The New York Times

 

August 10, 2003

Dinner With the Sayyids

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

AGHDAD, Iraq

The best thing about being in Baghdad these days is that you just never know who's going to show up for dinner.

Take last Wednesday night. I was invited to interview a rising progressive Iraqi Shiite cleric, Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, at his home on the banks of the Tigris. It was the most exciting conversation I've had on three trips to postwar Iraq. I listened to Mr. Jamaleddine eloquently advocate separation of mosque and state and lay out a broad, liberal agenda for Iraq's majority Shiites. As we sat down for a meal of Iraqi fish and flat bread, he introduced me to a small, black-turbaned cleric who was staying as his houseguest.

"Mr. Friedman, this is Sayyid Hussein Khomeini" the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Mr. Khomeini told me he had left the Iranian spiritual center of Qum to meet with scholars in the Iraqi Shiite spiritual centers of Karbala and Najaf. He, too, is a progressive, he explained, and he intends to use the freedom that the U.S. invasion has created in Iraq to press for real democratic reform in Iran. Now I understand why his grandfather once threw him in jail for a week. He has Ayatollah Khomeini's fiery eyes and steely determination, but the soul of a Muslim liberal.

The 46-year-old Mr. Khomeini said he's currently advocating a national referendum in Iran to revoke the absolute religious and political powers that have been grabbed by Iran's clergy. But in other interviews here, he was quoted as saying that Iran's hard-line clerical rulers were "the world's worst dictatorship," who have been exploiting his grandfather's name and the name of Islam "to continue their tyrannical rule." He and Mr. Jamaleddine told me their first objective was to open Shiite seminaries and schools in Iraq to teach their ideas to the young generation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea whether these are the only two liberal Shiite clerics in Iraq. People tell me they definitely are not. Either way, their willingness to express their ideas publicly is hugely important. It is, for my money, the most important reason we fought this war: If the West is going to avoid a war of armies with Islam, there has to be a war of ideas within Islam. The progressives have to take on both the religious totalitarians, like Osama bin Laden, and the secular totalitarians who exploit Islam as a cover, like Saddam Hussein. We cannot defeat their extremists, only they can. This war of ideas needs two things: a secure space for people to tell the truth and people with the courage to tell it. That's what these two young clerics represent, at least in potential.

Mr. Jamaleddine, age 42, grew up in Iraq, sought exile in Iran after one of Saddam's anti-Shiite crackdowns, tasted the harshness of the Iranian Islamic revolution firsthand, moved to Dubai, and then returned to Iraq as soon as Saddam fell. Here is a brief sampler of what he has been advocating:

On religion and state: "We want a secular constitution. That is the most important point. If we write a secular constitution and separate religion from state, that would be the end of despotism and it would liberate religion as well as the human being. . . . The Islamic religion has been hijacked for 14 centuries by the hands of the state. The state dominated religion, not the other way around. It used religion for its own ends. Tyrants ruled this nation for 14 centuries and they covered their tyranny with the cloak of religion. . . . When I called for secularism in Nasiriya (in the first postwar gathering of Iraqi leaders), they started saying things against me. But last week I had some calls from Qum, thanking me for presenting this thesis and saying, `We understand what you are calling for, but we cannot say so publicly.'

"Secularism is not blasphemy. I am a Muslim. I am devoted to my religion. I want to get it back from the state and that is why I want a secular state. . . . When young people come to religion, not because the state orders them to but because they feel it themselves in their hearts, it actually increases religious devotion. . . . The problem of the Middle East cannot be solved unless all the states in the area become secular. . . . I call for opening the door for Ijtihad [reinterpretation of the Koran in light of changing circumstances]. The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1,000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times."

How will he deal with opposition to such ideas from Iraq's neighbors?

"The neighboring countries are all tyrannical countries and they are wary of a modern, liberal Iraq. . . . That is why they work to foil the U.S. presence. . . . If the U.S. wants to help Iraqis, it must help them the way it helped Germany and Japan, because to help Iraq is really to help 1.3 billion Muslims. Iraq will teach these values to the entire Islamic world. Because Iraq has both Sunnis and Shiites, and it has Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. . . . If it succeeds here it can succeed elsewhere. But to succeed you also need to satisfy people's basic needs: jobs and electricity. If people are hungry, they will be easily recruited by the extremists. If they are well fed and employed, they will be receptive to good ideas. . . . The failure of this experiment in Iraq would mean success for all despots in the Arab and Islamic world. [That is why] this is a challenge that America must accept and take all the way."

Mr. Jamaleddine, Mr. Khomeini; these are real spiritual leaders here. But if the U.S. does not create a secure environment and stable economy in Iraq, their voices will never get through. If we do, though wow. To the rest of the Arab world, I would simply say: Guess who's coming to dinner.


August 10, 2003

Will Islam Accept Moderate Muslims?

To the Editor:

Re "Dinner With the Sayyids," by Thomas L. Friedman (column, Aug. 10): If the concept of a moderate Muslim weren't fuzzy enough, now we have Muslim "liberals."

It is one of the bedrock principles of Islam that state and religion are not separate. Islamic law sharia governs all aspects of life and effectively takes the place of the civil and criminal laws of secular states. How can Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine at once advocate separation of mosque and state and at the same time call himself a Muslim?

K. T. BARNES
Mansfield, Conn.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company