London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ismail al-Sadr is distinguished from other religious authorities by its intellectual and media openness.
While other religious authorities in Iraq do not allow cameras or talking to the media within the authority headquarters, Al-Sadr’s authority has its own satellite channel, which is called “Al-Salam,” has an institution concerned with “human dialog,” in addition to sponsoring dozens of free vocational education colleges that teach computers, painting, calligraphy, English language, carpentry, sewing, vocal performance, metalwork, and mechanics. The offices of the authority and the orphanages it manages are spread across all parts of Iraq, and the orphanages accommodate Muslim as well as non-Muslim children. Asharq Al-Awsat conducted an interview with Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ismail al-Sadr during his visit to London for medical treatment, and also for the opening of a branch of the Human Dialog Institution in the British capital.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the sectarian conflict has been transformed into religious fighting? I am asking this as a result of what is happening to the Iraqi Christians these days?
[Al-Sadr] The crimes committed against the Iraqi Christians are a tragic situation and extremely painful. Certainly this is a part of a series of actions by those who want to sow sedition among the Iraqis, whether at sectarian, religious, or ethnic levels. They are trying once at this level, and another time at another level. All the enemies have done their utmost to sow sectarian sedition, and have wagered on the eruption of an Iraqi civil war; however, they have failed because the Iraqis have been, and still are more committed to their Iraq, their homeland, and their country. Therefore, the Iraqis have not been swept into the civil war or sectarian fighting schemed by the enemies. Along the same direction, the enemies are trying today to create religious conflicts and fighting between religions in Iraq. In my opinion, their schemes will end up in failure, because our dear Christians are an integral part of Iraq, and of the history, civilization, reality, and future of Iraq; this constituent cannot be marginalized or bypassed. What is happening today is a passing cloud; nevertheless, we need to stress the importance of working to strengthen the national ties among all Iraqis of all religions, sects, and nationalities, and regardless of the partisan belongings that have divided the sons of the same sects, the same religion, and the same ethnicity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel through which Iraq is going?
[Al-Sadr] There are no problems among the different constituents of the Iraqi people. The Iraqis are standing together, and there are no problems between Sunni and Shiite, Muslim and Christian, Sabian and Yazidi, or Arab, Kurd, and Torkuman. The problem lies in that some political parties sow sedition among the Iraqis on sectarian, religious, or ethnic bases. These parties try to exploit this sedition for personal, partisan, or sectarian gains. However, the Iraqi people today are more mature than they were 4 years ago, because they have been coexisting with the proposals that called for sectarianism, unlimited partisanship, and racism, and have witnessed the failure of these proposals. On the other hand, the problem is that the political structure is based on quotas; this has been the beginning of the tragedy. The quota system is what has consolidated the sectarian and ethnic aspects. We have to work toward steering away from quotas so that the Iraqi situation becomes more Iraqi and more national.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that forcing religion into politics is an exploitation of the religion and the faith, and belittles the status of religion?
[Al-Sadr] Religion is larger than politics, and its status is higher than that of the political aspects and of the politicians. Religion should assume the role of the father of all, and should embrace all Iraqis with their various religions, sects, and ethnicities. Religion cannot become a political word. Whoever turns religion into a political word harms religion. Whoever uses the sect as a political word harms the sect. Religion and clerics ought to understand politics in order to advise the politicians and correct their mistakes. Whoever works for the benefit of the country, they (the clerics) ought to say to him: God bless you. Whoever steers away from the national line, they ought to draw his attention to this, and advise him in order to return to his Iraqi origin.
Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you in favor of forming political religious parties; I do not mean for Muslims only, but for any religion whatsoever?
[Al-Sadr] There is no objection to the sons of a specific religion or sect organizing themselves in a national party, provided that the basis on which this party is formed is not religious or sectarian. We stress that it is necessary that all participate in the political process so that Iraq would progress, but this is on condition that they do not use religion as a political tool, and that they do not use the sectarian aspect as a tool to achieve their aims.
Asharq Al-Awsat] Since 2003 we have noticed that the majority of the Iraqi politicians go to the religious authorities to drag them into their political projects, and we frequently hear statements by politicians that the religious authority has blessed this-or-that project. As you are a religious authority, is it in the interest of the religious authority to be dragged into such projects?
