Once again, the controversy returns in the Iraqi Sunni community regarding the religious authorities. This time the cause is the replacement of the President of the Sunni Endowment Office (or Diwan, SEO) and the attempt to designate a new name to run the Sect’s endowments and associated investment projects. The disagreement between the relevant parties reflects the ongoing conflict between the secular and Brotherhood Sunni powers in Iraq.
The Sunni Endowment Office
The Sunni Endowment Office (SEO) runs the endowment affairs of the People of the Sunnah and the Community (Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, Sunni Muslims) in Iraq. It was formed pursuant to Resolution No. 68 of the Governing Council after the dissolution of the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs that used to run all religious endowments in the country prior to the US invasion in 2003. In 2012, the elected Iraqi Parliament finally approved the Sunni Endowment Act.
In addition to the shrines and mosques of Sunni Muslims run by the SEO, there are dozens of schools, universities, and investment, residential and commercial projects under the SEO, in addition to research centres, engineering, health and economic services, and others. The value of the SEO-run properties and assets is estimated at nearly six billion dollars. In addition, the funds allocated to the SEO annually are estimated at nearly 300 billion dinars.
The SEO President is conferred the grade of Minister and can be held to account and dismissed by Parliament as required. The first president of the SEO was Adnan al-Dulaimi who later became the leader of the Sunni Accord Front prior to the 2005 elections. The latest leader was Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Hemyam who assumed the post in 2015 and was accused of numerous corruption cases but managed to avoid parliamentary interrogation. On the other hand, his son Ahmed was sentenced by the Baghdad Criminal Court to 10 years imprisonment after he also was accused in corruption cases.
Al-Hemyam is known for his inclination to the Muslim Brotherhood Group in Iraq, but he has been engaged in many conflicts with the Iraqi Islamic Party that belongs to the same group. The disagreement originally stems from attempts by the Islamic party, which controls most of the structure of the SEO and the Iraqi Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Council, to topple al-Hemyam and appoint a name close to the Party.
The Sunni Endowment Act stipulates that the Iraqi Fiqh Council of Senior Scholars for Preaching and Fatwas nominates the candidate for SEO presidency to the Prime Minister and the appointment would not require parliamentary approval.
The Fiqh Council is one of the official authorities of Sunni Islam in Iraq. It brings together a large number of scholars and sheikhs and is based in Adhamiyah in Baghdad. It is considered by Parliament the sole Sunni authority. The applicable laws include reliance on the advice and opinion of the Council in issues related to religion and the Sunni sects, which raised the discontent of other Sunni authorities such as the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq and the Ifta Commission for People of the Sunnah and the Community.
Candidates for the post of President of the SEO
In late June 2020, the Iraqi Fiqh Council announced nominating three candidates for the post of SEO President, calling on the Prime Minister to choose one of them. The three candidates are Hassan Suheil, Waqas al-Ani, and Salahuddin Fleih. The latter is the nephew and son-in-law of the current SEO President. However, he announced the withdrawal of his candidacy for the post to preserve the reputation of (his uncle) the Council’s chief scholar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Taha, according to the withdrawal statement. The Council’s spokesman Mustafa al-Bayati said in a statement dated 27 June 2020: “the Council has not favoured anyone, and has nominated for the Sunni Endowment names that are honest and renowned. They had been previously tried in several administrative posts and proved their eligibity”. He added: “the nomination of Mr. Salahuddin Fleih was done upon recommendation by the Dean of the Imam A’Adhum University College, which was rejected by the Eminent Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Al-Taha. However, the Council’s Supreme Committee voted for Dr. Salahuddin Fleih, demanding and insisting that Dr. Salah's name be among the candidates”.
Reasons of disagreement
Immediately after Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced his intention to make some changes in the leadership of some government agencies and institutions, including the SEO, the Sunni parties began to act to get hold of this important and sensitive post for multiple reasons, including the size of funds and projects run by the SEO, its dominance over the religious rhetoric of Sunni mosques in the country as a whole, in addition to the desire to obtain an additional seat in the Kadhimi government, considering that the SEO President is at ministerial level and nominates some of the religious jurists in the Federal Court, according to its proposed law in Parliament.
