Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Several paradoxes co-exist in Iraqi Vice President Dr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a prominent member of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, chaired by Abdulaziz al-Hakim. He is Islamic, yet culturally and politically secular. He is a city man but socially more of a country man. He is a politician, yet more of an academic. In him, eastern Iraqi culture meets western French culture. He has a doctorate in economics from Paris and is known as a realist politician who translates his theoretical propositions, formulated over a period of half a century, into working propositions dealing with Iraq’s thorny political and economic problems, quietly, without the noise of political slogans and away from media limelight. As a communicator, he makes you feel he has appropriate answers to all of Iraq’s difficult problems. He is well connected and studies in depth the files of all the political, economic, and social issues with which he deals. As a politician, he is close to the people. Every Tuesday, he holds an open reception he calls ‘diwan’ where he meets with Iraqis from all political, religious, and national groups; listens attentively to their personal and public concerns; and then directs his aides to deal with the concerns and proposals raised at the meeting. In his first long interview with Asharq Al-Awsat at his office in Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Dr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi answered all our questions clearly and frankly.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have been nicknamed the secular Islamist. What is that supposed to mean?
[Abdel-Mahdi] Islamists have confused Islam as religion with Islamist as a description, and there are many deviations from Islam made in its name. ‘Islamism’ as a term was introduced in the 1960s and 70s and was derived from ‘Islamist,’ but it did not exist in Arabic literature before that. When ‘Islamist’ movements started to appear, the West described them as ‘Islamists’ and we translated this into ‘Islami’ or Islamic, and accordingly these movements appeared as though they were protectors and guardians of Muslims rights. But there is a difference between ‘Islamist’ and Islam. Of course a party has a right to call itself ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islami’ provided it does not appropriate Muslims rights to itself and does not speak of a second ‘pre-Islamic phase’ [Jahiliyyah] and does not monopolize Islam. This way, Islam remains a religion and belief or faith. I am against the classification of people as ‘secular’ or ‘Islamist.’ When you are a realist, they call you ‘secular,’ yet Islam is realistic, and realism has a creed. There is no realism without a creed, as there is no creed without realism. The most positivist or secular theory has some aspect of religion, belief, or principle. There is no doubt that socialist and Marxist thought has some aspect of creed to it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are those who call for separating religion from politics. What do you think of this?
[Abdel-Mahdi] This is arbitrary. Religion has apolitical aspect; all religions do. Judaism established a state and so did Christianity. This is all part of a political thought conflict into which we were drawn. The correct question should be this: Should religion be used as a means for excluding others, calling them apostates, nullifying them, and monopolizing the state? This is the more important question. What is wrong with a religious person working as a civil servant in a democratic state where the ruler is elected by the people in a general election — which is an idea close to the old Islamic idea of declaring allegiance to the ruler? If this Islamic idea were developed, we would have reached the ideal of democratic rule. There is a lot of research in this regard. Islamic thought is a ‘contractual thought’ with God and with others. Religion is how you deal with others, and the contractual aspect looms large in religion, particularly in Islam. Half a century ago, before the appearance of ‘Islamist movements’ and ‘Islamist’ states, some people saw such ideas as provocative. Before that, Islam was described as being the religion of realism and inclusivity. This was how westerners described Islam five decades ago. The important thing is how religious people behave. President Bush says he is a religious man. Many statesmen in the West go to church and practice their rituals and beliefs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever thought of establishing an Islamic regime in Iraq?
[Abdel-Mahdi] The constitution is very clear. Islam has always reflected the concepts and values of this people throughout history. Notwithstanding the ruling regime, Islam was always a reference, whether in terms of what is lawful or prohibited, or in terms of what is custom or what is law. No one has deviated from this reference, and anyone who deviates is regarded as living outside the purview of the nation. All residents in the region regard Islam and Islamic law as general law, whether they are Christians or Jews. The main point in the constitution is that Islam should not be violated and that the violation of Islam is a violation of the nation as a whole.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect this system to remain as you describe, or is it going to develop into an Islamist regime?
