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Iraq: Religious Leaders Build Cross-Sectarian Dialogue
By: Nikola Krastev
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
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:
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
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?"
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
"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
"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 inter religious
council in Iraq. Previous meetings took place in Iraq, Japan, Jordan, England, Norway, and South