An influential Iraqi Shiite scholar used a visit to the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to argue that even amid the growing Shia-Sunni tensions and violence besetting his country, religious leaders there should support a civic rather than a sectarian conception of state affairs and politics.

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Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hakim is a high-ranking member of the Hawza, or Shiite seminary, in the Iraqi city of Najaf, one of the world's two leading centers of Shiite thought and research. He is also the general secretary of the Imam al-Hakim Foundation's Beirut office and part of one of Iraq's most prominent religious families; his grandfather and uncle served as Grand Ayatollahs based in Najaf. As a student, Hakim faced harassment by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and fled Iraq, first to Kuwait and then Iran.

"Religion has a very large role in building peace," Hakim said in wide-ranging remarks at the Institute on January 22. When "utilized properly," he said, religion can help build a country, but when it is not it can "destroy" a country. In combination with social and civic factors, "religion has a role in every problem and every solution," he said.

However, if religious groups become overly involved with governmental affairs, he said, "this is a bit dangerous….Either the religion is not a religion anymore, or we turn the government into a religious government."

Hakim said that Iraqi religious institutions face pressures from some politicians and are sometimes used by them for their own ambitions. Hakim said it was the "very firm" belief of Shiite religious authorities in Iraq that "it will not deal with the political situation in its details."

As if to emphasize that religious authorities remain aloof from the political apparatus of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who leads a Shiite-dominated governing coalition, Hakim said: "For eight years, all we've heard were promises, but no implementation."

He stressed that Sunnis and Kurds must remain integral parts of the political process and questioned the use of the term "minorities" to characterize Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq. Such groups share commonalities with Shiites in other regards, and from the experience of Shia in Iraq, "we have suffered…from this kind of vision [of minority status] through our history." Drawing a contrast with Iran, he added, "We cannot consider Iraq a Shiite country. It is a country with a Shiite majority." He said that even though Iraq is governed by a Shiite-dominated political coalition, it cannot do so on the basis of "political Shiism."

Hakim traced Iraq's present-day sectarianism to the rise of political Islam through some Sunni figures after the fall of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century. A civic and not religious basis for society has been espoused by Shiite thinkers for centuries, he said. Iraqis' experience under Saddam Hussein's regime left Shiites and Sunnis fearful of one another—and Kurds suspicious of Arabs. He called Sunni-Shia tensions "the vertical fracture" of Iraqi society.

Iraq, he said, was both the beginning and the possible end point for sectarian tensions across the Middle East. The divisions in Syria, where a violent civil war rages on, is "a copy of what happened in Iraq" and a prime example of how sectarianism in religiously divided Iraq can reverberate around the region. However, the Syrian conflict is not primarily one of clashing sects but rather a political one that can be resolved through political means, he said.

If Iraq's sectarianism explodes, the effects will be felt throughout the region, Hakim predicted. But if Egypt—where a secular military removed the Sunni-based Muslim Brotherhood president from power last year—were to explode politically, the Gulf would as well, he added.

Hakim said that the United States can play a useful role in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and has an interest in peace but that it is important not to apply "a double standard" in the region. "The U.S. can help," he said. "The U.S. can do a lot."

USIP has been active in Iraq since 2003, including through the development of networks of peacebuilders and facilitators that cross religious and ethnic divides and through support for the establishment of an Iraqi interfaith council.

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