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Will Islam divide or unite Iraq?

To resolve political stalemate and lessen sectarian violence, Iraq must engage its religious leaders. When religion is at the heart of the problem, it must be at the heart of the solution.

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American combat troops have officially left Iraq, but religious factions there continue to jostle for power in the still-unformed government seven months after the March election failed to elect new leaders. Amid sectarian violence and competing foreign influences, Sunni, Shiite, Sadrist, and Kurdish political leaders are struggling to negotiate a coalition government.

Only by engaging fully with Iraq’s rival religious leaders can an authentic coalition government – and the security that it can provide – be achieved. I know, because I’ve spent years forging relationships among religious factions here in Iraq, and I’ve seen the problem, and the possibilities for peace.

When religion goes wrong

Archbishop William Temple wrote, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.”

For many, 9/11 was their first glimpse of just how wrong religion can go.

On September 11, 2001, I was preparing to go to Iraq. I watched, horrified, as the magnitude of that day’s great tragedy unfolded. It was immediately clear that the world was never going to be the same again. When people slaughter the innocent believing that they are doing it in God’s name, the effects are catastrophic.

A week later, as I walked into Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz’ Baghdad office, he shouted at me, “Tell them we had nothing to do with it.” Without thinking I replied, “It doesn’t matter if you did or didn’t; they’re still coming to get you.” By April 2003 my prediction proved correct.

The heart of the problem and the solution

If 9/11 showed us the power of religion to cause tragedy on an epic scale, the aftermath should teach us something else. When religion is at the heart of the problems in a country, religion also needs to be at the heart of the solution.

After the invasion, I emphasized the necessity of addressing the role of religion to those in charge of the US-led Coalition Provincial Authority, which was responsible for rebuilding Iraq. They told me that their first priority was to restore water and electricity supplies. Religion would have to wait.

Some months later they admitted that their failure to engage actively with the religious leadership had left their mission to restore basic utilities doomed to failure. Writing this in Baghdad seven years later, the electricity supply is still sporadic at best, coming on for only a few hours each day.

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