[Abdel-Mahdi] We are Muslims and we feel comfortable living under this regime and we are trying to be a just state. This is what Islam seeks. Some people go to the mosque to pray; some pray at home; furthermore, there are Muslims who do not pray and that does not put them outside the purview of Islam — someday they may return to prayers. That is how all religions have been practiced throughout history and how it is practiced today in Iraq. Consequently, if you are asking whether we are trying to establish a state for Muslims to the exclusion of others and apply the law with one specific interpretation, the answer is no.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Talking of the constitution, what has become of constitutional reform?
[Abdel-Mahdi] This matter is also important. I was given four months to produce the required constitutional reforms, but when the parties concerned failed to agree during that time, I extended the time for more discussions. The extension was made by agreement. Some said the extension was wrong and should be brought to an end. At any rate, the constitutional mechanisms have opened the door for amendments, regardless of whether it takes four months or more. Some parties did not participate in the first elections and they should have been given the opportunity to discuss important issues. However, what matters is that the Iraqis reach agreement on this important contract that we call the constitution. We have made good progress. The presidential council at its recent meeting decided to host the constitutional committee to report on points of agreement and disagreement and causes of disagreement. We found that most of the issues have been agreed upon, but there remain some sensitive issues that need to be re-examined, as well as some leadership meetings to reach agreed compromise solutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mentioned the term ‘parties.’ Do you not see that the number of ‘parties’ is increasing?
[Abdel-Mahdi] It is a healthy phenomenon to have several parties, but too much fragmentation could be harmful to the political process. However, given the despotism and centralization of power that we had in the past, the existence of many parties is a healthy phenomenon and indicates that we have gone forward, not backwards.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the ‘Accord Front’ likely to join the government?
[Abdel-Mahdi] The government and the Accord Front are close to a solution, although deadlines in Iraq are difficult to meet. Some issues might seem close to a solution yet take a long time to finalize. The important thing in this crisis is that the political language used by the parties has changed and no accusations are being traded. The parties are giving each other prior notice to think and discuss, and this is new in our political life. We are very interested in the Accord Front returning to government. We have made good progress in the security situation; we have made political transformations and preparations for regional [governorate] elections; and now we want to inject political momentum into the government, with a clear parliamentary majority and without major positions left unfilled. We hope, God willing, that such a government will create an impetus in the economy and government services and will solve many of the problems from which Iraqis are suffering.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your view, is this the end of the civil war crisis and the labeling of the government as sectarian?
[Abdel-Mahdi] I think the civil war crisis is over, and in any case it was a remote possibility, although at times it threatened the country. A civil war does not actually have its own momentum because it restrains itself from within. In countries other than Iraq, a tiny spark might cause the eruption of a dormant state of affairs, while in Iraq we have seen bombs, explosives, suicidal attacks, booby-trapped cars, fires, assassination of top clergymen and leaders, threats, kidnapping, and forced migration — and yet, horrible as they were, they have not moved any section of the Iraqi spectrum to wholesale confrontation. Confrontations remained partial and provocative as the zealots in a group tried to drag their group towards full-fledged confrontation, while the greater mass of the group, whether Shiite or Sunni, tried to restrain the zealots and contain them. Such was the actual situation in Iraq and it was there for everyone to see. Containment always came from within the group, while in other countries you may find wise men pushed by the unruly to confrontation and civil war. Yes, we reached points of extreme danger of large-scale confrontation, but we have transcended that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do members of the presidential council have any specific powers or do you just work as a team?
[Abdel-Mahdi] We work as a team; we cannot work otherwise because the presidential council has the power to ratify the laws adopted by the council of deputies [parliament] and decisions have to be unanimous. There is no room for division. All laws should be signed by all three members, and all decisions should be collective and unanimous. The nature of the presidential council, which is a reflection of national accord, is an attempt to reach the same decision through its several components. Any dissent from any of the three parties in the presidential council means not only obstruction of the work of the presidential council, but also the work of the council of deputies. Moreover, it complicates the work of the council of deputies, as a larger majority than the simple or absolute majority will be needed to pass a law. A 60% majority is needed in cases where a law has been returned to the council of deputies for the third time. Overseeing is different and varies depending on the case and whether it was overseeing the work of the executive authority or implementation of the law. At any rate, the presidential council enjoys a high degree of unity and works as a team.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have been close to the office of prime minister. Do you think you would have done a better job if you were prime minister?
