London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ismail al-Sadr is one of the most respected and senior Shiite clerics in Iraq; he is also one of Iraq’s most open-minded religious marjas. 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. Al-Sadr is also the founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation which has branches in a number of countries around the world. He also owns a satellite channel called “Peace” [Al-Salam].
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat he spoke about the current political situation in Iraq, addressed the phenomenon of the politicization of religion in the Iraqi political arena, and talked about the efforts and objectives of his Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the current situation in Iraq?
[Al-Sadr] The Iraqi arena is a very painful one, rife with mines that were laid by this politician or that, for a variety of reasons. Some mines are personal, for private interests, other times they are partisan and factional, thereby acting in the interests of a particular view, party, or group. Other times the mines are sectarian, serving a particular sect or doctrine. This has been our problem up to now, in our beloved Iraq, which began with the idea of a quota system. Even states that have experienced a quota system for dozens of years now regret building their state on the foundation of such an [electoral] system. Unfortunately there are now politicians in Iraq trying to build Iraq on the basis of a sectarian and party quota system, which in reality is a far cry from the concept of democracy that is supposed to be the foundation for building a pluralistic Iraqi state. The opinion of the public is supposed to be the major fact with regards to the decisions and fate of the country. The concept of a quota system, which some politicians are attempting to implement, is contrary to the idea of democracy. Therefore, we see a lot of politicians floundering because the culture that they are following is a partisan, sectarian, and factional one. It is difficult for those who operate in a factional manner to then work with others as partners in building a homeland on the basis of citizenship, ability, integrity, culture, and knowledge. The problems that we are currently experiencing as Iraqis is as a result of this, and the politicians that care about the history, culture, heritage, and wealth of Iraq – and the current situation in the country – are a minority. Why is this? This is because the majority of Iraqi politicians are not interested in Iraqi concerns, but instead they have personal, partisan or sectarian concerns.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We all know that religion is sacred, and this has resulted in some religious clerics in Iraq opposing the politicization of religion and religious figures using their reputation to involve themselves in political affairs. Do you agree that religion should not be utilized as part of politics?
[Al-Sadr] In my opinion, anybody politicizing religion has insulted religion, and anybody politicizing their religious doctrine has insulted this doctrine. Religion is above politics, it is above everything else, and has love for all, even those who insult it; religion does not name anybody as enemy, religion is love, righteousness, and benevolence, and it is not possible to combine this benevolence with hostility. Religion is mercy, and mercy cannot be combined with hostility, and God told the Prophet in the Quran “We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures” [Surat al-Anbiya; Verse 7]. God Almighty did not say that this mercy was for the followers of a particular religion, or sect, or doctrine, or tribe, but that it was for everybody…for all mankind. Therefore using religion as part of politics or anything else is a great insult to religion. A politician is supposed to have an agenda, but religion is not supposed to be included within this agenda, and this politician should not wear the mantle of religion to disguise himself [or his agenda]. Religion is greater than politics and any politician; religion must remain scared. Religion must remain above everything; for this is something that always brings people together, whilst politics divides people apart, and there is a fundamental difference between what unites and what divides. Religion underlines the importance of humanity, dignity, rights, and status, whether this is in the Quran, the Hadith, or the stories of the Ahl al-Bayt [Prophet’s family], or the words of the Prophet’s companions. These confirm that everybody is as one, one entity, one body; this is religion…whereas [political] parties come to divide between the sons of the same religion, the same sect, and the same nation. Therefore whilst religion is something that is inclusive and brings people together, politics is something that is always divisive.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that some politicians who politicize religion in this way are doing so solely for their own benefit, and are aware that this is not in the interests of their religion, or Iraq itself?
[Al-Sadr] We must raise awareness of the approach which involves interacting with others, coexistence, and mutual respect, as well as how to build the homeland. Herein lies the major problem, and this is a positive for some, and a negative for many others. It is possible for an individual to be in possession of this knowledge, but the problem is in how to use and apply this…for those who have knowledge but do not know the required mechanism to safely implement and utilize this knowledge, it is as if they do not have this knowledge at all. Knowledge is a double-edged sword; it is possible for knowledge to be used to create as well as to destroy. If the person in possession of this knowledge has integrity and devotion – by which I mean a relationship with God and a sense of divine scrutiny, in addition to a sense of right and wrong, then the knowledge will be used in a beneficial and constructive way. However when there is no sense of divine scrutiny and no sense of right and wrong…this knowledge will be used in a negative or destructive manner. Unfortunately, we are seeing some Iraqi politicians using their capabilities and knowledge destructively, rather than in a constructive manner. Narrow sectarian and partisan ideology is nothing but a type of destruction, and this is a foundation that no country can be built upon, including our beloved Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your efforts to bring together the people of Iraq regardless of sectarian or doctrinal distinctions or differences?
