Moderate religious leaders need to work together urgently
The meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in the Iraqi city of Najaf this month received great attention as it brought together two religious leaders who are widely respected by millions of believers throughout the world.
Commenting on the arrival of the Roman Catholic pope in Iraq, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, wrote on Twitter: “The historic and courageous visit of my brother Pope Francis to dear Iraq conveys a message of peace, solidarity, and support for all the Iraqi people. I pray for his success and for his visit to achieve the hoped-for fruits on the path of human fraternity.”
Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), also supported the Pope’s visit and wrote on Twitter: “The Pope’s visit to Iraq adds to the pillars of strengthening love and fraternity among the followers of religions and their sects. The great Iraq, with its Arabism and pride in its values and diversity, maintains its outstanding efforts to face the challenges, especially the crimes of the terrorist (organization) Daesh and the attempts to incite sectarianism.”
Al-Tayeb and Al-Issa were not the only ones to support the pope’s efforts. The UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders issued a statement stating that Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq “conveys a message of solidarity with all the victims of violence in the region and the world.” The importance of the council lies in the fact that it includes a group of scholars and spiritual figures from various Islamic sects and countries, which means that its influence extends over a wide geographical area.
The fact that several spiritual leaders support the establishment of peace and stability in Iraq and the Middle East should not be left as mere messages. They must be transformed into a program of action and joint projects between the forces of moderation in order to establish the discourse of multiculturalism and religious pluralism.
There are several points of convergence that can constitute an entry point for cooperation between the “elders.” These are: Fighting terrorism; curbing religious extremism and criticizing sectarian, racist and hateful speeches; promoting the values of citizenship, justice, equality, respect for human rights, and the rule of law; emphasizing the supreme human value and that an individual is respected regardless of their gender, religion and ethnicity; establishing civil peace and resolving differences between ethnic and religious groups; emphasizing dialogue as the only entry point for resolving disagreements and disputes; and ensuring that weapons are in the hands of the state only and emphasizing the inadmissibility of the presence of armed militias.
Spiritual leaderships in the Middle East can work on the above points. Cooperation between authorities and leaders like Pope Francis, Al-Sistani, Al-Tayeb, Al-Issa, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah will lead to the formation of the nucleus of the “coalition of moderates.” This will be supported by several political systems, with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE and Egypt, among others, at the forefront.
There should also be cooperation between institutions such as the Najaf Seminary (Hawza), Al-Azhar in Egypt, the Vatican, the MWL, and the Peace Enhancement Forum. These institutions, with their wide network of preachers, intellectuals and media figures, as well as their financial power and influence over politicians, can create a humanitarian discourse that fights that of extremist organizations.
There is an intellectual basis that can form a theoretical reference for joint action. It is represented in the Makkah Document, which was issued in 2019 by the MWL international conference on the theme of “Values of Moderation and Middle Stance in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna;” the Human Fraternity Document co-signed by Pope Francis and Al-Tayeb in 2019; the Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue, which emerged in 2019 from the Forum for Promoting Peace; and “Al-Wasaya,” a book written by the prominent Lebanese cleric Mohammed Mahdi Shamseddine and published in 2000 by Dar An-Nahar. The book includes a set of commandments for Shiite Arab Muslims, urging them to integrate into their homelands and cooperate with their governments. These commandments are similar to Al-Sistani’s political and cultural vision.
The slower these leaders are in taking serious practical steps, the bigger the scope for intolerance and hatred gets.
This cooperation between moderate religious leaders, which many hope will happen soon, has been long delayed. The slower these leaders are in taking serious practical steps, the bigger the scope for intolerance and hatred gets, as fundamentalist organizations like Daesh, Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and the Iran-backed militias work continuously. They also have their military, media and social tools, and economic and services networks, through which they influence people and make more young people join them. This is a major challenge for peace in the Middle East.
The meeting between Pope Francis and Al-Sistani gave hope to the citizens of Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and it was a moment filled with emotions and hopes for security and peace. However, properly investing in this historic meeting is more important than all the beautiful photos that have been taken — and this investment must start today. Otherwise, more blood will be shed and more wars will take place. Then, no humanitarian appeal or call of distress will be useful.
- Hassan Almustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse, and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa