War for a country's spirit

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War for a country's spirit
Published Thursday, Sep. 25 2003, 12:00 AM EDT

In the months since the American and allied forces occupied Iraq, the continued killing and destruction have not spared the religious elites in the holy city of Al Najaf Al Sharif. The martyrdom of our cousin, the late Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was a particular cause for grief.

Why are the Shia religious authorities being targeted? And why does their historical role, that of religious representatives of the people, bring them into the firing line? The answer is that underground forces are working to sow the seeds of sectarianism and division in Iraq. We Arabs and Muslims must realize what is going on if we are to help our Iraqi brethren avoid more tragedies.

Clearly, the hostile targeting of the religious authorities in Najaf spells a disastrous beginning to Iraq's chances for future stability -- especially if what most Iraqis intend for that future is a political order firmly based in the country's religious majority, the Shia Muslims.

Let us assume that Iraq becomes a Shia state with a much-hoped-for liberal political structure, supported by an independent religious authority based in Najaf. How can we protect Najaf from brutal attack by criminals who wish to violate it?
This can only happen if people see the need to elevate religion above politics, and create an independent moral and spiritual entity to serve as a reference point for the rational majority.

I have often urged the need to protect the holy places in Iraq. Najaf stands paramount among them; its status is similar to that of the Vatican in the Roman Catholic world. How many crimes must we witness in such holy places before we see the need for them to be granted a non-political, religious status?

I hope that the international community will move to protect Najaf, and will accept that its position must be above the machinations of politicians and politics. The targeting of the Shia religious authorities is an attempt to annihilate the centrist spirit of Islam -- and to end the authorities' exemplary role of representing the people.

However, Iraq may be evolving not toward a liberal, Shia state but some form of federal structure whose constituent elements are defined by religion and ethnicity. Assuming such federalism is viable in terms of the country's ethnic groups, how will it work in a multireligious environment such as Iraq?

I wonder whether those who are now planning the future of Iraq can perceive the pitfalls inherent in any scheme that would divide the country along ethnic and religious lines. These may become such explosive issues, they could threaten the destruction not only of Iraq but of the whole region -- through religious and ethnic wars devoid of any notions of sanctity. That possibility presents the bleakest picture for the entire region -- a future of terrible ethnic and religious strains. And the West should take note: Israel will be the largest minority in this vision.

Our only hope is to build in Iraq a federal system that brings Iraqis together, that transcends religious and ethnic difference. Our only hope is for a federal democracy based on the individual's ability to participate in a political system that is a balanced partnership among the regions, its centre governed by law, in accordance with the constitution.

We all saw on our television screens what happens when a country's sense of community fails. We saw, following the fall of Baghdad, looters who spared neither Iraq's ancient heritage nor its hospitals and schools. These looters were citizens who had become so alienated from the simplest attributes of citizenship, they viewed what they plundered simply as loot from the deposed Baathist regime, rather than as their own country's heritage and shared resources.

Now those who are shaping Iraq's future stand at a crossroads; if they make the wrong decisions, they risk alienating more Iraqi citizens. Instead, let us consider the term "citizens" to include even those who joined the Iraqi Baath Party. Many people did so simply in order to find work, and earn a living. Of course, persons who have committed crimes against humanity or war crimes should be tried by courts. But the tens of thousands who only joined the Baath Party to survive should not be excluded, but rather encouraged to join a new Iraqi society based on honesty and transparency.

The previous regime used division to its advantage. It enforced alienation among the Iraqi people -- with disastrous effect. Let that stand as a warning: Enforced alienation must not be repeated under new guises. Just as post-apartheid South Africa began to heal through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so the new Iraqi government must create mechanisms to restore dignity to the Iraqi people and to reconcile all sectors of Iraqi society.

And in this restoration, Najaf must be respected, protected, and offered the same international status as the Vatican. The cause of cities that are spiritual centres has always been close to my heart; Mecca and Jerusalem have also suffered their share of violated sanctity. This issue is not a matter of earthly sovereignty. Sovereignty is only the Almighty's.

If Iraq's future is to be federalism, then let it be a just and fair geographic federalism, rather than one along ethnic or religious divisions. Shiism has always been an integral part of the heritage of Islam, and the Shia Muslims do not stand alone in these trying times.
His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is moderator of the World Conference for Religions and Peace, president of the Arab Thought Forum and president of the Club of Rome.