Opponents of Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Sadrist Movement, criticize him for embracing a peaceful rhetoric and calling for reconciliation, joint participation [in politics] and being open to others. This contrasts the image of a militia commander that the media had painted of him after 2003. These opponents remain skeptical about this shift and the motives behind it. But those who support Sadr's political and intellectual developments that crystallized after 2008 accuse his opponents — especially those in the Shiite community — of objecting to Sadr's rebellion against this stereotype and of competing for political clout.
In an interview with Al-Hayat, Sadr confirmed that he would not participate, under any circumstances, in a civil war. He emphasized that he rejects interference in Syrian affairs, and said that Qasem Soleimani is the most powerful man in Iraq.
Sadr is trying to take a different approach to being a political religious leader. On the sidelines of this dialogue, he spoke about his vision of forming relations with [Gulf] Arab [states], which, in his opinion, would serve as a necessary element of balance for Iraq's future. Moreover, he described in detail what might be called "the plight of Sunni Arabs" in their own country. In his point of view, this plight can be attributed to policies of the occupation [forces] and the [current] government, which is sponsoring militias, as well as to the errors of Sunnis themselves. Sadr advised the Iraqi prime minister to personally visit the Sunni protest squares to reassure those involved.
Sadr is trying to diversify his readings to go beyond politics, which in turn will inspire his supporters to diversify their own readings. For example, when he declared a year ago that he was interested in reading Azazeel, a novel by Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, Iraqi shops ran out of the book in a matter of days. Sadr believes that the future of his movement is linked to diversifying its cultural sources and opening up to others.
Here is the text of the interview with Muqtada al-Sadr, held in his home in the al-Hanana district of Najaf and conducted in collaboration with the daily al-Mada.
Al-Hayat: Let's start with a hypothetical question. The position you took toward the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is well known. You took part in the attempt to dismiss him in the summer of 2012. If you could go back in time, would you have still taken the decision to go to Erbil?
Sadr: If you are insinuating that I regret the decision … if this is what you are saying, then I say this: No, I do not regret it. The issue is still relevant. I told them in Erbil: "If you gather 124 votes, then the Ahrar Bloc will be with you, so you would be 164 votes in total. This is enough to withdraw confidence from the prime minister."
Al-Hayat: But you did not visit the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Region after this date?
Sadr: No, I will not go [to Erbil]. Like anyone else from the [Najaf] seminary — or rather anyone from Iraqi society in general — I say our brother Massoud Barzani must return the visit. I am waiting for him in Najaf. Yet whether he comes or not, he will remain a friend and a partner … not only in politics, but in all things. We will continue to communicate with one another regardless of what happens. I found him to be a revolutionary leader, and God willing he will remain so.
Al-Hayat: Describing that stage, you wrote that the commander of Iran's Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, along with Mr. Maliki, put pressure on you to prevent you from going to Erbil. Was this pressure the reason you left the city of Qom, Iran, and headed to Beirut and Najaf?
Sadr: No, this was not the reason at all. I am not the kind of person who maintains friendships or good relations based on political decisions or differing viewpoints on secondary issues. Even if there are disagreements on some fundamental issues, I want to maintain good relations with everyone as much as possible — except with occupying powers.
Al-Hayat: You have your own evaluation for Qasem Soleimani, who is described in the West as Iran's strongman in Iraq.
Sadr: Yes, he was the most powerful man in Iraq, according to some statements and surveys … But his most important character trait is that he is a man of principle when it comes to his cause, his republic, his government and his ideology. He would destroy himself for the sake of the latter. I've said it before and I'll say it again: If we were able to obtain Iraqis with his spirit, we could have built Iraq as they built Iran, politically and governmentally.
Al-Hayat: What are your expectations regarding the political map that will appear after the next parliamentary elections, in light of the results of the recent provincial elections? Do you think that fundamental changes will take place on this map?
