by Nasr Salem (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 9, Shawwal, 1427)
“If two parties among the believers fall into a quarrel, make peace between them.” (al-Qur’an, 49:9)
It was billed as a momentous, worthy and most welcome, albeit somewhat late, effort to put an end to the growing fratricidal bloodshed between Iraq’s two Muslim families, the Sunnis and the Shi’as, which is pushing the country to the brink of all-out civil war. The document signed on October 20 in Makkah in Ramadan reiterates a host of general, even axiomatic, principles that would, if implemented, put out the fires of sectarian sedition (fitnah) engulfing Iraq. The principles enunciated in the ten-point Makkah Document call for a halt to sectarian violence, declare the inviolability of “the blood, property, honour and reputation of Muslims,” forbid kidnappings, incitement of hatred, terrorisation and attacks on places of worship, “including mosques and non-Muslim houses of worship,” and prohibit the “forcible displacement or deportation” of members of the other sect from their homes. It also urges the Iraqi government to release detainees not charged with specific crimes and the “bringing to speedy and fair trial” of those involved in committing crimes.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has at long last got itself involved in an effort to defuse the continuing internecine carnage in Iraq. The unabated cycle of violence that has been sweeping Iraq is a cause of deep concern for Muslims around the world. Extinguishing the fires of sectarianism in Iraq certainly requires the urgent attention, constructive engagement and the utmost efforts of Muslim governments, organisations, scholars, leaders, political movements and activists.
Despite all the high expectations that should naturally surround the signing of such a document, little optimism or euphoria was felt when some 50 Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a ‘ulama signed the Makkah Document. The catalogue of principles in the document constitutes broad standards of conduct are the basics of the deen on which no disagreement exists among Muslims, regardless of which sect or school of law they belong to. Who denies the inviolability of a Muslim’s blood, honour and property, or that the taking of human life without due process of law or proper justification is one of the gravest and most despicable of greater sins (kaba’ir)? Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi ‘ulama of every hue have issued an ever-expanding series of fatwas, edicts, statements and pronouncements emphasising the inviolability and sanctity of the life, honour and property of Iraqis. But such legal opinions and assertions have elicited little response among the country’s growing pools of extremists of all sects. In fact, the tide of violence plaguing Iraq has been welling upward despite these proclamations, commendable though they are. Sectarian militias and death squads, armed groups affiliated with al-Qa’ida and the Ba’ath party, and criminal gangs operating in Iraqappear to be outside the control of both Sunni and Shi’a authorities.
Participants at the two-day Makkah Conference included Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a ‘ulama, and representatives of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Although some of those attending the conference are indeed respected leaders or belong to groups that enjoy great political, social and religious weight, ‘ulama of the highest calibre and stature stayed away from the meeting. ‘Ulama who chose not to attend the conference have stressed that they support the Makkah Document. Ayatullah Sistani sent a letter addressed to Dr Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the OIC, apologising for not attending the conference because “he is accustomed to not participating in such conferences and meetings.” Yet he welcomed the document and called “on everyone to observe its provisions.”
Sistani was not alone in abstaining from the conference; so did other influential and prominent religious authorities and leaders, both Sunni and Shi’a, such as Grand Ayatullah Bashir al-Najafi, Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of a group that has a 30-member bloc in Iraq’s parliament, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya’qubi, the spiritual guide of the Shi’a Fadhila (Virtue) Party, which commands a 15-seat bloc in parliament, Shaykh Harith al-Dari, secretary-general of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, and the prominent Sunni scholar Shaykh Abd al-Karim Zaydan. But not attending the conference might be a step in the wrong direction, as it might give the wrong message to the public. Certainly some might perceive in the absence of prominent Iraqi Muslim religious authorities a diminished importance of the meeting and the document. The non-attendance of prominent ‘ulama deprived the conference of their considerable moral weight, which would have added a much-needed momentum to the efforts being exerted in the face of a crisis in which the blood of hundreds is being spilled, sometimes barbarically, in vain, daily. One might have expected that the fact that the blood of Muslims continues to flow in Iraq should have stirred in the ‘ulama of Iraq a sense of urgency to do whatever it takes, to leave no stone unturned, in their search for solutions to the plight of their country and their people.
The rising tide of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Iraq is unfolding against the backdrop of widening political rifts along sectarian fault-lines. There is good reason to be sceptical about the prospect that a mere declaration of principles will bridge political divisions. A document singing the praises of unity and harmony, stating the obvious, and emphasising the commonalities that ought to transcend sectarian and ethnic divides, cannot in and of itself provide a road map out of the difficulties besetting Iraq today. Resolving political disagreements like the ones tearing into Iraqi society requires an extraordinary ability to summon the moral courage and political will necessary to rise above the prevalent, but often misguided, perceptions of the interests and preoccupations of various communities. The last three years’ events in Iraq have shown that such an aptitude is a rare commodity in the war-ridden country. There is hardly a leader in Iraq who can be described as capable of fostering cooperation and integration. The spiralling violence is compounding this problem: it makes it difficult for such a leadership to emerge, and makes Iraqis less disposed to accept it when (or if) it does.
The Makkah conference is one more effort in a series of efforts to build inter-communal confidence, understanding and reconciliation in Iraq. It was preceded by the three-day Arab League-sponsored National Reconciliation Conference in Cairo in November 2005 and the Iraqi Tribes Conference held in Baghdad last May. The Cairo Conference condemned “terrorism and the acts of violence, murder, intimidation and abductions targeting Iraqi civilians as well as civil, governmental and humanitarian organisations, national wealth and houses of worship.” At the Iraqi Tribes Conference, tribal leaders of various ethnic and religious affiliations agreed on an honour-compact obliging their tribes to cooperate with each other and the authorities to protect their members from terrorist attacks, and to help promote unity and condemn sectarian violence. The tribal leaders also agreed on the need to release “all innocent prisoners not convicted by a court” and to investigate all “allegations of torture and bring those responsible for them to justice.” Despite these public pronouncements and pledges, reconciliation remains elusive and national unity has failed to materialise.
That the principles enshrined in the Makkah Document are good and that the signatories were for the most part well-intentioned cannot be denied. But the real question is how these principles can be implemented. There is no mechanism in place to ensure that the document is put into effect; the follow-up committee announced by Dr Ihsanoglu appears a bureaucratic fiction, not a mechanism to ensure that the themes and principles of conduct enshrined in the Makkah Document are acted upon.
The Makkah Document is only a small step in what might prove to be the right direction. There are plans to hold an OIC-sponsored reconciliation conference of Iraqi political (rather than just religious) leaders in Makkah during the impending Hajj season. In statements to the press, a high-level source at the OIC was quoted as saying: “The plan is to bring together leaders of all political groups in the country around a table to discuss all outstanding issues in order to achieve national unity and establish peace and stability in Iraq.”
But the proliferation of such platforms seeking to bring Iraqis together cannot be a substitute for meaningful action. The real test is whether the leaders of the various segments of Iraqi society can bring the principles in the documents from abstract theory into political praxis. Iraq is in dire need of courageous leaders who are capable of making the right decisionsneeded for the country to emerge from its current plight. The greatest danger is that future events will prove that the Makkah Document was just another lost opportunity before the forces of internecine warfare sweep away what little space is left for inter-communal amity and coexistence in Iraq.