[Abdel-Mahdi] No, not necessarily. There is no guarantee that I would have done better than others, and herein actually lies the sweetness of democracy, which enables you to choose the person you think is best suited for the times. It is not a matter of what an individual believes. I believe in institutional and team work and I do not believe that individual tendencies should prevail. Yes, there are personal tendencies and ambitions, but these should be controlled by institutional work and institutional rules, and the more these rules are respected, the better for the institutions and the people. This is true for everyone, not just for me. The more we put our faith in government institutions and play by the rules of team work, the better it will be for society and the more beneficial for the people and politicians.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have described your work in the presidential council in terms of team spirit. How would you describe your relations with the government?
[Abdel-Mahdi] My relations with the prime minister, the cabinet, and with the council of deputies are good. The proof is that it is not subordinate to anybody. We criticize, diagnose, and challenge views. When we are all convinced, we support the general policies. This is how it should be and this is how we do it. I think Iraq had enough of despotism, individualism, and self-aggrandizement. Governance in Iraq should be institutional. People should get used to criticizing each other. Sometimes we disagree on a certain law and we argue with each other; the obstruction itself leads to contemplation and thinking in order to reach a better solution, form convictions, or find alternatives that could be agreed upon. Sometimes a policy appears to be the obvious choice and is adopted. It could be wrong, and practice proves it to be wrong. The people start to have more faith in anyone who happened to have said from the beginning that this policy was wrong and they begin to share his views. These are the rules of the game. That is how people learn them and that is how they apply them in practice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you disagreed with each other in the presidential council on the execution of Ali Hassan al-Majeed?
[Abdel-Mahdi] Government institutions may have different constitutional and legal interpretations, and no institution can impose its interpretation on the other. This is the real experience when you enjoy freedom in acting as an official and use the law and the constitution when you disagree, rather than tanks, subjugation, and individualism. Others are entitled to their views; they are empowered by the law as you are and they are using these powers. This is quite normal; it is what happens in states around the world and we respect them for that. We respect states that have institutions that differ with each other. Note for instance the differences between the US Administration and Congress and how each of these uses its powers. We respect them for that. Such a situation may be disadvantageous in Iraq at present, but in the long run and taken as a whole, it is more beneficial than an individualistic rule, without checks and balances, making decisions that appeared to be right for the moment. In the long run, individualism will only bring destruction, ruin, and despotism.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you reached a decision on the date of the execution of Al-Majeed?
[Abdel-Mahdi] The presidential council and the prime minister have different views on the matter. Following the amendments made by the council of deputies [parliament] April 2007, all death sentences should be ratified by means of a presidential decree. When the decree is signed, the death sentence should be carried out. The presidential council approved the execution of Al-Majeed, and it remains for the executive authority to carry it out.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Security operations have brought the people closer to the government and improved their sense of security. Was it not possible to carry out these operations earlier?
[Abdel-Mahdi] I do not know whether that was possible or not. The actual situation suggests that it was necessary to wait until certain issues and convictions were ripe. This is my reading of the situation and of the capabilities and targets that could be achieved. Do not forget that Iraq had experienced many complications, all at the same time, in one single issue. There were negative factors that were piling up for many years and there were certain factors that needed to be ripe. When a government feels that certain conditions are ripe and can be exploited in the interest of a certain policy, it should not hesitate to act. I agree with you. The issue from the security point of view appeared hopeless. There was artillery bombardment, kidnapping, murder, and sectarian killing. The people were looking for security, away from any militia or faction, and this became their top priority. When the government exploited this actual situation, the militias and criminal bands, however large, appeared as nothing in the eyes of the people. You have noticed the remarkable degree of efficiency with which the operations were implemented. This was of course helped by the improved performance of Iraqi Armed Forces, the support from the multinational forces, and the position taken by the people in Al-Anbar rising against the armed militias. When the government invests in any issue, in the right place, targets will be met. This applies also to the economy and government services.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The long term treaty between the United States and Iraq has caused much debate. What in your view will be the fate of this treaty?
