Iranian intelligence services known as “Etilaat” have arrested Ahmad Qabanji, a controversial Iraqi Shiite cleric and Islamic thinker. Qabanji’s ideas have sparked fury among religious authorities in Najaf since he explicitly opposes religious interference in politics, genuinely supports the establishment of a civil state and fervently disapproves of the theory of the “Guardianship of the Jurist” in Iraq.
Qabanji has always maintained that he is seeking to form what he calls a "civil Islam," which functions in compliance with justice and human rights. He claims that the literal interpretation of religious texts results in Islam being unable to catch up with human intellectual development, and therefore, in this case, the religion cannot continue to exist without holding Muslims back.
Qabanji’s family said that he was arrested on Feb. 18, 2013 in the city of Qom, southwest of Tehran, which is known as the center of Shiite religious scholarship in Iran. The reason behind his arrest, as well as the location at which he is being detained, has not been announced.
Al-Monitor secured a copy of a statement issued by his family in which they confirm details of the arrest released by various Iranian sources.
Clearly, the arrest aroused little interest among his close relatives. Years ago, the family disowned Qabanji, as they are religiously affiliated with the Shiite religious authority in Najaf.
“The family learned that Qabanji was in Iran and has no further information,” said Bakir, Qabanji’s brother. Bakir made sure to recall his family's stance regarding Ahmad, reiterating that his brother is an "apostate.”
Sader al-Din Qabanji, Ahmad’s eldest brother and a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council — an Islamic political movement led by young Amar al-Hakim — noted, “He is aberrant and promotes the ideas of the enemies of Islam.”
Al-Monitor secured a copy of the statement issued by the office of Sader al-Din, in which he states that “the ideas presented by Qabanji and promoted by satellite channels and forums deviate from the correct path of Islam.”
Even though Qabanji presents himself as liberal, he still insists on holding the title of “Sayyid,” which indicates being a descendant of the prophet. Moreover, Qabanji wears the typical dress of Shiite clerics despite his public refusal of their core convictions, including the doctrine of "Guardianship of the Jurist," which is a Shiite religious term for the sole rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who oversees the political, legislative and judicial authorities in the country.
Qabanji’s arrest, which delighted the family, ignited rage among Iraqi civil-society activists.
“Qabanji is a victim of the regime of Guardianship of the Jurist in Iran,” said Iyad Jamal al-Din, a former Iraqi MP.
Since the outbreak of the Iranian revolution, Iran has witnessed the arrest of many prisoners of conscience who oppose the theocracy based on Guardianship of the Jurist. Iraqi journalists and intellectuals believe that Qabanji has become one of them.
Jamal al-Din called on the Iraqi government to “fulfill its duty, seek the release of Qabanji at once and ensure his safety after being abducted by Iranian intelligence in Qom.”
Iraqi intellectuals have used social media to call for a sit-in in front of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has, however, kept silent about the arrest, a position that has baffled the Iraqi public, which expected the official authorities to call for Qabanji’s release or at least to try to uncover the reasons and conditions of his arrest.
Qabanji is seen as one of the most prominent advocates of a civil Islamic movement. In 1974, he started teaching the principles of jurisprudence in Najaf. In 1979, he left Iraq for Syria and Lebanon when Saddam Hussein took office. He then settled in Iran, where he studied in Qom and further shaped his ideas. In 2008, he came back to Iraq.
Ali Abel Sadah is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in both Iraqi and Arab media. He was the editorial manager of a number of local newspapers, and was a political and cultural reporter for over 10 years. He has published in various newspapers and magazines covering Iraqi political affairs, human rights and civil society.