[Al-Sadr] We are exerting two different types of effort; first is our direct communication with many politicians, and the advice we give them when we meet with them, such as the need for national action, and that this is above private, partisan, or sectarian action, and all other affiliations. It is possible that some of this has resonated with the politicians. As for our other type of effort, that is what we are pursuing with regards the whole spectrum of Iraq, away from politics and politicians. This is confirming that Iraq is for all Iraqis, and that Iraq incorporates all religions, denominations and sects, all nationalities and their parties. This is something that we continually stress in our meetings with members of other faiths, whom we respect because they are followers of divine [Abrahamic] religions, and we believe in all divine religions, and their books and prophets. From a national viewpoint, we consider these followers of other faiths to be Iraqi, and we must therefore engage with them on an Iraqi national basis. The humanitarian concept is that above all else, a human being has certain rights. I have previously said that the community in Iraq that has the least in common with my own religion is the Yazidi community, however as long as someone is Iraqi, he is my child and I love him and I will do my best to help him because he is an Iraqi and he has the right to live in his Iraq, as I have the right to live in mine…and that is the concept of citizenship. This is why we hold conferences, meetings, and seminars, hosting many key figures from other religions. Furthermore, we work in order to honor them, and confirm the unity of faith which is something that brings followers of all divine religions together, as well as confirm the national unity of Iraq. For example, I recall the great honor that was bestowed upon an important Iraqi figure and a man of peace, love, and humanity, Cardinal Emmanuel III Dely when he was named Cardinal by the Pope. Following his appointment, we celebrated this in the main hall of our headquarters, inviting many Iraqi figures of different religious backgrounds to attend this as an inter-faith meeting, and a great number of people attended this celebration.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many Iraqis expect scholars and religious figures to take a stance against the manner in which some politicians are exploiting religion; is there any chance of religious figures issuing a fatwa or even publicly calling for an end to this phenomenon?
[Al-Sadr] This has already happened. In my opinion, and this is something that we have confirmed in conferences, seminars, and the media; people differentiate between religion and politics, and we have tried to raise awareness of this concept in Iraq. We believe that we have had an impact on the Iraqi arena in this regard, in the sense that the outlook of many people in Iraq has changed, and the majority of the Iraqi people now distinguish between politicians and religious figures, or between those who exploit religion and those working in Iraq’s national interests. As for some politicians [who exploit religion] it is not easy to change this because they have a specific agenda. If a politician is not a patriot, then he has an agenda and objectives that he wants to implement and he is therefore not concerned with the words of religious figures [calling for an end to the politicization of religion] but rather wants to achieve his goals by any means necessary. Unfortunately we see a lot of politicians working in accordance to the rule that the end justifies the means, and as a result of this they do not hesitate to utilize all available means to achieve their objectives. As a result of this it is not easy for politicians to understand this message, they can hear it, but they do not understand and apply what they have heard. However at a grassroots and cultural level, whether this is with regards to women or the youth, the fact of the matter is that – in my opinion – there has been a tangible change in the Iraqi reality.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the public understands your message more than the [Iraqi] leadership?
Yes, certainly, in fact in a number of interviews that I have conducted via satellite channels or in the printed media…I have called on the Iraqi politicians to follow the lead of the public. I said that political leaders are supposed to be role models for the public however it seems that many politicians have forgotten how they should behave.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk in the Iraqi street about MPs who are receiving their full salaries and parliamentary privileges during this period when they have yet to enter parliament [with regards to stalled negotiations to form next government of Iraq] and are merely sitting at home or travelling abroad. What is your view of this?
[Al-Sadr] This problem is not just related to new members of parliament that have been in possession of their [parliamentary] privileges for a few months and have yet to do anything, but even those parliamentarians who were present in the previous parliament, and we can ask many of them, what do they offer? What have they achieved in the previous parliamentary sessions? These may be personal achievements…or this MP may have won concessions for his party, but what has he offered Iraq, and the painful and deteriorating situation in the country? They must take into account that one day soon the rate of poverty and starvation in Iraq may reach as high as 33 percent, this is not what we imagined, especially as Iraq is a rich country that has a wealth of natural resources, and Iraqis have been known for their hospitality throughout history, therefore how can the percentage there be more than 33 percent of society below the poverty line? What have the politicians done except sit in parliament? Are they not aware that Iraq has the second highest illiteracy rate? Iraq is a land of history and knowledge and famous scientists, therefore how can the country that first introduced science to the rest of the world have the second highest illiteracy rate? This is the result of the political chaos that Iraq is experiencing, and it hurts me to say that this chaos can even be seen in the media. Some Iraqi media, instead of focusing on national, intellectual, or humanitarian concerns, are acting in the interests of this politician or that, or this party or that. All of this is taking place at the expense of the Iraqi people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, how should religion deal with Iraqi politicians today?
