Despite the seemingly continuous strife in the region, a few notable religious figures have emerged who stand for interfaith dialogue and Middle Eastern reconciliation.
Religious politicians are generally considered to be on the right of the political spectrum. However, we look at three figures — Iyad Jamal Al-Din in Iraq, Menachem Froman in Israel and Mehdi Karroubi in Iran — who advocate pacifism and pluralism yet are grounded in traditional spirituality. While their followings may be relatively small, these individuals give religious sanction to leftist politics and offer a spiritual alternative to secular liberalism.
Iyad Jamal Al-Din is a Shia cleric who sings the praises of Western democracy and seeks full separation of church and state. And the leader of the Ahrar (Freedom) party is thankful to the U.S. for enabling Iraqi democracy.
Here’s an interview with Al-Din on the Iraqi station Al-Fayhaa in February:
Though he received religious training in Iran, Al-Din seeks to liberate Islam from the state and mold a modern Iraqi government that is untainted by corruption. Jamal also rails against Arab states for using Israel as a pretext for their own misdeeds.
Although Al-Din’s campaign was managed by an American political consultant, preliminary results show that his party did not gain any seats in the March 7 elections. And Al-Din alleges that fraud took place.
The Israeli political leader who has made headlines for his fusion of left-wing politics and Orthodox Judaism is Rabbi Menachem Froman. He belongs to the interfaith Jerusalem Peacemakers, a dovish group that advocates coexistence in Israel-Palestine. He enjoys positive relations with both Fatah and Hamas.
Froman is the rabbi of the Tekoa settlement where he lives, guiding a broader group of southern West Bank Jews who believe in reconciliation with their Palestinian neighbors. Some of them are even willing to be citizens of the eventual Palestinian state.
They believe — like many right-wing religious nationalists — that they have a right to inhabit all parts of the Biblical Land of Israel. But they reject chauvinistic nationalism.
The New York Times quoted Froman in 2008 as saying that peace “won’t succeed without a religious, spiritual basis.”
More recently, peace-activist Froman made the news by spearheading apology efforts to Palestinian residents of Yasuf after their mosque was torched.
The rabbi also belongs to the revivalist camp that seeks to build a Third Temple on the Temple Mount, re-establish the Sanhedrin rabbinical court and awaken local Palestinian populations to their lost Jewish heritage. But above all, Froman promotes peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians.
Reconciliation between Islam and the West is a dominant theme in the rhetoric of another religious politician. In Iran, moderate cleric Mehdi Karroubi has complimented overtures by Barack Obama, called for better treatment of Iranian women and reached out to ethnic minorities.
The pragmatic reformist is head of the National Trust Party. As a prominent opposition leader in the aftermath of last June’s elections, Karroubi has faced threats from what he terms a government “plagued with despotism.”
He has been an outspoken civil rights advocate and publicly critical of the powerful Guardian Council. Even before the Islamic Revolution, Karroubi was one of the few clerics who got along well with secular leftists.
The BBC interviewed the embattled cleric at his home to discuss Karroubi’s predictions for Iran:
Karroubi continues to criticize the allegedly fraudulent election results and rails against the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Over the past week, hardliners have been gathering outside his home, calling for Karroubi to be put to death.
In the Middle East, the combination of faith and progressivism is a hard sell — but for these politicians it offers a winning solution to sectarian strife amid the clash of civilizations.