Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2003
Issue No. 654
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The war of fatwas

It is the people of Iraq who are being buried beneath firebrand sermons and blanket denunciations, argues Mona Anis

Mona Anis Fatwas are issued, provoking counter fatwas, the latest debacle of the retracted Azhar fatwa (see "A confusing fatwa") on boycotting the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) being the tip of the iceberg. But though Al-Azhar's fatwa, which caused a furore last week, was declared null and void by no less than Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the advice of the Grand Sheikh -- that fatwas regarding Iraqi internal affairs are better left to Iraqi clerics -- is likely to fall on deaf ears.

It is, after all, some time since the official position of Al-Azhar has carried any weight with militant Islamists. Indeed, it is usually the other way round, with the opinions of the rank and file of political Islam informing the positions adopted by Al-Azhar, at least in matters where state policy is unclear. So was Al-Azhar, in issuing its fatwa, simply responding to what it perceived as a popular sentiment that did not seem to contradict Egypt's official position? That, most probably, was the case. Certainly nobody anticipated that a mere fatwa would bring the American ambassador to the doorsteps of Al-Azhar.

The remedy, though, might eventually prove worse than the disease. It is virtually guaranteed to ruffle national sensibilities, further inflaming the wide-spread anti-Americanism that has cut across the political spectrum.

On the same Friday the Sheikh of Al-Azhar denounced the fatwa the crowds attending noon prayers at Al- Azhar Mosque were chanting slogans denouncing the IGC and demanding American troops leave Iraq. It was the same Friday, in an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Alexandria, that I listened to an incendiary Friday sermon calling for Jihad and demanding the total boycott of all things American.

There are two issues at stake here, and it is important they are not confused. Lumping them together benefits only the zealots. The first concerns the sheer magnitude of popular anger against the American occupation, hardly the sole prerogative of Arabs and Muslims though, naturally, felt most intensely in the Arab world. The second concerns the manipulation of this popular anger in the service of various political agendas.

Concerning the first issue there is very little the Americans can do as long as their troops continue to occupy Iraq. Concerning the second, there is a great deal of manipulation that can be, and is being, done by Arab political forces, regardless of the aspirations and ambitions of the Iraqi people.

Click to view caption
Rare photo of the young Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, the SCIRI leader killed in a carbombing in Najaf on Friday, showing Iraq's first president, Abdul-Karim Qassim, paying a visit to Baqir Al-Hakim's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhsen Al-Hakim at his sick bed (photo courtesy of Al-Shams, Iraqi newspaper)
The decision of almost all of Iraq's political groups, with the exception of the Ba'athists of course, to participate in the IGC set up by the occupation forces was a difficult one. But boycotting the council would have been tantamount to leaving the Americans to run Iraq alone, with the concomitant danger of plunging the country into a maelstrom of violence and disintegration. The political representatives of a large section of the Iraqi population therefore decided to participate.

The divisive fatwas labelling senior Iraqi politicians and clerics as collaborators or worse, declaring jihad and inciting young men and women to go to Iraq to fight the infidels, undermine the efforts of those participating in the IGC to enlarge the powers of the council and save Iraq from the chaos that currently reigns and, furthermore, serve only to worsen Iraqi-Arab relations.

Iraq has a predominantly Shi'a population. Shi'a-Sunni sedition is the last thing the Arab world needs. In Iraq Shi'as and Sunnis are well aware of this fact. Other Sunni Arabs, though, have to be more attentive to the specificity of a country like Iraq with its rich and multi-layered national history.

On the same day, probably at the same hour, that I was listening to the Friday sermon in Alexandria denouncing the IGC and its members as collaborators who had accepted to be the fig leaf for occupation and extolling the virtues of military operations against the Americans, Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim -- a collaborator according to the Alexandria Imam -- was giving the sermon at Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, preaching peaceful opposition and denouncing military operations against the Americans. As the world knows he, together with 124 worshippers, died as they walked out of the mosque on that fateful Friday.

So which of two clerics is right? The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis mourning Hakim at this moment may, one hopes, furnish the Alexandria Imam with food for thought. Perhaps he will think twice before offering judgments in the future. And should the 500,000 Iraqis that accompanied Hakim to his final resting place in Najaf last Tuesday be insufficient proof as to how representative this "collaborator" was of Iraqi opinion, the statement issued by the Muslim Brothers mourning the death of Hakim offers yet more.

If the tragic death of Hakim, and his mourning by the people of Iraq, persuades the Muslim Brothers, the most influential organisation of political Islam in Egypt and elsewhere, to help quell the war of fatwas now raging in Egyptian mosques and adopt a more sensitive and consistent line towards the Iraqi question, respecting the need to leave Iraqis to chart their own course towards liberation, it will not have been in vain.

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