Will Islam divide or unite Iraq?

To resolve political stalemate and lessen sectarian violence, Iraq must engage its religious leaders. When religion is at the heart of the problem, it must be at the heart of the solution.

American combat troops have officially left Iraq, but religious factions there continue to jostle for power in the still-unformed government seven months after the March election failed to elect new leaders. Amid sectarian violence and competing foreign influences, Sunni, Shiite, Sadrist, and Kurdish political leaders are struggling to negotiate a coalition government.

Only by engaging fully with Iraq’s rival religious leaders can an authentic coalition government – and the security that it can provide – be achieved. I know, because I’ve spent years forging relationships among religious factions here in Iraq, and I’ve seen the problem, and the possibilities for peace.

When religion goes wrong

Archbishop William Temple wrote, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.”

For many, 9/11 was their first glimpse of just how wrong religion can go.

On September 11, 2001, I was preparing to go to Iraq. I watched, horrified, as the magnitude of that day’s great tragedy unfolded. It was immediately clear that the world was never going to be the same again. When people slaughter the innocent believing that they are doing it in God’s name, the effects are catastrophic.

A week later, as I walked into Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz’ Baghdad office, he shouted at me, “Tell them we had nothing to do with it.” Without thinking I replied, “It doesn’t matter if you did or didn’t; they’re still coming to get you.” By April 2003 my prediction proved correct.

The heart of the problem and the solution

If 9/11 showed us the power of religion to cause tragedy on an epic scale, the aftermath should teach us something else. When religion is at the heart of the problems in a country, religion also needs to be at the heart of the solution.

After the invasion, I emphasized the necessity of addressing the role of religion to those in charge of the US-led Coalition Provincial Authority, which was responsible for rebuilding Iraq. They told me that their first priority was to restore water and electricity supplies. Religion would have to wait.

Some months later they admitted that their failure to engage actively with the religious leadership had left their mission to restore basic utilities doomed to failure. Writing this in Baghdad seven years later, the electricity supply is still sporadic at best, coming on for only a few hours each day.

Relationships of trust

I first visited as a peace negotiator in 1998. My commitment to Iraq over such a long period has enabled me to develop relationships of trust with nearly all of the most senior religious leaders. This includes those willing to work with Western officials and also those who would never do so. These men (and they are all men) have enormous influence in Iraq – influence to promote either peace or significant violence.

Since 2003, we have been mediating among the leaders of opposing sectarian factions, bringing them together to counter the dangerous spiral of tit-for-tat sectarian violence. Through religious leader engagement, we have been able to negotiate the release of many hostages, both expat and Iraqi.

Making peace with those who make war

This work has been difficult. I have been detained at gun-point, threatened with torture, and have had my picture posted on walls around Baghdad with a notice saying, “Wanted, dead or alive.” Members of my church have been kidnapped or killed. I have lost many friends. But if you want to work for peace, you need to be willing to work with people who make war. Nice people don’t cause conflict. To achieve lasting peace, the warmakers need to be encouraged to become peacemakers.

Peacebuilding requires relationships. In the Middle East there is a strong tradition of “honest brokers” – impartial third parties trusted by all sides. As a Christian clergyman, I am neither Sunni nor Shiite, and have had a unique opportunity to build relationships of trust with all sides.

A Sunni/Shiite fatwa against violence

On the strength of these relationships we have been able to facilitate reconciliation conferences between opposing groups. These create a forum where former enemies can begin to forge relationships of trust.

This has been essential in our brokering the first ever joint Sunni/Shiite fatwa against violence in Iraq in August 2008. At a series of seven conferences from 2007 to 2009, we met with as many as 12 key Iraqi religious leaders outside of Iraq for security reasons in Beirut, Lebanon; Amman, Jordan; and Cairo, Eqypt. Through their theological discussions, these Sunni and Shiite leaders ruled in broad agreement that killing other Muslims is forbidden in the Quran, and that suicide – even in the name of martyrdom – blocks a Muslim’s entrance to paradise.

Long-term commitment

Of course, relationships are only possible if words are backed up with action and long-term commitment. Conflict causes poverty and, in turn, poverty can be a significant driver of conflict. Health care, feeding programs, and social care are essential supports to the gains made through religious reconciliation. For example, at the climic in our church, medical staff from across the sectarian divides work side by side to deliver humanitarian relief to their neighbors, regardless of patients’ religious or ethnic background.

This is religious reconciliation at a grassroots level, and gives standing to negotiate at the highest level.

Iraq needs this religious reconciliation if it is to survive. And so we remain committed to a long term, relational program of religious leader engagement. We know that peace in Iraq depends on this engagement. We have seen the evidence of progress. And we still pray for peace.

Andrew White, an Anglican reverend and canon, is president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. He is also the Anglican Chaplain to Iraq, where he is the vicar of St. George’s church in Baghdad, and the 2010 recipient of the Civil Courage Prize.

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