However, the domination by the Islamic Party and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood of the Fiqh Council has driven some Sunni political parties, mainly the Alliance of Iraqi Powers led by Mohammed al-Halbousi, to believe that this important government post will be under the control of that Party. This has driven them to submit a proposal to amend the SEO Act so that nomination for the post would be a prerogative of Parliament, and specifically the Sunni parliamentary blocs.
According to the proposed text, published by the NAS news web site, “the SEO President shall be at the grade of Minister and appointed according to a proposal by half plus one of the Members of Parliament (MPs) of the Sunni component through the nomination of three names to the Speaker of the House of Representatives to choose one of them and subsequently forward the elected name to the Prime Minister for approval”. It was mentioned in the grounds of the proposed law that “there are many quarters, more than ten, that represent a spectrum or a thought of the People of the Sunnah and the Community”.
On its part, the Fiqh Council warned against the consequences of amending the SEO Act, considering it a serious precedent that may lead to deep differences between the sons of the component. Some pro-Muslim Brotherhood parties and figures supported the position of the Fiqh Council, including:
1- Former Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri who said in a tweet that “the proposal to amend the SEO Act is strange and that it is the first time that such a proposal is submitted to Parliament. Besides, it gives MPs the power to nominate which violates the Constitution. It also divides MPs into sects even as an MP represents all Iraqis”. Al-Jabouri added that “the proposal places religious institutions in the position of civil society which violates their message”. He called on the MPs to reject the proposal.
2- The renowned cleric Abdul Malik al-Saadi who denied the news circulated in the social media that he is opposed to the position of the Fiqh Council. He said in a statement that he supports their position on the issue of nominating the SEO President.
3- The Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Endowments Committee Hana Turki al-Tai who opposed the enactment of a new law for the SEO. She told the Iraqi al-Sabah newspaper that “according to the SEO Act No. 56/2012, the SEO President will be at the grade of Minister and appointed based on a proposal by the Council of Ministers after obtaining the approval of the Iraqi Fiqh Council of Senior Scholars for Preaching and Fatwas, indicating that this Act was drafted in consultation with the relevant quarters considering that this post constitutes a religious entity”.
On the other hand, commenting on the adoption by his Bloc of the proposal to amend the SEO Act, the leading figure in the Alliance of Iraqi Powers Abdullah al-Kharbit said that the Muslim Brotherhood Group is “a dangerous group that has led us to perils and will not be allowed to remain in control of the destinies of the sons of our Governorates at least”.
Some news reports indicate that former Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri (a Brotherhood figure who was one of the top leaders of the Islamic Party before he announced his withdrawal from the Party in 2017) has been striving to get nominated for the post, but has not currently drummed up enough support among the Iraqi political circles, particularly after he lost the battle to get nominated for the position of Minister of Defence in the government of the resigned Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. However, his nomination this time reflects the extent of rivalry and struggle for posts within the Muslim Brotherhood Group in Iraq that has also failed to form a unified authority, especially that the current leader of the Islamic Party Rashid al-Azzawi also seeks to become SEO President. He was behind the withdrawal of the Party’s leading figure Nuri al-Dulaimi from the nomination race after he almost won the majority of the Fiqh Council votes before bumping into the opposition of Azzawi and Abdul Wahab al-Taha (son of the SEO President) who insists on the choice of a name close to his family for the post of SEO President.
Multiplicity of Sunni Authorities
In view of the multiplicity of Sunni sects and trends in Iraq, there are also multiple religious authorities for the People of the Sunnah and the Community (Sunni Muslims). The Iraqi Fiqh Council, which is the highest official authority for Iraqi Sunnis and which has nominated some figures for the SEO Presidency, is now confronting MPs of the Alliance of Iraqi Powers who demanded the amendment of the nomination law, the opposition of the Iraqi Islamic Party that demanded the designation of the former minister Nuri Sabah al-Dulaimi (who subsequently withdrew his candidacy), in addition to the opposition of the Salafi Ifta House (Dar al-Ifta) and other religious quarters.
The known Sunni authorities in the country are the following:
1- The Fiqh Council of Senior Scholars for Preaching and Fatwas, led by Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Al-Taha. It is presently the official authority pursuant to the law and encompasses the majority of the sheikhs of Muslim Brotherhood and Sufism and a small number of Salafis.
