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A progressive perspective: Sheikh al-Khaqani

An article by Peter Tatchell, which appeared on The Guardian's website. Click here for the original article.

Throughout much of the world, Shia Islam is synonymous with the terrorist violence of the Badr and Sadr death squads in Iraq, and with the murderous tyranny of the Iranian ayatollahs.

Since 1979, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims, journalists, women, students, gay people, leftwingers, trade unionists and ethnic minorities have been murdered in the name of Shia Islam by the despots in Tehran.

We remember the barbaric fate of Iran's esteemed Sunni Muslim leader, Dr Ali Mozafarian. He was executed in 1992, on charges of espionage, adultery and sodomy. Widely assumed to have been framed, his real crime appears to have been that he preached the wrong kind of Islam - Sunni, not Shia.

Given that Iran and Shi'ism have such negative connotations for so many people, it is encouraging to hear the brave, confident voice of a liberal Shia cleric from Iran, Sheikh Mohammed Kazem al-Khaqani.

In a far-sighted but unreported speech at the House of Commons last month, Sheikh al-Khaqani spoke out in defence of democracy, human rights and secularism; advocating a secular state as the best way to safeguard freedom of belief and expression. Denouncing insurgent jihadism, suicide bombing and Iranian theocracy, he argued that Islam has to be rescued from fundamentalist misinterpretations and that oppressive Muslim regimes need to be challenged.

There are, no doubt, aspects of Sheikh al-Khaqani's teachings that I disagree with. But on several key issues he offers a progressive perspective; confounding those who want to portray Islam as a wholly negative, reactionary religion.

Wouldn't it be great if Sheikh al-Khaqani's voice of compassion, wisdom and humanity could be given a wider platform by the Muslim Council of Britain, the London Central Mosque and the mayor of London?

Sheikh al-Khaqani is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taher al-Khaqani, a leading Iranian Ahwazi Arab Shia cleric who was imprisoned after the 1979 Islamic revolution for opposing the theocratic dictatorship and for advocating the separation of religion and the state. The Grand Ayatollah died in suspicious circumstances while under house arrest in Qom.

Sheikh al-Khaqani has dedicated his life to continuing his father's advocacy of a humane understanding of Shia doctrine, with tolerance, human rights and secularism central to his teachings. Such views are heresy in Tehran. Fearful of imprisonment and execution, Sheikh al-Khaqani fled into exile and now lives in Kuwait.

Invited by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, and supported by the Henry Jackson Society, Sheikh al-Khaqani told his House of Commons audience that Islam was based on the love of God and the right to justice, with the right to life as the first and most important human right of all.

Terrorism, whether against individuals or states, is therefore contrary to Islamic teaching: "Justice and faith necessarily dictate that no one should snatch any right from others ... Terrorists who don explosive belts that kill innocents ... have no connection with the three celestial faiths [Judaism, Christianity and Islam] ... It is one of the particular doctrines of the Shia that jihad in the sense of conquering a country is not permitted - that it is not the right of Muslims, but on the contrary is utterly forbidden," he said.

Sheikh al-Khaqani added that Shia Muslims should not use the flag of religion to topple states or political systems, suggesting that Iran's Islamic revolution violated this Shia tradition. The use of religion to overthrow governments - as was the case in Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamist coup in Iran - is "is an erroneous banner, allied with a tyranny worshipping principals inferior to God Almighty."

Instead, he asserted: "The choice of political systems follows the peoples' choice. Indeed God Almighty has given an indication of how Islamic society should be when He said in the Qur'an: 'He ordered them to take counsel among themselves'; namely that Muslims should act by mutual consultation, in all matters relating to their social lives and their system of governance."

Absolute theocracy, as seen in Iran, cannot therefore be considered as Islamic. If the prophet Muhammad was required to consult with the people at every point, so too must all systems of government, including in the Muslim world.

Sheikh al-Khaqani added "the man of faith must be only a guide and a spiritual father, who refrains from intervening in affairs of governance. So it is also incumbent on the state not to intervene in matters of the faith and its institutions."

The rule of Imam Ali, who is considered the first Islamic caliph among Shia Muslims and the fourth among Sunni Muslims, offers a lesson on the values of mercy, tolerance and justice to Muslims in the modern world. Sheikh al-Khaqani pointed to Ali's forgiveness of his political adversaries. Even when he was victorious over them in war he did not confiscate their wealth.

Emphasising the Qur'an's assertion that "there is no compulsion in religion", Sheikh al-Khaqani said that people were free to choose whatever belief they wanted and had the right to abandon Islam if they wish. This contradicts the Iranian regime's policy of executing anyone considered heretical or an apostate.

Contradicting militant Islamist teaching, he also stressed that justice should be applied equally to all, regardless of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim.

Sheikh al-Khaqani concluded his speech by stating that social inequality and human rights violations in Muslim countries were "inconsistent with the humanitarian message of Islam or other faiths".

He also reminded the House of Commons audience that "some of the despotism with which we live in eastern countries and a generation tolerating the violence and terrorism that it brings forth" may have its roots in the "past and present errors by western states". He called on westerners to take responsibility for these errors and help put them right in order to combat Islamist despotism and terrorism.

The key points of Sheikh al-Khaqani's House of Commons speech were:

* The right to life is the first right of all human beings. This principle applies to everyone - Muslim and non-Muslim. Justice and faith dictate that this right may not be abrogated. Terrorists and suicide bombers are therefore anti-Islam and apostates.

* There is no compulsion in religion. Religious belief is a choice. The call to Islam is not a religious obligation. Attempts to achieve conversions by threats or force are unIslamic.

* Jihad as a way of conquering a country and subduing people is forbidden. Muslims should lead by example. Consultation among the people is the most appropriate way to determine how society should be run.

* People should be free to choose the political system that they live under. Exhortations to topple secular governments and replace them with a religious state are erroneous interpretations of Islam.

* Absolute theocracy, as practised under the Iranian model of Shi'ism, is unacceptable. Separation of religion and state, with neither interfering in the other's domain, is the ideal.

* Religious tolerance and the promulgation of justice among all people, without consideration for whether the citizen is Muslim or non-Muslim, is an essential tenet of true Islamic thought.

* Violations of human rights in Muslim countries are unacceptable and incompatible with Islam.

* The west must pursue justice in the world. It should seek to acknowledge and correct its errors in the east, which have helped create despotic Islamic states.