Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's fatwa will help save Iraq

Guest contributor, Dr. T. Hamid al-Bayati, was formerly Iraq's  Deputy Foreign Minister and, from 2006 to 2013, its Permanent Representative to the United Nations.  Currently, he is Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Faculty, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University 

Many observers and writers view the fatwa (religious decree) issued by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority in the holy city of al-Najaf in Iraq, as designed to protect Iraq's Shi'a from the extremist “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). Others feel that the fatwa could ignite a sectarian war in Iraq.   Those who argue for the latter view do not understand Ayatollah al;-Sistani and thus lack knowledge of his thinking. How does he view Iraq, especially from a political perspective? 
I have had the opportunity to meet Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani many times since 2003.  The first meeting came  after the US invasion of Iraq when a group of Iraqis leaders and I met former US Ambassador Paul Bremer on May 16, 2003.  Bremer was appointed by President Bush to be the Civil Administrator in Iraq and the head of Collision Provisional Authority or  CPA that administered the American occupation. (See Paul Bremer, My year in Iraq).

Ambassador Bremer indicated in his first meeting that he was the highest authority in Iraq and that he intended to appoint a Governing Council and Constitutional Council that would include lawyers and experts to draft a new constitution for Iraq.  Following this meeting, Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's current Foreign Minister, and Masoud Barzani, the leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) asked me to organize a trip for Mr. Barazani to meet Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed by a terrorist attack planned by Abu Musa'b al-Zarqawi, the former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

When we met Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and after we received his greetings and welcome,  Masoud Barazani asked him about the current political state of affairs in Iraq.  “What advice would you offer us your Eminence?”  He responded immediately and without hesitation: “the Iraqi constitution should be drafted by an Iraqi elected body and not by a appointed group.” 

The Grand Ayatollah added that the draft resolution should reflect the aspirations of all the Iraqi people, regardless of their ethnic, religious or  confessional background.”  Then Masoud Barazani asked: “How else can you advise us your Eminence?” Ayatollah al-Sistani said that, “you must be united and adopt a  united position.” 

Experts who study the history of the holy city of al-Najaf, and the positions of the high religious authority throughout  history remember that the clerical leadership in the city has always defended all Iraqis, be they Arab, Kurds or Turkmen, Sunnis or Shiites, Muslim or Christians. 

It is very well known, for example, that the late Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, who constituted the highest authority in al-Najaf between 1950 and 1970, issued a fatwa that declared that fighting the Kurds in 1960s by Iraqi Pan-Arab governments was forbidden, although they are non-Arabs and Sunni.  Ayatollah al-Hakim also defended the Iraq's Christian when they too were oppressed by the same dictatorial regimes.

In his History of the Jews in Iraq in the 20th Century, Meer Basri, the dean of the Iraqi Jewish community in London, wrote that the Iraqi regime started to arrest and imprison Iraqi Jews following the Arab defeat in the 1967 War with Israel.  Basri noted that Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim issued a fatwa that oppressing the Jews was forbidden.   
Ayatollah al-Sistani's recent fatwa stated that Iraqis who can carry out weapons should volunteer with Iraqi Security Forces to defend Iraq.  He feels that Iraq is confronting one of its biggest challenges and that the responsibility of facing the terrorist threat is the responsibility of all its citizens.

In his view, fighting terrorism is not limited to a specific sect or group because the dangers facing Iraq require defending the country, its people and its many holy places.  Ayatollah al-Sistani added that Iraq's political leadership is facing a historical and religious responsibility and it should overcome its differences and develop a united position.
Like all other high ranking religious authorities in Najaf, Ayatollah al-Sistani has maintained the tradition of the Shiite clergy defending the entire Iraqi nation-state, not just a part of it, and all its citizens,  regardless of their religious, ethnic and sectarian background.  Most significantly,  he told the Shiite community, “Don’t just say the Sunnis are our brothers but say they are ourselves”. 

This example of pluralism, tolerance and respect for all its peoples will assure Iraq's victory over terrorism,

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