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Iraq: Religious Leaders Build Cross-Sectarian Dialogue

  • Nikola Krastev --> Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite clerics at a joint conference in Baghdad on June 4 (AFP) UNITED NATIONS, June 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Amid deepening challenges in Iraq, a dozen senior Iraqi religious and civil-society leaders have gathered at the United Nations to help forge global partnerships to rebuild Iraqi national consensus.

The two-day Iraq for all Iraqis conference, which concluded on June 12, aimed to advance dialogue and cooperation among the feuding social and religious factions in the country. Another goal was to rebuild bridges and advance cooperation between these Iraqi leaders and United Nations' institutions, U.S. nongovernmental organizations, and scholars.

If he could, says Iraqi Sunni scholar Sheikh Khalid al-Mullah, he would send his grown-up children to study in the United States.

But Western-style education for his kids is not among his priorities. Al-Mullah's family is now in Syria, where they live in relative safety.

"Today we can say that we are reaching a crisis of this distortion of religion," one participant said. "In this sense, I think, it's not exaggerated to say that religion is being hijacked."

Because of his moderate stance and attempts to bring Shi'a and Sunnis together, the chairman of the Sunni Islamic Scholars Movement in Al-Basrah says he has frequently been targeted with death threats.

The Radicalization Of Islam

Along with other prominent Sunni and Shi'ite religious leaders and scholars gathered in New York, al-Mullah was trying to convey the urgency of finding common ground and understanding amid the increasing violence in Iraq. He said that among major threats to the deteriorating security situation in the country is Al-Qaeda's radicalization of Islam:

"I think Al-Qaeda has a distorted ideology and vision and will pose a further threat to Iraq, to the region, and to the world," al-Mullah said. "People here in the United States, New York, Madrid, and London have already witnessed the lethal efficiency of such an organization. They have no respect and no boundary whether it comes to religion, or sect, or race. Their terrorism goes beyond all this."

Many conference participants shared al-Mullah's concerns. Among them were Ammar Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi'ite theologian and secretary-general of the Al-Hakim Foundation, and Sheikh Majid al-Hafid, who is a Sunni scholar from Al-Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and the imam of a historic mosque.

Despite their sectarian differences, al-Mullah says all of them are worried by the threat of growing religious extremism in Iraq.

"Obviously, there's more than one problem, but the most profound is the religious extremism," he said. "This is a new problem and if I have to look into the number of casualties as a result of it, compared to the number of casualties related to the operations of the multinational forces in Iraq, I would say that 95 percent of the victims are dying from actions of religious extremism and only 5 percent are casualties related to the security operations of the multinational forces."

Religious Extremism On The Rise

William Vendley, who is the secretary-general of the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Religions for Peace, says that the worsening situation in Iraq is a result of a continuous attempt to subvert religion, any religion, for nonreligious purposes.

"Today we can say that we are reaching a crisis of this distortion of religion," Vendley said. "In this sense, I think, it's not exaggerated to say that religion is being hijacked. This is true in Iraq, [but] it's not just true in Iraq. One could argue that it's true in Israel to some extent; one could argue that it's true in Texas to some extent; one could argue that it's true in parts of India to some extent. We have to ask ourselves why is this, what causes this?"

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim (CTK file photo)

Vendley identifies several causes for flourishing religious extremism. Among them is that religious extremists claim legitimacy, claim to be the proper interpreters of sacred texts. Often, he says they act in alliance with unscrupulous politicians who are using religious extremism to advance their own agendas and manipulate the public. Another major factor for the success of religious extremists in many parts of world is that half of the world's population lives in poverty.

"These people are easily championed by those who are using religious distortions," Vendley said. "So this is a potent cocktail that we are trying to present to ourselves to drink these days. And in Iraq you have this cocktail mixed and served on a daily basis."

Improving Security In Iraq

Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim is an Islamic scholar and lecturer at a theological institute in Al-Najaf. His father is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, one of the most senior religious figures in Iraq. Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim says holding this reconciliation conference in New York, and particularly on the UN grounds, draws more international attention to Iraq's domestic problems.

"It is an essential prerequisite in any reconciliation process for people to sit together," al-Hakim said. "Obviously, we've done that before. And in a place like this, it is also to give a sense that Iraqis share the same goals. The situation today in Iraq is not exclusive to Iraqis. We all know that there is a international row within Iraq. And sending a message to the international community is important for making a change on the ground."

The al-Hakim family is an important element in Al-Najaf, and Muhammad Husayn al-Hakim is considered a voice of moderation and coexistence, despite a bomb attack on his father's house and occasional death threats. Al-Hakim says that at this juncture it is obvious that a sudden withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq would probably lead to the disintegration of the state.

"The important point obviously is that there is a security issue," al-Hakim said. "Everybody -- regardless of their opinion of the U.S. military presence in Iraq -- recognizes that a vacuum may lead to more death and bloodshed. What we want is the speedy construction and buildup of the Iraqi forces and as soon as that's ready, then there wouldn't be any need for the Americans or for any other forces to stay in Iraq."

Many of the participants in the New York conference have been meeting since May 2003 in a series of similar dialogues organized by Religions For Peace. The goal is to create an interreligious council in Iraq. Previous meetings took place in Iraq, Japan, Jordan, England, Norway, and South Korea.

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
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