Ayad Jamal al-Din is a brave proponent of a secular Iraq. He's one of the most exciting figures to burst onto the Iraqi political scene in recent years. Yesterday I attended a lecture he gave at the House of Commons in London entitled The New democracy in Iraq.
An ayatollah in a turban pleading for a secular Iraq? What could be more paradoxical. But Ayad Jamal al-Din personifies this apparent contradiction.
The young cleric, standing for the Ahrar Party, lost his seat in the Iraqi elections in March ('our party was robbed of votes' he reflects bitterly, hinting that corruption prevented a clear winner emerging.) But he and his Ahrar party are not deterred from campaigning to clean up corruption and create a strong, secure and liberated Iraq for the future.
Jamal al-Din has been outspoken about the project to create a secular democratic Iraq. Iraq is a secular entity and Iraqis are broadly in favour of secular parties. Extremists use religion for their own ends and are not afraid to kill in its name. Ayad Jamal al- Din himself has survived seven assassination attempts.
A secular Iraq has surprising support among Iraqi Shi'as who follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The Institution of Shi'ite Jafariah, to which Jamal al-Din's party is connected, has issued a manifesto:
"We are committed to the basics of political and cultural work under the roof of the motherland Iraq for all Iraqis. It (the Institution) also works at the separation between religion and the state of Iraq's secular and liberal state, and works to build a liberal Iraqi state and adopt liberal thought, a secular state at the same distance from all political and social parties away from extremism and isolation and rejection of the Other.
"(We work to) isolate misconceptions and values alien to Islamic sects, which stand at the same distance from all political persuasions and social marginalization and away from extremism and violence.
.... And to renounce the pursuit of values alien to Islamic culture and Islamic sects that call for extremism and violence, which was introduced by the Iranian regime and the Khomeini revolution of the region and especially Iraq."
As far as minorities are concerned, the separation of Church and State in a secular Iraq is key to the protection of their rights.
I asked Ayad Jamal al-Din about the plight of non-Muslim minorities at the lecture he gave at the House of Commons yesterday. The Assyrian Christians were leaving in droves, I said, the Mandaeans were on the verge of extinction, and 150,000 Jews had been driven out: only six remain.
Ayad Jamal Al-Din recognised that the Christian Assyrians had been badly treated since 2003, but theirs was not just a minority rights problem - it was a human rights problem. The Mandaeans were the most affected by persecution, since they had no outside haven, in spite of a small connection with Ahwaz on the border with Iran. As for the Jews, they were the oldest nation in Iraq. Abraham was an Iraqi. In fact he came from Jamal al-Din's hometown of Nasariya! Even Dutch and Polish Jews originated from the region, he said.
When I asked what policy the Ahrar party had towards Israel, where Iraqis were the third largest community of Israeli Jews, I got no response. It is obviously too delicate for Iraqi politicians like Ayad to pronounce on the record on this prickly subject. The exception has been Mithal al-Alusi, who visited Israel but lost two sons in an attempt on his life.
The Institution of Shi'ite Jafaria has been more forthright in its objective"to recognize the state of Israel and achieve comprehensive peace in the region. (We are) looking for friendly relations with other countries, especially the American people, in order to safeguard international peace and security."
For the moment, maintaining the integrity of Iraq in the face of Western weakness and indifference, and Iranian imperialist designs on the country, is Ayad Jamal al-Din's main priority. Iran will determine the next Iraqi government - a slap in the face for the US's sanctions policy.