2- The Iraqi Scholars Group led by Sheikh Khalid al-Mulla who is from the Shiite-dominated Basra Governorate. He maintains good relations with the Shiite parties and trends and believes that reliance on the Fiqh Council as the sole authority for Sunnis entails a great injustice. Al-Mulla often recalls his involvement in the political process after 2003 to preserve the rights of Sunnis in the country even as the rest of the Sunni authorities boycotted the political life. That is why he believes that his group has the right to appoint and choose the SEO President.
3- The Ifta House led by the self-styled Grand Mufti (Jurist) Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumaidaie. He is a Salafist who was arrested by US troops during the invasion. After his release from prison, he became close to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who appointed him to run Baghdad’s most important mosque, Um al-Toboul. Al-Sumaidaie maintains close relations with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and leaders of Iraqi militias.
4- The SEO. Some political parties believe that the SEO should be the official authority of Sunni Muslims in Iraq. This view is supported by former SEO President Abdul Latif al-Hemyam. The SEO determines the holy days and fasting times, issues religious fatwas (verdicts), and carries out all the activities carried out by the other authorities. It also includes a group of scholars who can nominate the SEO President based on seniority and academic qualifications instead of the disagreement between the other “unofficial” authorities.
5- The Iraqi Council of Scholars which was formed in 2007 after the completion of the Fifth Conference of Iraqi Scholars in Jordan. It is led by Sheikh Mahmoud al-Ani who also sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Council aims to deal with the sectarian differences that occurred after 2003”. It sought to compete with the Association of Muslim Scholars for the sectarian authority in Iraq, but its popularity greatly declined in recent years.
6- The Association of Muslim Scholars led by Sheikh Muthanna Harith al-Dari. It is based in Doha and constitutes one of the organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood. It opposed considering the Iraqi Council of Scholars as its alternative after the Jordan conference. It also opposed the political process in Iraq since 2003, and its Secretary-General Muthanna al-Dari was placed on the Iraqi list of terrorists in 2018.
There are also some councils and associations that claim to represent the supreme religious leadership of the Sunnis, such as the Iraqi Rebat (Bond) Group, the Supreme Council of Sufism, and others. Some attempts have also been made to establish a non-collective Sunni authority, along the lines of the Ali al-Sistani Authority for the Shiites, promoting Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi as a supreme Sunni authority, but this was prevented by the multiplicity of orientations.
This the first time that the Sunni community witnesses such a large-scale struggle for the post of SEO President. In addition to the reasons detailed above, the desire to lead the Sunni scene is the main reason for the struggle, especially on the part of Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi who over the last few years has sought to take control of all the local administrations of Sunni cities, particularly in the Anbar Governorate, exclude his rivals, mainly the Islamic Party, and reach what resembles a “Sunni deep state” loyal to him, along the lines of what was done by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki through the appointment of hundreds of his advocates in the various state institutions.
On the other hand, the other parties, such as the Arab Project led by Khamis al-Khanjar, or the Salvation and Development Front led by Osama al-Nujaifi, also seek to win the ongoing struggle for power and influence in central and western Iraq and to prevent Halbousi from winning any confrontation in which he engages, including the current confrontation with the Iraqi Fiqh Council.
Both the current and previous experiences demonstrate the difficulty of agreement on a unified political or religious Sunni authority for numerous doctrinal and social reasons. However, the quota-based sectarian regime that was established after 2003 has made the Sunni parties look as if they are dispersed and disunited due to the lack of an authority similar to the Shiite Sistani Authority which has greatly contributed to unifying the positions of the Sect on vital issues, as was the case during the drafting of the Constitution.
Rather than establishing the civilian state in the political process, exiting the circle of sectarian struggle, and employing the great Sunni diversity as a power in the face of Shiite sectarianism and Kurdish nationalism, the Sunni parties have continued attempts to form religious authorities and assume the capacity of representing the Sunnis. This has not materialized, especially after the recent rise of the “civilian” national rhetoric amongst the youth communities in different parts of Iraq, reaching its peak in the widespread boycott of the latest parliamentary elections in 2018 and subsequently the eruption of popular protests in the autumn of 2019.
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