Sadr: I have several answers to this question. First, our brothers in the State of Law Coalition [SLC] did not expect their popularity to fall prior to the provincial elections that were held a few months ago. So, the election results were surprising and unexpected by them. Now, however, they expect this, and they will try with all their might to return things to normal.
The second factor is that, in general, the ruling party — and I'm not talking about the State of Law Coalition alone, or the prime minister's government — use all of the government's capabilities as electoral propaganda for themselves. For example, they form army and police regiments, distribute land, and attend the inauguration ceremonies for projects they've never spoken of before. Some of these projects were even carried out by others, who were banned from attending the ceremonies, despite the fact that they were the ones directly involved. The ruling party even put pressure on the Iraqi judiciary, which began to dismiss lawsuits against the party. The courts did whatever was in the party's interest, and acted against the interests of [the ruling regime's] opponents.
Third, it is well known that the Iraqi people have a tendency to support the ruling party, except on rare occasions. Thus, we can say that they could dominate the next elections unless all the other parties come together, including the former ruling party.
Fourth, the ruling party controls the [electoral] commission through replacing and removing some unwanted members of the commission. This will be influential [in the upcoming elections].
Fifth, the change in the election law will be sufficient to [boost] that party, especially given the change in policy.
And finally, external support and the external situation cast shadows on Iraq and the ruling party; only God knows what will happen.
Al-Hayat: Does this mean that you do not see an opportunity for the Sadrist Movement to ally with Sunni, Kurdish and civilian parties to form a government?
Sadr: There are two types of alliances. The first is a pre-election alliance. This is currently difficult to achieve given what Iraq is currently going through. The sectarian situation means that any Sunni-Shiite or Arab-Kurdish alliance will inevitably fail to gain popular support. The second type of alliance is a post-election alliance. Such an alliance is often built on agreements that are concluded behind [the] scenes, which could involve [parties] giving up on their principles in order to achieve power. We are not prepared to do this, and we don't control the course of rule in such a way that we could be decision-makers in this regard.
Al-Hayat: You had a different assessment of the complaints made by Sunni areas. Do you think that there are genuine grievances among Iraqi Sunnis? And who is responsible for these injustices?
Sadr: Many different factors are responsible for these injustices, including the occupation [forces] who spread sectarian division; the Iraqi government, because it is the active element in decision-making; the political roadmap that led to a government divided on a sectarian basis; the external situation; and the worsening sectarianism in the Middle East, or even throughout the world. Other causes [for these injustices] include the disappearance of a national and paternal spirit. The latter applies to everyone, not just the government, but politicians, political parties, public institutions, etc.
Furthermore, Sunnis themselves are involved in causing injustice against the Sunnis. This is due to the spread of extremist ideology (sometimes leaving the reins to al-Qaeda), Sunni fears, their absorption into terrorist organizations, and the tendency of some to support al-Qaeda and the "destructive party" [the Baath Party]. Some Sunnis have not cooperated with those calling for unity and nationalism. For example, many times we have prayed behind them, but they did not announce this to the public. We have requested that they do so, but they refused.
Al-Hayat: How can the grievances be addressed today? Are there second-class citizens in Iraq?
Sadr: Personally, I believe that there are several ways to resolve the crisis with our [Sunni] brothers. These include Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visiting the protest areas in the west and north, forming joint Islamic committees to develop solutions that are strategic long-term solutions, issuing a joint statement to condemn all forms of terrorism and government militias, and supporting education [in order] to assuage Sunni fears regarding those who control most of their areas — and here I mean al-Qaeda and similar groups.
At the same time, I believe that everyone is responsible — first and foremost religious and governmental figures. Personally, I will not accept for there to be first and second-class citizens in Iraq … Everyone is equal, no one is better than the other, except in terms of piety and patriotism.
Al-Hayat: Do you think that Iraq is headed toward a sectarian division between its components, or toward a state based on citizenship?
Sadr: Based on the current situation, Iraq is heading toward sectarian division — politically, socially and ideologically.
