The reactions of Iraq’s ulama and some Arab clerics to the recent Kurdish referendum have been mostly negative, a clear reflection of their political sympathies. However–aside from Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech–the reactions have been nuanced. This has allowed for more fine-tuned gauging of political tendencies among the various religious communities of Iraq and the neighboring countries.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani strongly criticized the referendum. Sistani did not appear publicly, but his message was conveyed by Shaykh Ahmad al-Safi, his representative in Karbala (one of the holiest sites of Shi’i Islam). Speaking on behalf of Sistani, al-Safi warned of “the disparaging consequences of division.” He noted:
The Iraqi Higher Religious Authority warns that taking steps towards division and separation will trigger internal and external reactions, which will lead to disastrous consequences that will affect our dear Kurdish citizens, as it will open the gate for regional and international parties to interfere in Iraq’s affairs to carry out their own agendas against our people and homeland.
Al-Safi also bemoaned what he viewed as a “new ordeal related to the attempt to divide the country and split its northern part through establishing an independent state,” and called on all sides to “stick to the text and spirit of the constitution.” He appealed to both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to refer their disagreement to the Federal Supreme Court and to abide by its decisions.
Shi’i leader Muqtada Sadr has also condemned the referendum, referring to it as “suicide for the Kurds.” He urged (October 25) the Iraqi government to impose its sovereignty on all its territory and also warned Israel not to get involved in Iraqi affairs. Sadr’s message was similar to the statements by Ali Sistani and Ahmad as-Safi. Living up to his reputation as the all-Iraqi responsible leader, he harshly and unequivocally condemned any attempt to target Kurds in Baghdad in “retaliation” for the referendum.
Another moderate Shi’i leader, Ammar al-Hakim, also condemned the referendum and also deemed it a mistake; however his past close ties with the Kurds makes his stance ambiguous. Al-Hakim is well liked among the Kurds, as he has always supported Kurdish rights. On October 8, a few days after Kurdish politician and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani passed away, al-Hakim stated that he hoped “to resolve the problems between the center [Baghdad] and the region [of Kurdistan].”
It is noteworthy that the reactions of Iraqi Shi’i religious leaders were moderate, calling for dialogue and referring to Iraq’s Kurds as “brethren” and “citizens.” It is possible that the solemn atmosphere of the Shi’i Ashura day of remembrance in Iraq and Iran influenced the clerical discourse. As the death of the Imam Ali’s son Hussein in the battle of Karbala signifies in today’s Shi’ism protest against cruelty and injustice, Iraqi Shi’i leaders may have abstained from rabble-rousing or sectarian insinuations. The events of Ashura, namely the battle of Karbala–in which the sides were unequally matched–occurred on Iraqi soil, attaching an even greater sense of importance to the ceremony for local believers. It is equally noteworthy that this type of discourse and the issues raised are political in nature, as none of the aforementioned statements can be considered religiously binding fatwah.
In contrast to the Iraqi ulama’s reactions to the Kurdish referendum, the response of the Iranian clerics and Hizballah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah was not so moderate. In Nasrallah’s speech in honor of Ashura, delivered on September 30, he echoed traditional Iranian conspiracies that the Islamic State was “an American project in the region, as partition [of Iraq]is –America’s true project in the region.”
Nasrallah also lambasted Israel–which was the only country to come out in support of the Kurdish bid for statehood–for its “declared and hasty support for the secession of Kurdistan.” He urged countries not to expect international support: “Had the Iraqis, the Syrians, and the Lebanese waited for the U.S. administration or the so-called international coalition for the war on Daesh, which has done nothing for three years… then Daesh would still be present now.”
Nasrallah went on to condemn the “oppression” of Muslims in Bahrain, Myanmar, and Yemen, clearly echoing the Iranian stance.
Sunni Arab and Kurdish Clerics
The position of Kurdish Sunni clerics on the referendum unsurprisingly aligned with Barzani and backed the referendum, thus defying Sistani’s message. The head of the Association of Muslim Clerics in Kurdistan (AMCK) Abdallah Molla Sa’id challenged Sistani (September 30), declaring that “the mere fact that Sistani calls to apply the Constitution to respect the rights of the Kurds proves their rights are not respected.” He added that Sistani instead could have been focusing on the rights of the oppressed as per the tradition of Hussein in Ashura. This last statement clearly shows a mastering of religious nuances and sensitivities by all the players in Iraq.
Even more interesting was the reaction of the AMCK to the condemnation of the referendum by leading Muslim educational institution al-Azhar in Egypt. The establishment criticized the Kurds not only for the referendum but also due to the fact that Israeli flags were seen at rallies in Kurdistan.
In response to al-Azhar, the AMCK released the following statement:
At a time when the oppressed people of Kurdistan endeavor to acquire their legitimate rights to freedom and independence…. we hoped that the religious institutions, particularly the esteemed al-Azhar, would support our legitimate aspirations. However, we were surprised by the institutions who turned their back to us.
The AMCK further lamented the fact that al-Azhar neglected to mention the link between the glorious Salah al-Din and the Kurds. Al-Azhar’s original statement did not explicitly mention the “Kurds” or “Kurdistan.” Finally, the official AMCK response also addressed the accusation regarding the Israeli flags by asking how al-Azhar could blame Kurdistan for the presence of Israeli flags. Whereas “that flag has been hoisted in Cairo for decades, and this is undoubtedly the case in some other Muslim and Arab capitals.” It added that the Kurdish cause was not born today and existed before Israel.
The AMCK statement stands in stark contrast with the tone of its address to the domestic Iraqi audience. Whereas in the above statements, the Kurdish authorities as well as Iranian and Iraqi Arab Shi’a are very respectful of each other–abiding by the rule of “respectful disagreement” and thus omitting negative sectarian connotations–its message to the wider, international Sunni audience regarding the federal government takes on a different tone:
“Which unity does al-Azhar require from the Kurds with the current regime in Baghdad? Is it not known that the Baghdad government has become explicitly sectarian? It does not accept any participation with us, nor does it respect its commitments and agreements with us. It has violated dozens of constitutional clauses.”
The objective of the Kurdish Sunni clerics in playing up the sectarian sensitivities of Sunni Arabs outside Iraq may be to gain support of the leading Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE has significant investments in Kurdistan and reportedly backed the referendum move. While both Gulf nations were initially indifferent to the Kurdish cause, they cannot ignore the Sunni dimension of the Kurds. Supporting the Kurds in Iraq would curb the influence of Turkey and Iran in the country. The UAE must be interested in blocking Turkey–an enemy in the eyes of the UAE–in Kurdistan if Erdogan embraces the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The religious discourse of all the parties completely resonates with their respective political goals. At the moment, it is moderate, as no party is interested in a military confrontation for now. For the time being, and especially in light of the ongoing economic crisis in Kurdistan, Barzani views compromise and dialogue as the best existing alternative.