An interview with an Iraqi scholar has led me to think very differently about Brexit and extremism in Europe

‘In Shiasm,’ the great man, Sayed Hakeem, reminds me, ‘the more knowledge a scholar has, the more humble he must be – otherwise he will become a dictator’

‘Different from what Khomeini taught’: Sayed Mohamed-Hussain el-Hakeem at Najaf

‘Different from what Khomeini taught’: Sayed Mohamed-Hussain el-Hakeem at Najaf ( Maher Soltan )

Sayed Mohamed-Hussain el-Hakeem is one of the most prominent Shia scholars in Iraq. When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani eventually dies, Hakeem’s father Mohamed Sayeed is likely to inherit his role as the principal cleric in the land – and then, so they say, the mantle will fall to Hakeem’s brother, Riyadh. So this discreet man “speaketh of what he knoweth” and, in his precise way, he comes across as a supporter of humanism rather than mere theology. When you sit opposite him, you know you are listening to a voice that matters in the battered land of Iraq.

Dozens of Sayeds and turbaned students push out of the iron door to his lecture hall only a few hundred metres from the golden-domed shrine of the Imam Ali, cousin of the Prophet Mohamed. But Sayed Hakeem does not mince his words – neither political nor spiritual. No, you realise, Iran does not govern the minds of Iraq’s Shia. Nor does any fear of Isis. Or the west. Saddam haunts our conversation – as he does still all of Iraq – but so does the Shah, even the Ottoman Empire.

We start with the Ottomans. “They did not have any scientific achievement. They governed their people by force. They kept their people in darkness – they made them distant from science. When the west came with its science, its strategy was to divide countries so they could control them more easily. The First and Second World Wars left these internal conflicts to continue and the west looked after their own interests, not the UN or human rights. But wars are not just in this region – the conflict between Germany and France was like that between Iraq and Iran [during Saddam’s 1980-1988 invasion of Iran].”


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