Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—The senior Sunni cleric Abdel Malik Al-Saadi has come to play a prominent role in the protests that have recently rocked the Sunni-majority provinces of Iraq.
Though he reportedly turned down the chance to become Iraq’s Grand Mufti in 2007 and divides his time between his work in Iraq and teaching in Jordan, he has remained an influential voice thanks to his scholarly credentials and history of speaking out against Saddam Hussein’s regime, which led to his detention and torture in the late 1980s.
As the stand-off between the government in Baghdad and the protesters on the streets of Anbar has worsened, Saadi has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government, though he has called on all Iraqis to avoid the perils of sectarian violence (his own brother, also a cleric, was assassinated by Al-Qaeda in 2010).
Following the publication of this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in Arabic on Saturday, his house in Ramadi was attacked with machine gun fire by unknown assailants, though no casualties among his family were reported.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Sheikh Saadi about his view of the state of Iraqi politics, the protests against the government in Baghdad, why he believes that the current electoral system is “illegitimate,” and why he believes voters should stay away from upcoming elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you think the current situation in Iraq signals the approach of a sectarian conflict—or has that already started?
Abdel Malik Al-Saadi: Sectarianism is practiced by the current government, not only in terms of rhetoric, but also in terms of action. If there were Sunnis who proclaimed their affiliations and said “we are Sunnis” then they only did so through words and not deeds. There are politicians in the current government, however, who have gone further than this by inciting raids, arrests, the terrorizing and displacement of families, and the murder of national figures, all of which are sectarian acts.
We do not deny that Iraqi society is a mixture of many sects. I see it as an oasis with a selection of different flowers: there are Muslims and non-Muslims, Shi’ites and Sunnis, as well as Arabs, Kurds and Turks. But we never felt the impact of these labels before the American occupation, because of the strong links between the different factions in Iraqi society. But the occupation accentuated and fed into the differences and tensions between these groups, working on the principle of ‘divide and rule’ by carving up Iraqi society along ethnic and sectarian faultlines into Kurds and Arabs, with Arabs themselves further dividing into Sunnis and Shi’ites.
If the current government is independent and not subject to any foreign influence as it claims, then it should have worked to preserve national unity as it was before the occupation. Instead, it helped fan the flames of division and sectarianism. Yes, there may be some Sunnis who have entered the political process, but they are few, and they have not been able to change anything.
As for the sectarian conflict, it has not yet happened, thank God, although there have been some attacks by militias who claim affiliation with particular groups within the Shi’ite sect. But this does not count as sectarian because it is only coming from one side of the supposed conflict. Even back in 2005 there was no such conflict, merely an opportunity for these militias to kill Sunnis, an opportunity which was fully exploited, and which could have been motivated by the desire for personal revenge. So if the government supported certain militias or even remained silent about their practices, it means that they are complicit and seek to ignite sectarianism. The Iraqi people, on the other hand—Sunni and Shi’ite alike—do not want a sectarian conflict at all.
Q: Do you mean that the Iraqi people are not sectarian?
Yes, the Iraqi people are not sectarian—it is the government that is practicing sectarianism. Before the occupation, I never used the words “Sunni” or “Shi’ite” from the mosque pulpit, nor even during jurisprudential arguments. After the arrival of the American governor [of Iraq during 2003–2004] Paul Bremer, who attempted to divide the Iraqi people, the government started using this division and exploiting it, especially once Iran started to encourage this openly and to interfere in Iraq’s affairs.
Q: Do you think the Iraqi government is a single-sect government?
The majority of the government is sectarian. And, as you know, there are members of the government who are Kurdish, secular and Sunni. But the majority is sectarian, it is a single-sect government. It may be the case that not all members of this government are in total agreement, and that a number of them may not be happy with some of the government’s practices, but the fact is they stay silent out of fear. As long as this government is supported by Iran, then people will be cautious towards it.
Q: What is your opinion of the Sunni representation in the government?
In my opinion, this representation is damaging on two counts: first in that the general consensus both in Iraq and around the world recognizes it as a partnership government, but because it is a single-sect government, this vision has proved impractical in reality. The second in that Sunni participation has given the government legitimacy. In my opinion, either balance must be restored to all state institutions, the army and security forces, or Sunnis must withdraw from the government so it loses its legitimacy in international public opinion.
Q: You issued a statement urging non-participation in the next parliamentary elections, is that helpful to the political process?
The statement did not urge non-participation. What I said was that I do not recognize the legitimacy of elections and do not believe that they constitute a viable solution as things stand. I personally do not vote and do not support or endorse any group or individual.
We have had two elections since the end of the occupation. They did nothing for the country, and neither the Sunnis nor the Shi’ite [candidates] offered anything to their people. The elections are held on a quota basis anyway, and the results have been forged. The division of the country into sects and ethnicities, and then giving each quotas or shares of representation, is not accurate at all. The figure of 20 percent for Sunni Arabs for instance is a huge lie put in place by the occupier [America] and its cronies, and is refuted by reality. In Ninawa there are at least three million Sunnis, There are two million in Al-Anbar, and one million in Salah Al-Din. There is another one million in Diyala, with three million in the Baghdad area, and three million Sunni Arabs in the south, including Basra and Zubair. That’s 13 million Arab Sunnis, leaving aside Kirkuk, which is disputed. So does that mean we only have 20 percent? I would like fair and impartial organizations from outside Iraq to carry out a new census to work out the percentages of each religion, sect and ethnicity within the country—assuming they do not annul these names and divisions and just settle for the name “Iraqi,” which is what we really want.
