Iraq’s past and future: remembering Sayyid Abdul Majid Khoei

Caspar Henderson
7 April 2004

The life and work of Sayyid Abdul-Majid Khoei, one of Iraq’s leading Shi’a clerics, was remembered by friends and political allies at an event in north London on Friday, 2 April 2004.

I attended on the invitation of the scholar Fred Halliday. It is a long cycle-ride from openDemocracy’s office in Clerkenwell to the al-Khoei Foundation in Kilburn. But it was no hardship on one of the loveliest days so far this spring, which, in its great glory, can permeate even this city. Nearing the foundation’s building in Chevening Road, I realised that I was in streets I had last seen over a quarter-century ago when, as an eleven-year old in the mid-1970s, I used to come this way by bus to visit a playmate, the son of a concert pianist who had fled Hungary after the heroic uprising of 1956. Suddenly, I was surrounded by memories of friends lost long ago and almost forgotten.

A leader remembered

More than twenty people from the fields of politics, theology, the arts and scholarship spoke to a group of about 200 in tribute to Khoei. The following account sketches just a small part of what was said.

After the 1991 uprising against Saddam was betrayed by the western powers, Khoei fled to Britain. His background placed him right at the heart of a theological and clerical tradition, but, according to all those who spoke about him, his time in Britain was particularly marked by charitable action on behalf of poor Shi’a and reaching out to all communities beyond his own, rather than to the study of the minutiae of theology. Khoei did not shy away from taking sides over the future of Iraq, and, after more than a decade in exile in Britain received political and financial support from the United States-led coalition.

The historian and television presenter Michael Wood was among the first to speak. Wood said he had fallen in love with Iraq, the most extraordinary of all historical landscapes, during the 1980s. He had learnt that Shi’ism was not something loathsome and frightening as it had been portrayed in much of the western media after the Iranian revolution, but was universal, relevant and beautiful.

Enduring friendship with Khoei soon followed, and Wood had travelled clandestinely into the marshlands of southern Iraq to document the genocide and ecological destruction undertaken by Saddam’s regime. “The Khoei family name got us through every roadblock and checkpoint”, said Wood, “and I particularly remember a cleric we met working in the marshes, combining pastoral care and expertise in bomb disposal. His biggest fear for Iraq was that the goodness inside people will be destroyed by Saddam. He reckoned that another ten years would be enough to achieve this”. According to Wood, the intervening decade of catastrophe had surely brought Iraq close to what this cleric had feared, but he had not given up hope.

Wood touched on the long intellectual journey not only of Sayyid Abdul-Majid Khoei but also of his father, Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, born way back in 1891. In a prologue to the Koran, Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei argued it was essential to build a modern state, free of control by the clergy. “This”, said Wood, “put him into agonising struggles during Saddam’s rule”.

Coming to Britain and learning to adapt to a new country, the son’s intellectual journey was no less vast. He was painfully aware of the divisive stereotypes which, quite literally, destroy people’s lives, and did everything he could to combat them in his adopted country. But, said Wood, the exile always marked him. “He would say repeatedly ‘I want my country to have a future’.”

There were messages of respect and condolence from Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Church of England).

Faruk Jarrar of the Aal al-Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought said that Khoei was the very embodiment of samaha - a word that, according to Jarrar, does not have a direct equivalent in English as it means more than tolerance, implying acceptance and grace towards other people.

Emma Nicholson, a member of the European parliament and founder of the Amar appeal, pointed out that she was representative at a secular institution. But, she said, “the heart of Europe is religious”, and the three, indivisible ‘Abrahamanic Triplets’ of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all had a place there. According to Nicholson, Khoei’s killers understood his spiritual goodness only too well, and the real threat he presented to their profound evil.

Mehri Niknam of the Maimonides Foundation told of how, before her first meeting, she had assumed that it would be purely a formal affair. Instead, Khoei had engaged with her directly and shook her hand - her, a woman, and a Jew. They had become close friends. Mehri Niknam read some beautiful poetry from Iran, her country of origin.

Fuad Nahdi, editor of Q News, said that, as someone quick to anger, he had always found Khoei’s calmness and equanimity real torture. "I found him absolutely infuriating. We became great friends". But, said Nahdi, there had been no chance of him converting from the majority Sunni branch of Islam to Shi’ism because as a Sunni he had always received exceptional privileges and comforts when staying with the Khoei family, and he wasn’t about to lose those! Nahdi said he was haunted by memories of the time a year ago when, like so many who knew Khoei, he had entreated him not to return to Iraq while the situation was still so dangerous.

Sayyid Hayder Khoei, one of his sons, said that his father’s murder had taught him that one should never shrink from what is right, no matter what the cost.

David T. Johnson, deputy ambassador at the US embassy in London, said “the US government is committed to achieving justice in [the] very important case” of the murder of Sayyid Abdul-Majid Khoei. (An arrest warrant issued against Muqtada al-Sadr looks to have been one of the proximate contributory factors in the uprising by that began on 4 April this year).

David Veness, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, specialist operations, praised Khoei’s work with the Muslim Safety Forum, a body which brings together representatives of Muslim communities in Britain and the police meets every month to consider issues of concern. “He told us when we were doing well, when we were doing not so well, and when we were doing badly… He was an honest, and critical, friend”.

Eric Lubbock (Lord Avebury), a veteran human rights campaigner, pointed out that the anniversary of Khoei’s death fell close to that of Martin Luther King, one of the great practitioners of non-violence, and quoted from King shortly before his assassination. “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars”. Avebury said that, no matter how long it takes, there must be no wavering in the cause of freedom to which Khoei aspired.

A legacy explored

In a panel discussion on the future of Iraq, Sama Hadad of the Iraqi Prospect Organisation talked about the work of her organisation in trying to help build understanding of democracy among Iraqi youth and students. She pointed to three primary concerns: the future role of armed forces in Iraq, which has a long history of coups d’etat; the lack of preparation for the proposed handover of power in July; and a need for the United Nations to be involved in the period to democratic transition.

Charles Tripp, who is one the finest British scholars of Iraq of his generation, said that Khoei was the best of Islam, and the best of Iraq.

The key question, said Tripp, is how not to reproduce the kind of state that gives rise to Saddam-like phenomena. Saddam was exceptionally cruel, but he was not exceptional; the created was fundamentally continuous with Iraqi history.

Tripp identified five key issues. First, the relation of the centre to the provinces: it was vital not to recreate a centralised state. To avoid doing so meant redistributing control of wealth to the provinces. Second, citizens’ rights vis-a-vis the state should be central in the new Iraq, not communal rights. Third, it was necessary to eliminate the ‘shadow state’, the terror and patronage apparatus that made a mockery of the parliamentary and judicial and other institutions. Fourth, it was essential to end violence in Iraqi politics, and pursue a future through negotiation. Fifth, there needed to be an end to interference of others in Iraqi affairs.

The last year had not been altogether encouraging, said Tripp, but he did think there were a few positive signs, despite all the readily apparent difficulties.

Fred Halliday, another noted scholar of the Middle East, said that Iraq needed to be understood in the context of what he called the Greater West Asian Crisis, from Palestine to Kashmir. The outlook was not good, but one source of hope was Iraq’s own intelligentsia - the finest in the Arab world. It was also a good sign, Halliday said, that so far the neighbours (regional powers) had largely behaved themselves. Halliday ended with a call for modesty, especially on the part of Europeans and secularists such as himself.

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