In February a new religious authority for Iraq will be formed at a meeting of religious scholars from around the country. The new authority will include religious scholars from both the Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim sects and will also involve religious groups that have been engaged in resistance against US forces. It will be the first religious authority to have included some of the factions referred to as terrorist groups and the initiators believe the authority has the potential to help prevent further sectarian conflict and increasing violence in Iraq.
The new organization is the brainchild of leading Sunni Muslim authority, Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, a hardline cleric who is well known for issuing fatwas, or religious decrees, calling upon followers to fight the US forces in Iraq and who is also known to represent the Salafist jihadists (Salafi Muslims tend to be more orthodox Sunni Muslims, the jihadists are those who become part of violent campaigns).
“The light of this idea will glimmer in February when the first conference on the Iraqi resistance will be held,” al-Sumaidaie told NIQASH. The conference will be attended by around 1,700 scholars and resistance figures.
According to the organizers of the new authority, the idea came about because of the increasing violence and sectarian conflict in Iraq after the withdrawal of US troops late last year. Al-Sumaidaie believes that an authority like this one will help to avoid the levels of violence and conflict, verging on civil war, that Iraq experienced between 2006 and 2007 and which left thousands of Iraqis dead or injured.
During those years, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim religious authorities issued fatwas that led to increased friction between the two major religious sects in Iraq. By bringing leading figures from the two religious sects together, especially those who have been engaged in fighting against US troops or other violent activities, the new religious authority hopes to avoid this happening again.
The religious authority will work as an umbrella organization and will clarify and consolidate fatwas, especially those that might have a bearing on sectarian conflicts and which may be related to any other emergency events in Iraq.
Critics have expressed concern that theological differences between various Iraqi groups will make any organization like this unworkable. Saleh al-Haidari, head of the Shiite Muslim Endowment, the body tasked with running Shiite mosques and shrines, felt that although al-Sumaidaie had good intentions, his plan might not work out. “We can’t tell the Sunni to convert and become a Shiite and the opposite is also true,” al-Haidari told NIQASH.
However, as al-Sumaidaie pointed out, because of the nature of its constituents, the religious authority won’t be interfering in actual religious practice.
“Opinions issued by the unified religious authority will not address acts of worship because every Iraqi has his own religious authority and worships God in his own way,” al-Sumaidaie explained. “The fatwas issued will be restricted to specific events and to sectarian and other conflicts in the country.”
The differences of opinion between various religious sects were only to be expected. “There are significant differences in these things and every person can follow whoever he wants. We respect each other,” al-Sumaidaie added.
The new religious authority is not the first of its kind. In June 2007 a similar organization called the Union of Muslim Scholars was founded by around 120 Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics, who called for an end to sectarian violence.
“The Union of Muslim Scholars gathers both Sunnis and Shiites and it has made great progress, having issued many fatwas that ban the killing of Iraqis and innocents, the confiscation of property and acts of displacement as well as other violent acts,” Mahmoud al-Issawi, a member of the Union of Muslim Scholars told NIQASH.
However the Union was seen as only partially successful because some leading religious groups did not join it. These were, observers say, pursuing military or other action against US forces at the time.
Al-Sumaidaie explained how the new organization would differ: “This new unified religious authority will be the umbrella for these Sunnis and Shiites who were not involved previously because they were engaged in armed resistance against the US troops. So the importance of this religious authority lies in the fact that many resistance groups are joining.”
Several militant factions in Iraq recently announced their intention to lay down their arms and join in the political process, now that those they considered their prime targets, the US forces, have left the country. There are still a number of groups that have yet to make similar announcements though.
However al-Sumaidaie believed that this might also happen soon and that those groups would join the unified religious authority.
“The Islamic Army, the Mujahideen Army, the Army of the Followers of the Sunna and the Fatihin Army will all join the project,” al-Sumaidaie said, referring to several prominent militant groups with a Sunni Muslim background. “Up until now only the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Naqshbandi army have refused to join us.”
“We have also opened up to most of our Shiite brethren, such as the Shiite authorities Jawad al-Khalisi and Fuad al-Miqdadi as well as the Sadrist movement, the League of Righteous and others,” al-Sumaidaie continued, referring to both moderate Shiite Muslim leaders and groups like the League of Righteous, which had previously been involved in violent activities but who recently announced their desire to put down their weapons.
In fact, despite long standing conflicts between the League of Righteous and the Mahdi Army – the League used to be a faction of the Mahdi Army – the proposed umbrella organisation seems to have persuaded both groups to join.
The League of Righteous recently announced its desire to enter the political process while the Mahdi Army said this should not be possible because the League’s hands were stained with Iraqi blood.
“[Nether group] has any objection regarding this project,” al-Sumaidaie confirmed, adding that the leader of the Mahdi Army and of the political Sadrist movement, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had invited the League to meet and resolve their differences.
Political analysts see this as a good omen for the newly proposed religious authority. “Conflicts between two religious factions fuels conflicts between their followers and ignites more fighting,” one such analyst, Abdul-Salam Miqdad said. The fact that this unified authority has been able to help two different groups like the Sadrists and the League of Righteous come together means that it may also be able to help avoid more conflict in Iraq.
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.