Date :Sunday, February 3rd, 2019 | Time : 08:18 |ID: 84915 | Print

Najaf initiative for rebuilding links between Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq

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SHAFAQNA | By Leila Yazdani : Some Shia clerics in Najaf have begun a program meant to improve the dialogue between Sunni and Shia communities. The goal is to promote the concept of equal citizenship among all Iraqis and uphold values of shared living and co-existence and, eradicate ‘fanatical discourse’ in the name of religion.

Clerics and other religious figures from Najaf’s Hawza Illmiya, a prominent Shiite seminary, have launched the Dialogue for Social Cohesion in Iraq, a community cooperation initiative reaching out to western and northern Sunni governorates recently liberated from the ISIS, al-monitor reported.

In the first phase of the initiative, a delegation from Najaf visited Anbar University Jan. 10 for meetings to open channels of communication with Sunni scholars and other religious figures, professors, students, intellectuals and civil society members.

The delegation to Anbar consisted of figures from various segments of Najaf society, including religious authorities, professors from the University of Kufa and youth leaders from civil society organizations.

Jawad al-Khoei, who oversees the Dar al-Ilm in Najaf and co-founded the initiative, told Al-Monitor in Anbar, “[The goal is to] promote the concept of equal citizenship among all Iraqis and uphold values of shared living and co-existence.”

During the delegation visit to Anbar, Khoei addressed a crowd of intellectuals and professors at Anbar University. It is hoped that such visits — by harnessing the broad influence of Iraqi religious figures, professors, intellectuals and students — will eventually bring together Iraqis at the grassroots from all walks of life and from across the sectarian spectrum.

“We are all in the same boat, whether in the northern, southern, central or western governorates,” Khoei said. “All of them suffer from one problem: corruption, poor services, and unequal distribution of wealth.” He stressed that the only solution to these problems is to work toward the establishment of a “state of citizenship.” Khoei also pointedly noted that the Najaf initiative is a sociological and cultural project devoid of any political agenda.

The initiative is, in fact, a project of the religious authority in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. According to Khoei, the initiative is based on the need for “fair government, regardless of religion or sect.” “[It] does not judge a ruler by his religion, but by his justice,” he said.

Initiative members are currently organizing visits to the Saladin and Mosul governorates in mid-2019, followed by Najaf playing host to Sunni personalities and leaders from those governorates.

Voting independent of religious and sectarian identities

The highest Shia clergy in Najaf are important players in Iraq politics. In previous Iraqi elections, the Najaf clergy had encouraged people to participate. The clergy’s indifferent position toward voting, or, for that matter, boycotting the election, had a big impact on the low turnout.

Generally speaking the election results indicated that Iraqi voters have started to vote independently of their religious and sectarian identities.

A number of Shia parties, which had militias that fought against ISIS, also received some votes from Sunnis in these areas as well. These votes are also an appreciation of the militias helping to drive ISIS out of their areas, the conversation mentioned.

Relations on the basis of the values of citizenship

In speeches and publicly stated positions, Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s Supreme Shiite cleric, has advocated for relations among Iraqi communities on the basis of the values of citizenship, not religious or ethnic affiliation. He has stressed on more than one occasion that Sunnis and other sects and ethnicities share equal footing with Shiites, being entitled to the same rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

To cite one example of Ayatollah Sistani’s thinking, after some Iraqi clerics issued fatwas in December prohibiting Muslims’ from participating in Christmas and New Year’s festivities, Seyyed al-Sistani ruled to the contrary. “It is permissible to extend greetings to non-Muslims, including Jews and Christians and others, during their festivities, such as Christmas, Easter and New Year,” he wrote.

The kind of thing Iraq needs

The Najaf Hawza’s civil initiative and other activities suggest that the Shiite religious institution has decided to dedicate its authority to encouraging deep-rooted and broad-based social cohesion, taking on a major role in building national harmony in areas affected by extremism and sectarianism.

Without knowing more about the program, it seems like the kind of thing Iraq needs in order to fend off any kind of resurgence of ISIS or a successor group.

ISIS revived itself on Sunni grievances, and the best way to ensure it doesn’t come back is to address those grievances (at least some of which are legitimate), Attwiw told.

It is still early to say there is a significant, permanent shift away from past. But this new behavior could be important and effective in fighting extremist terrorism in Iraq.


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