When the Muslim World League hosted the Forum of Iraqi References on Aug. 4 in Makkah, it knew it was carrying out a difficult task to resolve sectarianism in a country like Iraq.
The sectarian conflict had developed into kidnapping, slaughter, displacement, and throwing the bodies of entire families into the river, especially in the days when Al-Qaeda and Daesh were active, not to mention the violations committed by some armed Shiite militias.
Sectarianism in Iraq in particular, and the Middle East in general, has become a real problem. It has gone beyond the issue between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Followers of other religions and sects such as Christians, Jews, Sabeans, Yazidis, and Druze are also suffering the consequences.
It is a problem composed of several factors, namely political, economic, cultural, and religious, a struggle for influence and power, and a desirable tool for parties that use sectarian differences to achieve their interests.
The rise of political Islam movements has worsened the crisis, especially after the Arab Spring events of 2011, as it revealed how public culture in most countries was still heavily influenced by religion and, thus, this weakness was exploited to direct and control public opinion to establish the caliphate or Wilayat Al-Faqih.
Sunni and Shiite extremists have practiced public incitement in mosques, on television, on social media platforms, and in videos containing scenes of killing and torture, or insulting and calling others infidels.
They use such tactics to incite simple-minded believers, slowly turning them into ideological extremists. Some chose to adopt violence and join groups fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and other countries suffering from civil war or issues in their political system.
This very dark situation gives the Forum for Iraqi References hosted by Saudi Arabia special significance because it is a first step toward forming a united front against extremism and sectarianism.
The secretary-general of the Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammed Abdul Karim Al-Issa, was frank in his speech when he stressed that “sectarianism is not part of Islam’s guidance” and warned against falling into “the labyrinths of clash, conflict and calling others infidels.”
Al-Issa’s criticism of sectarianism was a clear rejection of the methodology of calling others infidels as practiced by numerous hard-liners in the Salafi school, which will make him clash with the leaders of this school of thought.
Still, Al-Issa is well aware of these consequences. He seems determined to build a discourse that believes in pluralism and respect for others.
Al-Issa’s stance does not represent him alone. It is part of a Saudi strategy based on fighting extremist religious discourses to reduce the control of hard-line clerics and isolate them even further. What next for the Forum of Iraqi References?
The secretary-general of the Muslim World League was frank in his speech when he stressed that ‘sectarianism is not part of Islam’s guidance.’
For the Forum of Iraqi References to have a practical and lasting impact, there must be genuine cooperation between the institutions sponsoring the dialogue. They should cooperate because the Muslim World League cannot alone assume such a great responsibility.
The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, the Al-Khoei Institute, KAICIID (King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue), the Muslim Council of Elders, and the Kalima Center for Dialogue and Cooperation are a few institutions that need to work on serious projects, create youung cadres that believe in human rights and mutual respect, and transcend close-minded religious thought.
If these institutions cooperate, they will constitute a force of goodness and peace and influence millions of Muslims in the Arab world.
Little by little, they can create a vast network with partners in North Africa, Asia, and Europe, and even the US whose president, Joe Biden, nominated Rashad Hussain as the first Muslim to be the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
This means that civil and religious organizations in the Gulf cooperating to promote religious freedoms will send great and positive messages about the deep changes taking place and alter the negative stereotypes formed due to fundamentalist movements and incitement by the extreme right.
Cooperation between these institutions will be the natural gateway to change and build a new tolerant and global religious discourse, allowing for cooperation with partners in European and US governments, and limiting the impact of fundamentalism, even in those societies that suffer from the effects of violent thought.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa 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