Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The University of Kufa conference on "Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Dialogue of Civilizations"

Recently I had the privilege to attend a conference, “Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Dialogue of Civilizations” (al-Ta’addudiya al-Diniya wa-l-Tasamuh fi Ufuq al-Hadarat), that was sponsored by the University of Kufa and the Institute for Intellectual Studies in al-Najaf Governorate.  What was the purpose of the conference and what did it accomplish?

I have attended many conferences in the Middle East but this one was truly unique.  First, it sought to address in a very direct way the problem of sectarianism that has become a social and political disease in much of the Middle East.  Secondly, it brought together members of a wide variety of religions, confessions and ethnic groups to discuss the threat that sectarianism and the violence that it produces poses not just to the Middle East but the global community as a whole. Third, it asked speakers to present not only analytic but normative papers, namely those that offered solutions to the problems they raised in their presentations.

Dr. Akeel Abd Yasssin
The conference, which is part of an effort of the University of Kufa to bring a UNESCO Chair in Inter-Faith Dialogue to the university, assembled a truly impressive group of participants.  The conference was organized under the leadership of the President of the University of Kufa, Dr. Akeel Abd Yassin.  It was also sponsored by the Institute for Intellectual Studies in al-Najaf, directed by Sayyid Ammar Abu Rgheif. 

The conference invited clerics from a wide variety of confessional backgrounds and countries.  Shiite, Sunni and Christian clerics from Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and academics from Iraq, Northern Ireland, Iran and the United States contributed to the conference’s ecumenical quality.  Prince Hasan of Jordan made a presentation to the Opening Session via videoconferencing of which the conference organizers were very proud. 
The Grand Hall of the University of Kufa modeled after the Grand Mosque of Kufa
Sunni participants, such as Dr. Abd al-Sittar al-Jumaily, president of Samarra University, Shaykh Abdullateef al-Humayyim from al-Anbar, Dr. Farhan al-Tamimi, Professor of Comparative Religions and one of his graduate students from Tikrit University, and a colleague, Dr. Faris Kamal Omar Nadhmi from Salahiddin University in Arbil, also attended the conference, demonstrating its inclusive character.  All too often Western analysts reduce Iraqi society to an amalgam  of Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds, who supposedly dislike and cannot get along with one another.   This Western bias was belied by the behavior of Shiites and Sunnis interacting in a relaxed and constructive manner that I witnessed at the conference and in al-Najaf - a pattern of behavior  that I have witnessed in many trips to Iraq going back to my first visit in May and June of 1980.

The conference’s Opening Session al-Najaf’s Place of Culture (Qasr al-Thaqafa) was attended by over 1000 guests.  The opening session as followed by a full day of panels in which speakers laid out arguments detailing that sectarianism and sectarian violence contradict the core tenets of all 3 of the world’s Abrahamic religions.  

What was most stunning about the conference was its ecumenical spirit.  Many different viewpoints were expressed on matters relating religion and public life.  Spirited debates not only took place during the conference sessions but at the luncheons and dinners that followed, where vigorous discussion continued.  The success of the conference cannot just be measured by the number and quality of the speakers, but by the fact that, in a country which the West often views through the conceptual prism of sectarianism, Iraqis and foreigners of widely divergent perspectives could come together and engage in an open dialogue without hostility or vituperation.

Before making my (Arabic) presentation in the afternoon session on the first day, I unfolded a large white T-shirt with the words “IRAQ MUSEUM” written on it.  I had hardly opened the shirt when the entire audience burst into applause, aware that this was part of the international effort to save the heritage of the Iraq Museum that was looted during the US invasion in 2003.  Indeed the shirt was distributed at a candlelight vigil, organized by the Rutgers University Department of Art History, at which I had been asked to speak in the spring of 2008 on the 5th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum.

I then gave my presentation, “Pluralism or Sectarianism?  Building a Tolerant Political Culture through Religion and Historical Memory in the New Iraq  (al-Tacaddudiya aw al-Ta’ifiya?  cAmaliyat Bina’ al-Thaqafa al-Siyasiya al-Mutasamiha cala Usul al-Din wa-l-Dhakira al-Tarikhiya fi-i-cIraq al-Jadid).     

Among other points, I argued for the need to rewrite Iraqi school textbooks to give a true representation of pre-Ba’thist Iraq. Iraqi youth – 70% of the population under the age of 30 – need to better comprehend that the current sectarian violence in Iraq is not the result of a set of “ancient hatreds” that set Iraqi apart, but the result of a state, both in Baghdad and Arbil, that has failed to meet its civic responsibilities and, as a result, allowed sectarian entrepreneurs (tujjar al-siyasa) to fill the economic, social and political  vacuum created the lack of social services and a leadership that emphasizes inclusiveness.

