people every day. After the fall of the former regime I used to allocate 20 hours a day to meet with people. Now I allocate between 10-12 hours to meet with people, and some days I allocate more time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many hours do you sleep?
[Al-Sadr] Normally I sleep for five hours and sometimes a little more or a little less.