Al-Hayat: However, there are many in Najaf calling for embracing the concept of a "civil state." How do you perceive such a state and the role of religion in it?
Sadr: A civil state, or a state truly based on citizenship, is one where everyone has a single identity, regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity. However, what is different is that [such a state] can only be achieved through secularism and removing religion from politics. I say this cannot be applied, except through the Islamization of society, and educating society based on the true foundations of Islam and a spirit of justice and equality. This includes instilling true tolerance for others, and eliminating love for the material world, patriarchy, and decadent rulers who are only interested in collecting money and keeping power, in any way possible.
Al-Hayat: Why, for example, did you form a political bloc using the name of "Ahrar," instead of under the name of the Sadrist Movement? And why did you prevent religious figures who wear religious dress from participating [in this bloc]?
Sadr: We named it Ahrar [meaning "free" or "liberated"] for two reasons. The first is ideological — freedom from the devil, the prison of the material world, and the oppressors. The second reason is based on nationalism — freedom from the occupier and their followers.
With regards to your question about preventing religious figures [from participation in the bloc], this was done to preserve their reputations, so that they would not get involved in things that would distance them from those who love them and their popular bases. It was done to ensure they remain honorable and capable of giving guidance and advice when the government makes mistakes.
Al-Hayat: You previously admitted that external political pressure is what pushed you to endorse a deal to form the current government in 2010. Are these pressures still there? And will they play a role in the negotiations to form a government in 2014?
Sadr: I did not say that. I said that there was pressure, but I didn't say that it had an impact on the decision to form a government. There is a big difference between these two. I am not someone who submits to pressure easily. It is also worth noting that the formation of the current government includes many elements aside from the Sadrist Movement, including the support of the Iraqiyya List and the support of the Kurds. Not just me. Yes, it is true that the Ahrar Bloc was the touchstone, as they say. However, it was the last to agree [to the formation of the government], and this was clear to all those following up on the issue. I didn't want the people to remain without a government, given that I thought the government would carry out its obligations to the people — but [this didn't happen]!
Al-Hayat: How do you respond to those who accuse the Sadrist Movement of sending militants to fight alongside the Assad regime?
Sadr: The Syria crisis involves settling disputes in bloody ways. None of the parties to the conflict are ethical, neither the extremist opposition nor others. The only victim is the Syrian people, who live in fear and lack security, safety, food and all the requirements of life. I call on all people of conscience to save Syria, and I'm ready to do anything in order to stop the ongoing bloodshed.
My official, true position — without any pretense — is this: What is happening in Syria is an internal issue and no one is entitled to interfere. The people want to determine their own fate, so what say do I or politicians have in it? Enough with the fighting.
Al-Hayat: But your movement, during one of its celebrations, raised the flag of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Are you willing to open dialogue with the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, without involving Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda?
Sadr: No, I do not have any intention to open a dialogue with them. The matter does not concern me. As I said, its a purely internal affair. But if you want to talk about it from a religious, Islamic, or ideological perspective, I am fully prepared to enter as an intermediary between the Syrian government and the unarmed political opposition. With regards to the armed opposition, they would certainly reject any dialogue, particularly with a figure like me.
Al-Hayat: How do you access Hezbollah's position on the crisis in Syria, and has there been a Shiite-Shiite dialogue regarding this topic?
Sadr: They have their own policies and I have mine. There has been no dialogue [between the Sadrist Movement and Hezbollah] in regards to Syria. And why are all dialogues focused on Syria? Yes, it is the most dangerous issue, but it's not the only one. There are other issues such as Iraq, Bahrain, and many other political and Islamic ones.
Al-Hayat: How do you view Iraq's regional relationships, especially with Turkey and Arab states? Are these healthy relationships?