[Al-Sadr] Islam, as I always say, stands above politics and watches over everybody, including politicians, with direction, guidance, and advice. We say to those who have done their best in all fields, God bless you, however as for those who have deviated [from the right path] and caused offense; you must return to the right path. There are some Iraqi politicians who deserve to be told “well done” and they do their best in the national interests of Iraq. In this regard I would say yes, there are those who deserve to be praised and blessed. However nobody is infallible and some people have made mistakes but have good intentions…and we do not discount them or the positive achievements that they have made, but not all politicians are like this. Politics is based upon interests, whereas religion has nothing to do with worldly interests. Religion gives, rather than takes, whilst politics takes, and there is huge difference between those who give and those who take.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the objectives of your Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation which has recently opened a branch in London?
[Al-Sadr] I saw that there was dialogue taking place on the basis of religion and rapprochement between different sects, and I said that this is not what is required, rather what is required is humanitarian dialogue that is not based on this religious or that, or this doctrine or that…but rather based purely upon a humanitarian basis. Dialogue between religions becomes debates and indeed arguments in many cases, and the same applies to [dialogue between] sects, however the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation is not for discussion and debate [of religious issues], but rather to discover and understand different viewpoints, for if you understand an opposing view, you will respect it…and this will lead to discovering things in common between your point of view, and the opposing point of view, and so we work to strengthen these commonalities. If this is with regards to faith, we work to reveal the things that different religions share in common, rather than trying to change the other person’s opinion. In my opinion, we have more things in common with one another than there are things which set us apart, and so we work on the basis of uncovering these commonalities, not changing other people’s views. This is a big difference between dialogue and debate which aims to convince and change the other person’s viewpoint. If you understand another person, then this leads to respecting their viewpoint, [religious] symbols, and opinions, and gives you the capability of building yourself, your people, and your country. In my opinion, this is the most important objective of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation is more than just a public or religious foundation?
[Al-Sadr] Of course religion is an inherent issue for all humanity, and therefore we must pay attention to religion and respect it, and the same applies for one’s doctrine or sect…everybody has the right to have their doctrine respected, and it is my duty to respect your doctrine or sect. By respecting other people’s [religious] doctrine or sect, I am [also] trying to understand it, and by doing so I working to discover its commonalities [with my own doctrine or sect], whether these are commonalities in faith – which include all religions and beliefs – such as Islamic [commonalities], or in a more general sense, humanitarian commonalities. I often remember a quote by Imam Ali (may God be pleased with him) who in a famous letter to Malik al-Ashtar wrote “there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you, they are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than that of yours, they are human beings like you.” For even if there is no religion connection between people, there is a humanitarian one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that Iraq’s connection and relationship with the Arab world has weakened as a result of recent events and political rivalries?
[Al-Sadr] Iraq certainly needs to open up to the Arab nations and the Arab people, for they are part of us and we cannot develop and grow without good relations with our own people and loved ones in the Arab world. I told a number of Arab ambassadors – when I met them – that what is required is more than just a diplomatic presence, but also a cultural and media presence as well, and on a variety of different levels, so that the people of Iraq feel that the people of other Arab countries are with them, sharing their lives and experiencing what they experience and sharing in the crisis, and working to help them. I said that the Arab countries presence in Iraq should not just be a political presence, but also an institutional, cultural, and economic presence, in order to share the lives of the Iraqi people. Therefore we need an open door policy towards the Arab world, and the Arab people, and we certainly share a common history, civilization, and language…and Arab countries stood shoulder to shoulder with Iraq through many trials and tribulations. Therefore it is true that we need to open up to the Arab countries, and that the Arab countries should open up towards us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In Iraq, some politicians are attacking others for visiting Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Do you consider this to be destructive to Iraq’s relations with the Arab world?
[Al-Sadr] Of course [this is destructive], we have nothing but love and respect for Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arab countries, and therefore we must open the doors between Iraq and the Arab countries, and we must confirm normal relations between Iraq and the Arab countries. We must [also] do away with the chaos and lack of clarity with regards to some politicians’ opinions of Arab countries, for this is something that is not in the interests of Iraq and its people. Unfortunately, some politicians view politics as an arena for conflict which has nothing to do with patriotism, and therefore certain politicians are utilizing the issue of foreign visits in order to try to make gains or weaken the other side, ignoring the importance of patriotism and citizenship and working in the interests of Iraq, its sovereignty, and the safety of its people. Unfortunately, this is why we see such conflicts taking place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what is the solution to the current situation in Iraq?
[Al-Sadr] We must remain optimistic, and – as a nation – remain hopeful, and always remember that “that which is for the good of mankind remains on the earth” [Surat ar-Rad; Verse 17]. We have achieved a lot in the previous period, and also filtered out many of the bad politicians…and on this basis we remain hopeful. However we need all the qualified Iraqi people to work hard [to make greater achievements]. Some might say that there are not enough qualified Iraqi people to achieve this, and I would answer that this is correct, because the qualified Iraqis who do not have partisan or sectarian agendas have been marginalized. However despite all of this we say that what is required from everybody sis to work in the interests of Iran, and this is something that will have a positive impact on the reality in Iraq.