[Al-Sadr] The religious authority represents the religious aspect, and practices its paternal role toward all. Unfortunately, the politicians themselves play with words, and try to make their statements, after visiting the religious authority, a means for enabling them to achieve their aims and goals. As for the religious authority, he receives all, and advises and cares for them without discrimination.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you, as a religious authority, considered having a media voice, for instance a satellite channel?
[Al-Sadr] We always stress the importance of media, and of pursuing the establishment of national and mature media. We have experience in this respect, as we have established the Al-Salam satellite channel four years ago. In my opinion we have achieved some success. In my opinion this experiment should be expanded in order to present the religious side in a moderate and direct way. We need the media because of its importance in all directions, especially in the field of awakening faith. In order to understand faith in the correct way, we need a practical and not a theoretical Islam, and not the Islam of slogans and placards as presented by some of those working in the Iraqi politics today. All God’s messages, not just Islam, have been sent to serve mankind, and to be generous to man and to his happiness, and not to take from him or to assert their presence, their aims, and goals. God’s messages have not been sent for individuals to be their controllers. To anyone who speaks today in the name of Islam, we say: What have you given to man, because he (man) is the greatest value in Islam. This is Islam when Prophet Muhammad, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, says: Every one of you is a shepherd, and every one of you is responsible for his flock. This is the practical Islam when the greatest Prophet and the Orthodox Caliphs respect all the other religions and the followers of these religions, and allocate aid for them from the treasury of the state. This is Islam. Therefore, we need the media to spread practical Islam. We also need the media to emphasize the national aspect. There are many people who speak of nationalism and the country, but when you ask any of them about what he has presented to his country, to his Iraq, and to his people, his answer will be merely new slogans.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you carried out projects for rapprochement with the Sunnis in Iraq?
[Al-Sadr] First of all, I do not like to talk according to a sectarian logic and say this is a Shiite, and that is a Sunni; I talk about Iraq and all the Iraqis, whether Sunnis, Christians, Sabians or Yazidis. We have opened a health center, which we called Al-Salam; an office for the human dialog institution, and an office for the Al-Salam satellite channel in Al-Fallujah. The health center, the same as the offices, is administered by the people of the city. We will open a health center in the Al-A’dhamiyah district called “The Prophet’s Companions.” We have opened in the Al-Thawrah City, and in many areas in Iraq, poor areas, orphanages that accommodate even the Christians, and we have constructed schools in areas claimed to be Sunni and in other claimed to be Shiite. We have an institution called the human dialog, and we have convened conferences and seminars that gathered Shaykhs and representatives of all the tribes and groups of Iraq, including Christians, Sabians, and Yazidis, which were called the brotherhood conference, and the conference of the sects and religions in Iraq. We also convened the first fatwa conference, which gathered more than 150 Sunni and Shiite clerics, and they issued fatwas that ban bloodshed and killing man.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who finances your projects?
[Al-Sadr] They are financed by the shari’ah rights of the poor, and by the donors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iran interferes in the Iraqi internal affairs in the name of the Shiite sect or creed. What is your authority’s stance toward this interference, which constitutes a danger on the Iraqi security?
[Al-Sadr] After the collapse of the previous regime, Iraq was open and became the field of influence for many countries, especially the neighboring ones. The stronger Iraq becomes, the less the influence of these countries and their threat to the internal security becomes. We appreciate and respect all the neighboring countries, but we stress the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Iraq, the same as we respect the sovereignty of their countries. We want what is good for our people and our Iraq, and we do not want anyone to interfere in our affairs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We are asking about the admissibility of a neighboring country interfering in the Iraqi affairs in the name of the Shiite creed?
[Al-Sadr] I always say that nationalism is greater than sectarianism and the sect, and that belonging to the country is greater and more important than belonging to the sect or political party. Therefore nationalism and preserving the country is more important than sectarianism or ethnicity. This does not mean that I do not respect the sects, ethnic groups, or the peculiarities of these issues, but I repeat that nationalism ought to be above sectarianism and partisanship.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does your authority have an opinion of the Iraqi-US agreement, which is the center of Iraqi controversy today?
[Al-Sadr] We are confident that the Iraqi side will be wise in its decision, and that the negotiations will bring up what will achieve the interests and sovereignty of Iraq and of all sides. This is our general view of the agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the issue of the federalism of middle and southern Iraq, which has been demanded by some Shiite parties?