Sadr: Iraqi-Arab relations are volatile and dominated by a political nature, without [including] ideological, national or ethnic components. This is especially true with neighboring countries. Iraq tends to [align] with Iran more than other [regional countries]. According to my understanding, most Arab countries view Iraq and the Iraqi government as a sectarian group that is difficult to deal with, especially since decision-making is distributed among different parities, and it could be said that [the government] cannot make "real" decisions, but rather there are regional, Eastern and Western decisions.
Al-Hayat: If you were able to decide Iraq's foreign policy, how would you suggest Baghdad form relations with foreign states?
Sadr: First I would suggest developing a regional charter between Iraq [and other states], based on general common interests, without interference in internal affairs. Second, I would call for periodic meetings in order to develop effective solutions to the problems plaguing the Middle East. Also, I would suggest that these ties eschew the sectarian element, which is fatal. I would also suggest that relations be confined to states that have not occupied Iraq, except when it comes to matters of obtaining compensation and other interests.
Al-Hayat: Why have you not taken the initiative to visit other Arab countries?
Sadr: I'm ready to respond to an invitation from any Arab or regional country. I even asked [to visit] some countries, but never received a response.
Al-Hayat: At times, Arabs are skeptical of Iraqi Shiites. Thus, shouldn't someone like you take the initiative to open a permanent dialogue with regional countries? This would be in the interest of the region's people, alleviate crises and reduce divisions.
Sadr: I tried, but no one would listen to me for several reasons. First, perhaps I am not acceptable to both sides, for when I defend Shiite shrines and holy sites — such as those in Samara — [they say] I am a sectarian Shiite who favors Shiites. And when I defend protesters in Anbar and their elections, or called for withdrawing confidence from the Shiite authorities, [others say] I'm an enemy of the Shiites. Thus, seizing the hearts of both Sunnis and Shiites is nearly impossible.
Second, there has been an international resolution that Muqtada al-Sadr should be excluded both in Iraq and internationally. In Iraq, this is done through thwarting [the Sadrist Movement] in the elections, and internationally though excluding me from Islamic and international issues.
Third, the dispute that is happening between Shiite leaders and moderate Arab leaders is [only] political. Politics mean nothing to me. Rather, I only want to interfere [in politics] for public interest and to achieve Islamic and human unity, without considering political spoils or the political and governmental crises that are happening behind the scenes.
Al-Hayat: There is a sectarian crisis and real conflict in the area. Do you have a vision of a road map that can ward off sectarian conflict?
Sadr: We can say that the majority of the current sectarian clash is a political clash that some desire in order to solidify their [support] bases, their positions and their governments, and to strengthen their states. However, we should not forget that there are ideological dimensions to [this clash]. Even if the primary clashes are between politicians, there is an ideological dimension occurring in the name of religion and doctrine. If we say that there is hope, or a roadmap, to prevent sectarian fighting, it is essential that it begin with ethical and nationalist motivators. Anything that lacks this will not be able to prevent conflict, and will even contribute to inciting conflict.
Al-Hayat: Where do solutions start?
Sadr: There are solutions that involve things such as convening periodic meetings between religious scholars for in-depth ideological discussions, as well as developing educational and media programs that will wake politicians and communities up from their heedless sectarian slumber. Moreover, governments should not support sectarian religious figures and their obnoxious satellite channels. And the people should not support sectarian governments that build their own power based on sectarian conflicts. We can clearly see that society in general — as a whole, not just politicians — are supporting sectarian leaders and politicians, giving them their loyalty, votes, and all the power they have. This, of course, will create more sectarian political figures. They will adopt sectarian policies to attract support and votes, and thus win gains and [governmental] posts.
I can say that sectarian politics — in addition to spreading a "jihadist" spirit, meaning a spirit of sectarianism where jihad now targets fellow citizens and friends before targeting Jews and Americans — has to some degree made killing one's peer a priority over killing an opponent. However, at the same time, we can say that what is supporting these sectarian governments or sectarian political figures are sectarian popular bases, as well as abhorrent extremist ideas. It is as if those figures and governments are born out of sectarianism, and thus inevitably must display an evil spirit.
