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Interviews: mohammad taqi al-modarresi

Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, a Shiite spiritual leader in the sacred city of Karbala, is one of Iraq's five living grand ayatollahs. Like Iraq's preeminent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, al-Modarresi is considered a moderate who believes in the compatability of Islam and democracy, and counsels patience with the U.S.-led occupation. Yet he warns that if Sistani's demands for direct elections of an interim Iraqi government are not met, the U.S. risks disaster. As a strong critic of Saddam Hussein, he spent years in exile in Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, before heading home to Karbala shortly after the collapse of the Baath Party regime. While Modarresi was in Iran, Syria financed and supported his dissident group. This interview was conducted on Dec. 4, 2003 and translated from Arabic.

The absence of elections in Iraq could lead to civil war. Not only between the Sunnis and Shiites or between the Kurds and the Arabs, but also within each group.

Welcome home. I was listening to your lecture with great interest. You've obviously studied democracy. Just briefly, could you tell me where you studied democracy?

Frankly, I have studied democracy in Islam, and in the true interpretation of Islam. The true interpretation of Islam says, "Religion shall not be imposed ... Reason emerges from the unknown." Also, I have traveled before to Europe and America. I believe that democracy would solve many of problems in the "Orient."

What is the role of religion in politics?

The importance of religion is that it stimulates good in people, controls the material aspect, the material dominance, it represses such dominance. It creates a balance between the oppressing material world and the spiritual aspect of the human being. That indirectly influences the political reality. ...

In practical terms, what Americans want to understand is what role does a religious person like yourself, an ayatollah, have in political life? Because this is foreign to tradition in America, where we have separation of church and state.

First, I actually believe that religion in Europe and probably in America as well, does play a role in politics, but in smaller way and in an indirect way. Second, the Muslim world is quite different from the West because the Muslim world draws its ideas and values from Islam, and Islam does interfere with political matters, even indirectly. That is why Muslim leaders have more influence on politics than Christian leaders.

And when you say in an indirect way, do you mean an advisory way?

Sure, that way [advisory]. Also in terms of strict orders to people not to assault, not get into politics in the wrong way. Let me give you an example about what is happening now in Iraq. The religious leaders, the Shiite religious leaders, they stand against the spread of violence in the Shiite regions not only through advice but also with orders that are frank and clear, and people follow their orders because they consider them leaders of their lives.

In your talk today, you referred to deep divisions amongst Iraqis. Can you talk about what you mean by this?

Yes, the Iraqi society was a united society in the first half of the previous century, but the military coups and the dictatorship, they changed things around. It [dictatorship] started to interfere in people's business and stopped the democratic process in Iraq. Even the nationalist process in Iraq stopped because people were prevented from participating in government. So people became skeptical of one another. Plus, there was a cleansing operation in the north of Iraq, targeting the Kurds -- it was called the operation of Anfal. Also there was massive cleansing against the Shiites in Iraq. So that is why you find ... in Iraq ... now this division between the three factions: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. And unfortunately, even after the fall of Saddam Hussein, some of the Sunnis initiated some military actions that did only aggravate the situation, meaning they deepened the division between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

You have Sunni-Shia differences, but even within the Shia community, you have differences about how to go forward.

That is why we call for democracy, because democracy is the natural solution for difference. That is why we think that without democracy, freedom and free elections, the differences will only widen and it may very well lead to civil war, or to bloody conflicts, in a country like Iraq. Iraq is a country with many well-armed people. The Iraqis are not afraid of death, and they are brave. The absence of elections in Iraq could lead to civil war, I believe, not only between the Sunnis and Shiites or between the Kurds and the Arabs, but also within each group -- meaning Shiites between each other, Sunnis between each other, Kurds between each other. And we have seen how bloody conflicts erupted in the north of Iraq between the two competing parties some seven years ago.

There's skeptics throughout the world. In America, there are skeptics. In Europe, there are skeptics that a society with no tradition of democracy can easily adopt democratic values. That the community here in the south ... [is] a hierarchical society. It's not a democratic society. So, these skeptics say what the ayatollahs of southern Iraq want is not democracy. They can't understand democracy. Yet I was very impressed by your presentation. Can you explain the conflict, the contradiction, to the skeptics?

But I am saying that this is our way, and indeed there are problems, and one of them is the multiple interpretations of religion itself. There is one interpretation that understands democracy as the heart of religion. Others think that democracy can coexist with religion, and vice-versa. And others think that democracy is foreign to religion and that it is a Western concept, and Islam has its own identity and so do the Muslim people. In our confrontation with the obstacles on our way to democracy, we will have to fight on multiple fronts. We have to confront the Westerners that doubt the possible existence of democracy in our country, but also some of the factions in our country that do not believe in democracy or cast doubt on interest of democracy for their own country.

Unfortunately, many of the forces in the West strengthen Muslim extremism by casting doubt on the ability of Muslims for democratic change. This puts us in conflict with the extremists. The extremists say the West does not want democracy for your country, so why even bring it up? Indeed the West does aggress the moderate forces in the Muslim world, and encourages and incites the growth of the extremists, violent forces, while it does not allow the moderate forces to play their role in spreading democracy and freedom in their countries.

The West in general is targeting the moderates, in what way? And [you are] referring to the strengthening of folks like Muqtada Sadr?

