American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

October 2008

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In March 2008, American Diplomacy published a report on the work of Anglican Canon Andrew White entitled "God and Politics: An Inside Perspective on Religious Peace-making in Iraq." Written by Peter Maki, Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Relief and Reconstruction, that essay described Canon White's efforts to reconcile Iraq's senior religious leaders and obtain their agreement to a fatwa condemning sectarian murder. (www.unc.edu/ depts/diplomat/ item/2008/0103/ maki/maki_godpol.html)

With the backing of General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki, Canon White relied upon the trust he had built during his two decades of Middle Eastern relief work to launch The Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiative. Meeting first in Baghdad in June 2007, Iraqi clergymen from many faiths signed an accord that recognized the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and called upon it to work for religious reconciliation. In August 2007, a more select group of religious leaders next met in Cairo. Other meetings followed in Copenhagen and again in Cairo.

Though participants in the Initiative better defined the relation between religion and Iraq's new government and worked at the highest levels to reduce religious violence, to include that directed against the country's religious minorities, the sought-for Joint Sunni-Shia fatwa eluded them until their recent meeting in Beirut, which is described in this report written by Robert McFarlane, who has supported and participated in the Initiative from the beginning. – JLA

Religion, Law and Politics Coming Together in Iraq

In Beirut this past September – at the conclusion of their fourth meeting since June 2007 – the key religious leaders of Iraq issued a Joint Sunni-Shia Fatwa. In this formal religious law and in the discussions that led to it, these leaders:

  1. condemned suicide bombing as a crime, thereby denying martyrdom or the promise of  benefit in the hereafter to those who commit it;
  2. stressed the importance of Iraq becoming a democracy under the rule of law;
  3. acknowledged the obligation of religious leaders to use their authority to lead the country toward reconciliation;  and
  4. committed themselves to spreading this message of non-violence and religious freedom throughout their country. 
Canon Andrew White
Canon Andrew White
Conceived and led by Anglican cleric Canon Andrew White, these meetings have evolved from a process called The Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiative. From the first meeting in Baghdad over a year ago, Canon White, who has served at the St. George Church in Baghdad for 10 years, asserted his conviction that Iraq’s religious leaders hold enormous political influence and that if they could be provided a forum through which to exercise their authority, their unified voice could contribute significantly to a reduction of sectarian violence, an increase in religious tolerance, and ultimately to an agreement on principles to support a unified Iraq in which all Iraqis might live together and prosper.

The participants included Ayatollah Amur Abu Ragheef, the closest advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (the highest Shia authority in Iraq), Dr. Abdul Lateef Humayem, respected Sunni scholar and professor (and former personal Imam to Saddam Hussein), Sheikh Ahmed al Kubaisi, distinguished Sunni leader who broadcasts weekly to an audience of more than 10 million Iraqis, and Sheikh Abdulhaleem Jawad Kadhim, principal religious advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. These particular leaders were selected because of the respect they enjoy among Iraqis, and because of their power and influence over those who control violence, incumbent political leaders, and the media. 

As in the preceding meetings, this conference involved three days of honest and frank discussion. There were no pro forma speeches or rants concerning alleged grievances by one sect against another. It was clear that after more than a year of meetings and self-generated one-on-one discussions between formal sessions, a substantial measure of trust and mutual respect had developed. Even more important, all of the participants now demonstrate a sense of responsibility for the future of the country and their accountability to the Iraqi people. Key points from the discussions included recognition of the improvement in security and the dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq, support for bringing democracy and the rule of law to Iraq, and the need to protect the civil rights of all faiths and ethnic communities. They further acknowledged that religious sectarianism remains the leading cause of violence and terrorism, and that they must play a prevailing role in overcoming this menace. Think about that! A year ago did anyone believe that we might actually turn the corner in Iraq and by today be hearing Iraqi leaders such as these clerics getting along with their counterparts in other sects, taking charge of their future, and committing themselves to heal the country?  Well yes, a few did.

The Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiative has been strongly supported by General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Their support is founded on the conviction that while religious doctrine is often corrupted to justify violence in the Middle East, religious leaders have enormous influence over the behavior of their followers and of politicians – if they will use it. Further, they understood that religion and politics are intimately linked in the Middle East and that the mosque provides a very dynamic, powerful and efficient system for influencing the masses and key players involved in violence.

One may say that these evident truths ought to have governed our strategy and conduct of the war from the outset. That’s true. Still, there is value in acknowledging them today, and in honoring those Iraqis who have stepped forward to participate in this reconciliation process. We are indeed blessed to have such men as General Petraeus, Secretary Gates, and Canon White, who at considerable risk are encouraging a process that is proving once more the vital role of religion and religious leaders in fostering reconciliation among the faithful.bluestar

Robert McFarlane, a participant in the Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiative, served as President Reagan’s National Security Advisor during the period 1983-85. 


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