I am focusing a lot on the political and governmental figures, because what is currently happening in all societies is that the government is controlling the destiny of the people and their ideas. People no longer rise up for the sake of their religion or to get a morsel of food. There are so many people who have deviated from religion and remain silent, and so many are living in extreme poverty yet don't utter a word. Yet when people sense political injustice, exclusion or marginalization, they begin to revolt and rise up little by little — for the ruler [represents] the political situation, and the ruled is that reckless policy. So if a sectarian ruler gains strength, then most of society becomes sectarian. Even if only a few [people] nurture this sectarianism, it will still grow rapidly. If you bring flammable wood close to fuel and a match, it will inevitably ignite.
Al-Hayat: Do you think that a real and serious sectarian dialogue can be held?
Sadr: In light of the present circumstances, I don't think that there is a dialogue on the horizon. There are two types of dialogue: first, sectarian, ideological dialogue among religious scholars, and second, there is sectarian dialogue among politicians. The first is adopted by [some] religious parties at the popular level, and is unofficial. The second is adopted by some governments. If Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to this [second type of] dialogue — even partially and after a doctrinal dialogue between religious figures — then some concrete results could be achieved.
Of course, this would involve lifting certain obstacles, such as Western interference, and setting aside political differences, if only temporarily.
Al-Hayat: In this context, many people were happy with the rapprochement between you and Shiekh Abdul Malek al-Saadi. They viewed it as an indication that religious figures could support the principle of rapprochement for the benefit of everyone, but you [and Saadi] did not meet with one another?
Sadr: I sent him a message and thanked him in writing multiple times. But has he sent us a message or thanked us for a position? I wanted to meet him in Iraq, but it is hard for me to go to Anbar and hard for him to come to Najaf. When I went to Baghdad and prayed in the al-Kilani Mosque, I thought that he would come to Baghdad so I could meet him, but he became ill. We ask God to bless him with health and wellness.
Al-Hayat: But he lives in Jordan?
Sadr: I tried to go to Jordan, but I have yet to receive a response, and the only reason for the trip was to meet with him. I think that he is unwelcome among some extremist Sunnis, so his popular role has decreased. This is because they don't want moderation to prevail.
Al-Hayat: When will we see normal relations between Sadr, the US and the European Union?
Sadr: I was going to visit EU countries, but I faced multiple obstacles. The first was that they did not give consent for the visit. Furthermore, a member of the [forces that] occupied Iraq (Britain) is present [in the EU]. This made me worried about a relationship with them. My people have suffered at their hands. Concerning a relationship with the American government, at present that is impossible. [Normal ties with the US can only be achieved] when Washington apologizes to the Iraqi people for the occupation, withdraws completely, and provides compensation for all damages. Concerning the American people, I don't think that all of them supported their government's occupation of Iraq. Rather, many of them objected to it and still object to [Washington's] occupation policies. So I have no objection to reinforcing ties with the American people — however, such ties will face one obstacle: the American government would forbid it.
Al-Hayat: But some say that if the [next] prime minister comes from the Sadrist Movement, oil companies will worry about your extremist positions. How do you view Iraq's commercial and economic partnerships with the West?
Sadr: The presence [of Western companies] is necessary to gain experience and ensure the quality or work, but it should be based on conditions — first and foremost non-interference in Iraqi affairs. Also, [the company should not be from] a state that currently occupies Iraq, even if only symbolically. Also, [contracts should be awarded] based on public bidding that benefits the people, not bidding that benefits politicians or the government. These companies should not engage in financial or administrative corruption, and they should invest in poor areas, not rich ones. Initially they should focus on infrastructure, not flimsy construction that will collapse sooner rather than later.
Al-Hayat: There are satellite channels and other platforms — both Sunni and Shiite — that provoke divisions based on ancient historical disputes. Can moderate clerics not take a stand?