Without naming names, you know what happened in Algeria, in the municipal elections in Algeria: the moderate forces won, but when the elections were annulled the extremist forces started military actions in Algeria and hampered the democratization process in Algeria to this day.

What do you think America's role should be in the future?

I believe right now, the elections will help the moderates in Iraq and will bring the moderate forces to power, be they Islamists or not. But if we were to delay this election for two or three years, the Iraqi people will be frustrated, and if these people were to be frustrated they would rally around extremist forces, religious and not. I believe that America could help the moderate forces by allowing them to gain more prominence than others.

I am reading in some American newspapers, casting doubts about the intentions of the religious authority in Iraq: Mr. Sistani, God bless him, they believe that he represents something similar to Mr. Khomeini in Iran. Casting such doubts, as I said before, does not help the democratic process in Iraq or in the Muslim world.

You talk about the intentions of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. One of the problems is the Grand Ayatollah refuses to speak to the press. It's very hard, therefore, to get directly from him an idea of what his intentions are. Why won't he just speak out as you're speaking out?

I don't know why, but I think that Grand Ayatollah makes himself clear by his spokespeople, by his political stands and his political statements. The Grand Ayatollah called for the religious leaders not to be too involved in politics after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he called for free elections in detailed statements. I believe that should suffice to anybody who is following his trajectory to understand that he is calling for democracy and elections. As per why he doesn't speak out in person, I personally do not know why.

On the one hand he calls for no involvement of the ayatollahs in politics. On the other hand, he has blocked efforts that the Americans are making to move the country, at least as they see it, towards democracy. He's called for direct elections, and one of the questions that I have not heard addressed is how can you have elections without a complete census, so that you know what populations are being represented? It's a question of districting and knowing how many representatives come from each part of the country. I don't understand how you can quickly have direct elections without a complete census, which will take time.

I will start by answering the last question first, then the previous ones. Why don't you go back to the beginning of history of democracy in United States, Britain or France? The elections started in a very primitive manner. We cannot have American-style elections in Iraq after the war and all the mess we're in. What we have to do is to agree on the principle of elections, and educate people about elections everywhere possible: in municipal councils, in the governorate councils, in universities, in factories. In a lot of places, there could have been elections, and without a problem, and even for national scale elections. ...

Yes, but the question is how do you know how many candidates will come from Karbala and Najaf, and how many candidates will come from Mosul and Kirkuk, if you don't know how many people live in these parts of the country exactly?

The number of people in Iraq is clear. There were cards of food rations in Iraq, and these cards determined clearly the number of inhabitants. They could be used in determining the number of inhabitants, their place of residence. In Iraq, people's breath was accounted for, let alone their place of residence! Every Iraqi person was living under careful statistical scrutiny by the former regime.

That is not a problem, and even if it was problem it could be solved like this: in every town -- Karbala, Najaf, Mosul, everywhere -- we could assign people from the university, academics, some religious leaders and regional prominent figures, and they would come up with a method to run an election in their town. That is also a democratic way to find out the best way possible to run an election in each and every town. I think these are really peripheral issues for the country.

But if we were to think about the consequences of not having a democracy now in Iraq, it would result in the frustration of Iraqi people, and potential civil war. We ought to be tolerant of some imperfections in the democratic process so that we won't face elimination of democracy all together in Iraq. ...

Then why do the Americans object to Sistani's call for direct elections?

The Americans think that the elections in Iraq would bring to power the Islamic forces, and that these forces would be subject to the influence of the extremists, and that they would cooperate with Iran and threaten the American interests in the Gulf. This fear is justified, but we on the other side also fear that the absence of democracy would [cause] tensions in this sensitive area, violence and never-ending problems.

Yes, it seems to me that the Sunnis are very afraid of the Shia majority because, in fact, they have repressed the Shias over the years. And you're very afraid, at the same time, of not being able to have a democracy. The Americans are very afraid of, as you say, an Islamic state. The Americans can't think of an Islamic state, for instance, where democracy really functions, and they fear that the situation will spiral out of control into some kind of civil war between Kurd and Arab, between Shia and Sunni. What do you see for the future?

My first comment is: Iraq used to be called, at the time of the previous regime, "the country of fear." The fear has only multiplied now with new terms. My suggestion is to have a "sovereignty council" in Iraq, which would dissipate the fears of the Sunnis and Kurds [of] the Shiite majority and a potential abuse of power. The sovereignty council would be made out of a Sunni member, a Shiite member, a Kurdish member, an elected president, and an elected president of the parliament. Five members total. In my view, this council would dissipate the fears of the Kurds, and also that of the Sunnis, of a sectarian rule in Iraq, and it would allow all to participate and equally share power.

The history of Iraq, before the Baath regime and before the military coups, was a bright history of great tolerance and cooperation between the Shiites and the Sunnis. There are a lot of tribes comprised of Shiites and Sunnis; many towns are made of Shiites and Sunnis that coexist without major problems. I believe that if the moderates were to be supported, we would be prevented from the rise of sectarianism.

Do you expect the Americans to leave soon?

We have to help the Americans to leave, because it is not in their interest to stay long in Iraq. Also it is not in their interest to leave Iraq while it is still living a situation of chaos and civil war. The Iraqi people have to help the American administration leave Iraq with honor, having accomplished their goals fully. The way for it to happen is to have an Iraqi national government comprised of all factions. That is why I personally condemn the acts of violence in Iraq, because they would delay the departure of the American army.


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posted february 12, 2004

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