Beyond the conference, there were many developments at which to marvel at the University of Kufa.  The architecture of the main administration building, that houses President Akeel Abd Yassin’s office and many classrooms, is modeled on the Grand Mosque of Kufa.  Everywhere one looks, construction is taking place, either in expanding the university's existing faculties or building new ones.  

Conference participants at the Imam Ali Shrine
Among the faculty with whom I had the pleasure to meet, including Dr. Abbas Alaboudy, Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry, Dr. Hassan Hadi Ali, Director of the Postgraduate Office and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Chemical Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Dr. Sabah Sahib al-Aread, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, among others, I sensed a real urgency to promote the University of Kufa. 

Indeed, every professor I met possessed a strong sense of mission in viewing the building the University of Kufa as part of the process of creating a new democratic and tolerant Iraq.  Those faculty educated in the West are not afraid to borrow what it has to offer.  Thus I felt that President Akeel Yassin and his faculty represent a model for an increasingly globalized world – educators who are proud of and secure in their past (al-turath al-‘Iraqi), but keen to learn from societies and cultures beyond Iraq’s borders.  

What is particularly striking about the faculty at the University of Kufa is the number of young professors who are already producing impressive scholarly works.  As an example, I could cite a book length study, American Strategy towards Iran following the Events of September 11, 2001 (al-Istratagiyat al-Amirikiya tujaha Iran ba’d Ahdath Aylul ‘Amm 2001), by Dr. Baha’ Adnan al-Sa’bari, that was published by the Hammurabi Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad (2012).  

When I visited Iraq during the 1980s, many Iraqis spoke excellent English and many had been educated abroad, often in the US or the UK.   With the impact of the UN sanctions of the 1900s that devastated Iraq's educational system, Iraqi intellectuals, especially younger ones, are working to learn English and other foreign languages. Having held talks with President Akeel Yassin and his staff, we hope that Rutgers University will be able to offer English classes via videoconferencing and that Rutgers students may be able to study Arabic at the University of Kufa.

Part of my trip in south-central Iraq was spent in al-Najaf.  Visiting the shrine of Imam Ali was a very
Drs. Gerry McKenna, Faris Nadhni and Roy Mottahedeh inside the Imam Ali Shrine
moving experience.  Marveling at the beautiful glass work on the ceiling of the Imam Ali Shrine, a Sunni friend pointed out that all the delicate inlay had been done by Sunni artisans from al-Anbar Province, some of whom he knew.  He noted that the area around Abu Ghayb in eaastern Anbar Province is known for glasswork and, of course, the guardians of the Shrine wanted the best possible decoration provided for it.  When I asked if artisans coming from al-Anbar to al-Najaf created any issues, my friend looked at me quizzically – why should it, he asked?

Inside the shrine, I was joined by Professor Roy Mottahedeh of Harvard University, one of world’s most prominent historians of Islam, Dr. Gerry McKenna, former Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Ulster, who is known for the educational reforms he introduced in Northern Ireland, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, who is Academic Adviser to Dr. Akeel Yassin, Editor-in- Chief of the Kufa Review and Professor of Islamic Studies at the Islamic College for Advanced Studies, and Dr. Faris Kamal Omar Nadhmi, Professor of Psychology at Salahiddin University and author of a number of important studies on the social psychology of marginalized groups in Iraq and on political Islam. 

A number of other conference participants joined us, including a graduate student in history  from Tikrit University.  He, like Shiite members of the conference group, kissed the latticework on the Imam Ali Shrine and the walls.  When I asked him if he had been to the Shrine before, he said that he had, reinforcing the many stories that I have heard from Shiite colleagues from south-central Iraq that many Sunnis visit Shiite shrines there each year.

While in al-Najaf, we ate at the Holy Shrine Guesthouse (Diyafat al-‘Ataba al-Sharifa) that serves two meals daily and feeds 3000 people in the city each day.  Conference participants were invited to eat there and enjoyed delicious nourishing meals.  This was an impressive example of efforts to address social justice needs in al-Najaf which has a long history throughout the 20th century of Shi’i clerics actively participating in the Iraqi nationalist movement and fighting for this issue.