Sadr: Shiite clerics object to the existence of these platforms. I have heard this from some of them. However, they have no control over these channels, especially since the majority of them are not Iraq. Thus, a decision to shut them down is in the hands of either the government [where the channel is based], or sectarian Sunni or Shiite figures from outside Iraq. I call on the governments and these figures, if they are of conscience, to immediately close these channels.
Al-Hayat: Some clerics — both Sunni and Shiite — are trying to review the prevailing religious convictions that give rise to discord and division. Do you think that the time is right to carry out these reviews, in order to ease sectarian division?
Sadr: We can say that it is too late. We are no longer [in need of] review, but rather we need to end the clashes, bloodshed, car bombs and assassinations that are occurring.
Al-Hayat: There is a prevailing religious belief that only one sect of Muslims will survive. How do you view this cultural angle of faith? Is it possible to achieve convergence between Islamic sects in light of the prevalence of these convictions?
Sadr: In his precious book, God Almighty says, "And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me." [Surat Adh-Dhariyat, 56] Here worship means obedience, in the sense that the main significance of creation is obedience to God Almighty. Whoever contradicts this significance does not deserve to live and survive, rather his punishment is to inevitably disappear. There is a Hadith Qudsi that says: "Whoever is not pleased with my my laws, get out of my land and my sky."
God is always right, and this is accepted. And usually what is "right" is not numerous. As Ali bin Abi Talib, peace be upon him, said: "Two banners cannot disagree unless one of them is wrong." And God Almighty only supports what is true. Preserving falsehood in life means that it will continue, and preserving truth in life means that it alone will continue.
But the [belief regarding the] survival of one sect does not mean the others are thrown into hell. Rather, it means the others join this sect and it is proven to be correct. In other words: "When the victory of God has come and the conquest, and you see the people entering into the religion of God in multitudes, then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him. Indeed, He is ever Accepting of repentance." [Surat An-Nasr, 1-3] This means that the sect survives in the temporal sense, not on the day of judgment.
The Hadith or the story says that there are 70 sects and one of them survives. Here, the number 70 is not an exact number, but rather it means there are many of them, as it was used in Surat At-Tawbah: "If you should ask forgiveness for them 70 times … " This means that the sects of Islam are divided and scattered, and they must be consolidated under the banner of "truth." This is the meaning of the "saved sect." It is a call for unity — and for rejecting division and sectarianism.
I see that this story is widespread, despite the fact that there is no proof or support [for its authenticity].
Al-Hayat: Are you afraid of a civil war in Iraq? And where will you stand in relation to it?
Sadr: There are some fears, especially given the abhorrent sectarian circumstances. But I would not be a party to this war, even if some of those affiliated with me are involved.
Moreover, the political situation and the government's connection to it would be the primary portal for either stopping this war or ensuring its continuance. [In case of the latter], a sectarian dictatorial government would inevitably come to power.
Al-Hayat: The 2010 Erbil Agreement included provisions for reforming the judiciary and the army, and emphasized the autonomy of independent authorities and bodies and respect for parliament. We will see such a reform plan again?
Sadr: There is no independence now. All of the authorities — the judiciary, the electoral commission, the independent bodies, the army, the police, the ministries and others — are in the hand of one party. So where is this deceptive false democracy [promised by] the West?
Al-Hayat: During the 2010 session of parliament, you introduced new blood into the Ahrar Bloc. Did this experience encourage you to introduce more new faces as ministers and deputies?
Sadr: [Introducing new] deputies is difficult, as the majority of new figures do not have voter support. Thus, entering them into our bloc means an electoral decline. However, their presence as specialists and ministers is something I call for, on the condition that we maintain our national principles and do not stray from our central aim, which is defining general interests, not interfering in the affairs of the government and the like.
Specialists in the Ahrar Bloc are studying how to combine winning votes and introducing important [new] figures. I am one of those that calls for introducing minorities into the Ahrar Bloc, especially those that have a nationalist sense. This is in order to prevent minorities from being marginalized, as happened previously.