This is why I do not encourage participation in the elections, because I do not recognize these percentages and have no trust in the fairness of the elections and the way the votes are counted. I also do not believe the electorate will be able to make any difference and I do not trust the politicians themselves, because we have tried them before when we said they may be nationalists who could offer something to Iraqis. However, when they win, they appear in their true colors…only looking after their own personal interests or those of their parties. That’s why I said I don’t want anyone to discuss the elections with me and I will not answer any questions or receive any visitor on their participation in the elections, or who they should vote for. In the future, yes, if someone comes along who will serve the people then I will say “thank God” and only then will I advise people to elect these people in the future.
Q: But there are Arab Sunni parliament members who say: If we do not vote in the elections, we will leave the field open to others?
They said such things when we voted for the governing council elections and the last two parliament sessions, but they have offered nothing to the Iraqi people. They have made no difference at all, and neither have the members of the other sects. There words are just excuses because the field is left open whether we vote or not. Non-participation in the elections is the only answer; it will deny them legitimacy and political power, unless loyal nationalists can control the majority of the seats, which I think is impossible while the sectarian majority and foreign influences hold sway over the government.
Q: Do you support the establishment of a political authority for Sunni Arabs?
When was there ever a political authority? Politicians are always at loggerheads and none of them recognize the other as a political authority. Even Sunnis who entered parliament, are they in agreement with regard to one person or one opinion? No, they are not. I call on all Sunnis and Iraqis in general to unite. After all we all agree on the fundamental issues regarding Islam. As for the details, they stem from issues which took place after era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and they are minor issues like whether one should say “Basmallah” out loud or not, or over whether one performs certain prayers, issues which are not important, since we all agree on most of the major issues.
Q: Do Arab Sunni politicians come to you for advice or ask you about issues related to the country or the people, whether in the past or currently?
None of them come to me over these issues. They do not come and ask: “Should we participate in the elections or not?” Or, “Should I join this list or that?” Or, “Should I do this or that?” They do not ask me about these issues; they come with a list of candidates and ask me to bless it, or they come to show me what they had done or are planning to do, in order to gain my support.
Q: Have you ever given your blessing to a certain list of candidates or to certain people?
I have never given my blessings to any people in previous elections, but I did support one person or another due to their level of religious piety, and their being moral and just. I did that because I thought these people could provide the country and the people with a good service. So, this support was not public but personal. However, today I have washed my hands of every last one of them.
Q: Today you do not give your blessings or support any politicians?
No, I do not support any individual, list or politician.
Q: Do you feel that your name been exploited for political purposes?
Well, there are many liars around. So, yes, it has been exploited, and is why I have said that any report or statement attributed to me but not issued by my son, Baraa Abdel Malik, or not published on my website or by my brothers, is a lie and I will not take any responsibility for it.
Q: Have you had direct talks with Maliki or have there been discussions through mediators about the situation in Iraq or Al-Anbar?
No, not at all. As long as officials continue to twist my words and use my comments for their own ends, I will not hold talks with them or with any politician who misquotes me. I do not meet politicians because [some of them] claimed I gave them my blessings and supported them, which did not happen.
This kind of thing has [also] happened in regards to the issue of declaring [autonomous] regions [in Iraq]. They came to me and talked to me about this issue and I said, after a long discussion, that Salah Al-Din Governorate had applied to the government to have the governorate declared an autonomous region, so let us wait and see [what happens]. They left my office and said I agreed on the declaration of regions, which was not the case.
Q: How do you see the issue of autonomous regions, or the formation of a Sunni region for example?
I consider the formation of regions as [the same as] the dissolution of Iraq, because when Khomeini came to power in Iran he called for the export of the revolution starting with Iraq, and [former President Abolhassan] Banisadr at the time said: “our borders end in Baghdad where Taq-e Kasra is placed”. If we have a Sunni region, this will be a strong excuse to form a Shi’ite region and this will strengthen Iran and pave the way for the Sunni region…to be usurped, just as Iraq was usurped in 2003 despite its power, and Iran will not stop at Baghdad, but will invade the Arab world. Iraq will be three regions: Kurdish, which is already in place, a Sunni region, and another Shi’ite [region], and these are clear dangers and mean the fragmentation of Iraq. Israel is also interested in fragmenting the Islamic states to ensure they do not have one voice, and the division of Iraq is an American-Israeli plan, as they were the ones who put it in the constitution.
It is important to note that when I prohibited the regions, I did not prohibit the concept but the declaration of regions in Iraq today, under the current constitution and political process. This is clear in my fatwa on the regions, which was a personal ruling and not binding to anyone, had there been a strong constitution which could have given strength to the autonomous regions, I would have agreed with [the idea]. It is also worth noting that when some of the politicians calling for regions found out it was impossible to form regions legally under the current government, they did not publicize that, but chose to exploit it and told people the reason for not forming regions was a fatwa by myself in order to cause division between myself and the people, but this does not concern me, what concerns me is pleasing God.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.