Shrine of Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu'i
A group of conference members had the honor to be invited to the home of Sayyid Jawad al-Khu’i, grandson of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i (1899-1992), the immediate predecessor of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

During our discussion of the conference theme on pluralism
Sayyid Jawad al-Khu'i
(al-ta’addudiya), Sayyid Jawad noted that the headquarters of the al-Najaf branch of the Iraqi Communist Party was located just down the street from his house on al-Muthaaan St. in the Hayy al-Sa’d district.  He indicated that this was another example of how the citizens of al-Najaf live together and respect divergent points of view.  Indeed, after leaving Sayyid Jawad’s house, we saw the bright red lights of the Iraqi Communist Party headquarters.
Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-'Ulum
A number of us also visited the new Ma’had al-‘Alamayn that was establish by another distinguished Najafi clerical family, that of Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-‘Ulum, and his son Dr. Ibrahim Bahr al-‘Ulum, Iraq’s former Minister of Oil.  This institute specializes in training its students in law and political science and is a new private institution of higher learning.

As Ayatollah Muhammad and Dr. Ibrahim showed us around the Institute, we met a number of students who explained the nature of their research for either a MA or Ph.D degree.  Many of the topics related to us speak to Iraq’s future needs, such as those of adequate water for irrigation and agricultural purposes, and developing a federal political system that meets the needs of all Iraq’s citizens. 

Dr. Ibrahim informed us that 55% of the students are drawn
from al-Najaf Governorate, but that there are many students from Sunni provinces and from Iraq's Kurdish majority provinces (in the KRG).  During examinations for MA and Ph.D examinations, we learned that all examination committees must be comprised of Sunni as well as Shiite faculty members.

Dr. Ibrahim Bahr al-'Ulum
While in al-Najaf, Dr. Hassan Nadhem took a number of us, including conference speaker, Dr., Abdul Aziz Sachedina, one of the most prominent scholars of Shiism and currently a professor at George Mason University, to the home of Dr. Muhammad Sa’id al-Turayhi, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal al-Mawsam, and sometime professor at Leiden University.

Dr. al-Turayhi showed us the manner in which he has renovated his beautiful home along the Euphrates River that has been in his family’s possession for over 130 years.  We also were joined by his daughter Zeinab who is an accomplished human rights lawyer.  We were all pleased to receive copies of Dr. al-Turayhi’s latest writings, including Massihiyun wa Shi'a: Jadal al-Lawhut wa Muqarabat al-Tarikh wa-l-Mithilugiya (Christians and Shi’a: The Dialectics of Theology and Approaches History and Mythology), and vol. 102 of al-Mawsam, on the rule of General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963), entitled Jumhuriyat al-Za’im (The Leader’s Republic). 

No academic can resist a trip to the book market and, for me, al-Najaf was no exception.  Dr Sabah Aread, the Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, was kind enough to take me to the al-Huwayyish district where we walked through narrow alleyways that remined me of an earlier sojourn in book shopping in Cairo many years ago.  

When we arrived at Mustafa Bookstore (Makatabat Mustafa), Dr. Sabah introduced me to Abu Layth, the owner.  The bookstore was filled with so many books, that we would have spent most of the afternoon if our schedule had not prohibited it.  When I asked Ustadh Abu Layth for any new books on Iraqi politics and society, he pulled out a copy of the Arabic translation of my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, not knowing that I was the author.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Arabic translation, published by Maher Kayyali's Arab Institure for Research and Publishing, was selling briskly in Iraq.  I purchased so many books that I had all I could do to transport them back to the United States.
Dr. Hassan Nadhem introducing my talk at the Iraqi Writers Union
My lecture focused on the theme of, “Iraq after 2003: What is the Vision of the Future State and Can it be Implemented?” (Iraq ba’d ma 2003: Hall min Ruw’iya ‘Amm li-l-Dawla wa Kayfa al-Sabil li Bulughiha?).  I argued that Iraq needs to develop a strong foundation for democracy built on a historical memory of tolerance and cultural diversity.  I argued for an education system that emphasizes respect for the past but an openness to critical thinking and borrowing from other cultures to enrich the struggle to develop an indigenous democratic political culture.

My trip to al-Najaf al-Ashraf was a wonderful experience. Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-‘Ulum recently sent word through my friend and colleague, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, that he still can see the white T-shirt that I displayed before my lecture in the afternoon session of the first day of the conference.  That was a particularly warm reminder that the spirit of pluralism and tolerance still flourishes in al-Najaf al-Ashraf.  

It will be a fitting end to the conference on Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Dialogue of Civilizations if the University of Kufa does in fact receive a UNESCO Chair in Inter-Faith Studies.  Let's hope that receiving that chair becomes a reality.

1 comment:

Francis Brooke said...

Dr. Davis,

Please submit this piece to the Wall Street Journal.

I have reason to believe it will be published and it would be a great public service.

Francis Brooke
Washington, DC