[Abdel-Mahdi] There is no agreement yet; there is a project and there is negotiation. We can talk of a treaty or a protocol or a memorandum of understanding when it is ready and we reach agreement. The issue is proposed as an idea for terminating the operation of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to regulate or terminate the role of the multinational forces that are acting according to their own rules and not according to Iraqi rules or rules agreed by both parties. They detain as they wish. They have absolute immunity from the Iraqi legal process. They come and go, in and out of Iraq, without Iraq’s knowledge, and they carry out operations unilaterally. These issues should be regulated, even if these forces were staying for only one single day and regardless of what happens later. Governance of Iraq should be returned to Iraq. In all these matters the governance, the will, and the decision should essentially be Iraqi. When we need someone, we need him in the role of an assisting party, not as a party to dominate us and to dominate Iraqi decisions. This is the problem. We are negotiating on this major point and the kind of relations between the two parties. UN Security Council Resolution 1483 put Iraq under UN mandate and the Security Council delegated to the multinational forces a number of tasks, among which is security in Iraq. This put all these matters in the hands of the foreign party. In order to rid ourselves of the operation of Chapter VII, matters must go back to normal. If Iraq needs any assistance in the field of security, it should be in accordance with Iraq’s law, under its authority and governance. There are many examples in the world that could be followed to enable us to get the support we want without loss of sovereignty and judicial jurisdiction and without removing the authority from the state and putting it in the hands of others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you regard Iraq’s sovereignty at present as full sovereignty?
[Abdel-Mahdi] From a legal point of view, it can be said that Iraq restored sovereignty in June 2004. In terms of international law this may be correct; even occupation does not take away the sovereignty of the state according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Some people confuse occupation with colonization. From a legal point of view, occupation, however ugly it may be, is only a form of administration, while colonization means the country becomes the property of others. In the case of occupation, administration is delegated either by decision of the more powerful party or by the United Nations, as is the present case of Iraq. However, all this is theoretical legal discussion and this is not the place to discuss it. What concerns us here is the actual situation. In actual fact, my answer to your question is in the negative. We rejected that situation in the days of Ambassador Bremer’s civil administration and we are rejecting it now. We said that a country like Iraq, a founding member of the United Nations, cannot be put under occupation in the 21st century. At present, a US military commander can detain any Iraqi citizen. By contrast, we cannot detain any US soldier, however heinous his crime. This is wrong and unacceptable to us. The US forces can take any building and can do whatever they want in any matter according to their rules. We are talking here about the nature of the US presence, regardless of intentions. In order to arrive at this place, I had to go through US military checkpoints. If the president, or the vice president, the prime minister, or the deputy prime minister gives an order, that order will not be obeyed, while the orders of others are obeyed, even though this is Iraqi land and this is a government building. You may give some land to an embassy and grant it territorial rights. The embassy can raise the flag of its state and do whatever it wishes according to the rules relating to embassies and no one can interfere with it because it has immunity. These rights may be given to embassies or military bases or certain regions. But to make the whole of Iraq beyond national jurisdiction is unacceptable. The Iraqi Government is saying this is unacceptable and should not have continued after February 2004. The agreement of 15 November 2003 between Bremer and the ruling council stipulated that agreement should be reached by February2004, but Mr. Rumsfeld (former US secretary for defense) prevaricated and we did not reach agreement by that date. Consequently, the rules of conduct continued to be the rules of one party, not common agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the agreement will go ahead?
[Abdel-Mahdi] This depends on changes to be made in the content of the agreement. The content has to be changed. The main point in the agreement has to be the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty and governance as it was prior to UN Security Council Resolution 661 of 1991. If foreign forces are needed, they may stay by means of an Iraqi decision and an agreed code of conduct for these forces that does not in any way violate Iraqi sovereignty. We hear from the United States that they understand our demands and regard them to be right and proper, and that the aim of the on-going discussion is to lay down a basis for the mode of agreement on these issues.