[Al-Sadr] Federalism is a civilized issue. However, there is a spectrum of federal systems, and we ought to explain what we want of federalism. We stress that federalism and the provinces, if they were implemented, ought to be coupled with the existence of a strong central government; if this were to happen then there would be no objection for every governorate to form a province in order to offer better services to the sons of the province. On the other hand, if federalism is merely the division of Iraq on sectarian or ethnic basis, this certainly will mean the partitioning of the land and people of Iraq, and will sow sedition among the Iraqis themselves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a thesis saying that the Shiites were wronged under the previous regime, and there are those who talk about the Shiites being wronged. What do you think of the situation today, and who is wronged among the Iraqis?
[Al-Sadr] Today I see that all the Iraqis are wronged. I am thinking of Diyali and its areas with its Sunni and Shiite population; many of the people of Diyali do not receive their rations. There are areas in the west, east, and south with many problems. Today there are many diseases that devastate our kith and kin in areas whose majority of the population is Shiite. When we talk to the state about these problems it (the state) mostly expresses its inability to act on the pretext of the security problems. The result is that I see that the Iraqi people as a whole are not in an enviable position; The Iraqi people are wronged and have not received their entitlements despite the wealth, resources, and abilities they have. Can you believe that a large proportion of the schools inside and outside Baghdad are without doors, toilets, lights, or fans?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this government Shiite?
[Al-Sadr] It is a national and not a Shiite government. However, what delays its work is the quota system.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it is possible to establish Islamic rule in Iraq?
[Al-Sadr] What is required is a rule that does not contradict the religion or the religious, any religion and anyone who is religious. A rule that gives freedom to all religions, and that gives freedom of worship. This is what is required, but anything more than this is not. We want a technocrat government that consists of specialists from any religion or sect, and from any ethnicity whatsoever.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your comment on the thesis proposed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi about the dangers of the expansion of the Shiite tide in the Arab countries?
[Al-Sadr] With all due respect to Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, I say that there are no dangers. I would like to emphasize to him the Koran rule that says: “For the scum disappears like froth cast out; while that which is for the good of mankind remains on the earth [Sura Al-Ra’d, from Verse 17].” Nothing is correct except what is true.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that Sheikh Al-Qaradawi studied for a period of time under the late religious authority Abu-al-Qasim al-Khoi?
[Al-Sadr] I do not think so. It is possible that he had visited Sayyid Al-Khoi, but he could not have studied under him, because if he had been a student of Al-Khoi, he would not have said what he had. I do not want to be sectarian in my address, but you have driven me into this answer. The Shiite ideology is a cultural one, and not an ideology of invasion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons behind your visit to London?
[Al-Sadr] It is for treatment purposes, and to see the doctors. I have had two brain strokes, and I needed surgery in my knee. This is the reason for my coming to the Britain of freedom and of respecting the dignity of man; it is a health reason. Within the visit, I paid attention to opening a branch of the human dialog institution in London. This is because this institution is concerned with the interaction of ideas and opinions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have called Britain the country of freedom and of respecting man. Do you aspire to have in Iraq a government system similar to what is here?
[Al-Sadr] We aspire to have a government system in Iraq that confirms and respects the dignity, rights, and freedom of man, and of mature democracy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the human dialog project?
[Al-Sadr] The human dialog project has human, intellectual, and faith aspects. The faith aspect is part of the dialog. Islam stresses the importance of dialog. The situation in Iraq stresses the need for dialog in order to know each other. This is because the Iraqis include Muslims and non-Muslims, and Arabs and non-Arabs, and we ought to know each other in order to cooperate on a national basis to be agreed by all. Half of the dialog is to understand the other.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the problem of financial and administrative corruption?
[Al-Sadr] The state has done as much as it can. However, the lack of experts in the principal positions has led to financial and administrative deviations. Therefore, we stress that the state ought to deal firmly with these deviations, because the state cannot win the trust of the Iraqis with all this corruption that is widespread in all the departments of the state. We stress the need to fight this corruption. One of our most important problems is the lack of a specialized reconstruction council that utilizes the expert committees and companies in reconstructing Iraq. We have to emphasize the need to have a reconstruction council that includes the experts, and this council ought to be far removed from politics and politicians, and to work with transparency and clarity.