Iraq’s Sunni religious leaders get less attention from political observers than their Shia counterparts, but they have also played a role in the country’s difficult path over the last twenty years, through totalitarianism, civic strife, and the ISIS reign of terror. The Sunni religious leadership’s political fragmentation has reflected—and in some cases even helped shape—the Sunni community’s internal conflicts and disputes as it tried to come to terms with its place in post-Saddam Iraq. Iraqi Sunni clerics have repeatedly tried and failed to develop the kind of religious leadership that would allow them to function as a cohesive force on the political scene, parallel to the Shia community’s religious leadership based in the Hawza of Najaf.
Iraq’s Sunni religious leaders occupy a strange position. Sunni Islam has always been a state-established religion in modern Iraq, in the sense that its institutions are funded and administered by the government. But unlike “State Islam” in Egypt or some other Arab countries,1 Iraqi Sunnism does not have any single leader or traditional decision-making body. Instead, there is a broad group of Sunni religious leaders, united by a strong sense of common professional identity, like members of a guild or a caste. These men also share for the most part a common educational background and certain beliefs about the nature of society and politics in Iraq. But they have never been able to ever reach a consensus on the relationship of Sunnis in Iraq to the post-Saddam state, and this failure has at times had disastrous consequences for the Sunni community at large, or at least the Sunni community of Iraq’s Arab provinces – the role of Sunni clerics in the autonomous Kurdistan Region being a separate topic, beyond the scope of this article.
The rise and fall of ISIS has done nothing to end the Sunni religious leadership’s political fragmentation. While ISIS itself has been ejected from all the major Sunni cities, there is still no common vision for the Sunni community’s place in Shia-led, post-Baath Iraq. Studying the Sunni religious leadership’s failed efforts to come to terms with Iraq’s post-Saddam political realities can give us some hints about the challenges that lie ahead. More globally, Iraq’s experience suggests that formal, state-sponsored religious establishments are not always helpful allies in combating radical Islamist militancy.
Before ISIS: Establishment Sunnism in Iraq
Distinctive historical structures make Iraq’s Sunni religious leadership especially prone to intervening in politics, although also poorly suited to doing so effectively. Sunni religious functionaries in Iraq, from Friday preachers to muezzins and even mosque janitors, are salaried government officials subject to civil service regulations. Historically, going back to the Ottoman era, Sunnism has always enjoyed at least nominal state sponsorship in Iraq. After the founding of modern Iraq in 1921, government sponsorship became increasingly formalized and even bureaucratized. Monarchy-era Iraq introduced tighter state regulation of waqf charitable trusts, including a requirement that they conduct transparent bidding for contracts to build or repair mosques.2 In the late 1950s, the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim formally recognized mosque preachers and other religious functionaries as civil servants and awarded them pension rights.3 Shia religious leaders, who operated outside state channels and relied mostly on private donations for funding, avoided this process of bureaucratization, and were generally not much affected by government legislation, which in practice applied only to Sunni mosques.
During the Baath era, state control of the Sunni clergy was tightened still further as the state sought to co-opt religious leaders as cheerleaders for the regime. The 1976 Ordinance on Service in Religious and Charitable Institutions ordered preachers to include Baathist themes in their sermons, including “the achievements of the July 17th Revolution and its grand works on behalf of the Iraqi people.”4 Islamic secondary schools, which trained aspiring young preachers, were tasked by law in 1980 with “giving the students a patriotic, nationalist, spiritual, revolutionary education.”5 Religious education was also brought under centralized state control: Baghdad’s Imam Aadham College, renamed in 1985 “The High Islamic Academy for Training Imams and Preachers,” replaced traditional teacher-disciple relationships with a formal, university-style curriculum.6
The Sunni religious leaders’ acquiescence to state control makes for a sharp contrast with their Shia counterparts. This difference is only partly explained by the fact that the Baath’s leaders were, at least nominally, Sunni Muslims. Probably more important is the difference in the social position of the clergy: while Shia ayatollahs were venerated and revered by the masses, Sunni religious leaders lacked the same kind of mass popular support.7 They had nothing like the Shia khums system of donor financing and no counterpart to the Shia pilgrimage rituals, which did so much to build popular religious sentiment among uneducated people in the Shia south of Iraq. In the Sunni provinces of early and even mid twentieth century Iraq, uneducated people in rural communities were largely indifferent to religious issues, and mosque attendance was low.8 State support for mosque building and training of preachers in republican Iraq, especially under the Baath, was therefore probably seen by most Sunni religious leaders as more of a welcome sponsorship than a takeover.9
Saddam’s “faith campaign,” launched in 1993, strengthened the patron-client relationship between the state and Sunni religious leaders. The state gave additional resources and attention to mosques and religious education. However, the campaign’s themes were the product of Saddam’s idiosyncratic personal whims, and Iraq’s political and social system remained secular: alcohol was legal, and the court system remained based on Western civil law, not the Sharia. Religious activists suspected of undermining the existing order or of organizing political Islamist groups faced continued repression by the security services.10
Religious Sunni responses to the faith campaign separated into two general camps. On the one hand, many preachers welcomed, and even internalized, this late-Baathist mix of Islamic revivalism and Arab nationalism, with rhetorical tropes dictated by Iraq’s 1990s political climate. Anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism became important themes for sermons, and at the same time, state media began using Sunni religious arguments to denigrate Shia Islam as a way of justifying Saddam’s repressive tactics after the 1991 Shia uprising in the south.11 A second group of Sunni religious leaders and activists, influenced by Muslim Brotherhood ideology, believed that social reforms and the Islamization of society were more important than supporting the regime’s geopolitical orientation. Unable to organize politically, they took advantage of the faith campaign to build charitable and religious associations. Their particular focus was promoting hair-covering for women. They received special permission to import women’s “Islamic clothing” from abroad, and sympathizers in the Iraqi Sunni diaspora raised money for this and other charitable purposes.12 These two approaches were not in direct conflict in the 1990s, but the division between them probably contributed to the subsequent cleavage between supporters and opponents of the post-2003 political process.
Invasion and Insurgency: The Sunni Religious Leaders’ Dilemma
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 created an almost insurmountable dilemma for Sunni religious leaders. The Iraqi state, which paid their salaries, was now under American tutelage, and many Sunnis consequently distrusted the new political process, which was dominated by an axis of Shia Islamists and Kurdish nationalists. Iraqi Sunni religious leaders had always preached patriotism, but did patriotism mean supporting the Iraqi government or embracing the anti-U.S. “resistance” ideology, which Sunni clerics had been preaching for years and which aligned closely with Sunni religious sentiments throughout the region?
Two approaches to this dilemma emerged among Sunni religious leaders. The most prominent in the media, and for a time seemingly the winning approach, was a militant anti-American line, led by an Azhar-trained scholar named Hareth al-Dhari, who had taught religious pupils at the imam academies of the faith-campaign era. Dhari began organizing clerics shortly after the U.S. invasion, at first with a primarily humanitarian focus,13 but his group soon took on a political character. Known as the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), it operated on the assumption that insurgents would ultimately push out the U.S. and be celebrated as heroes. AMSI praised the insurgents, while also carefully avoiding any outright calls for violence that might have led to its members’ arrest and prosecution.14 It also advocated for a boycott of elections, arguing that the U.S. would dominate their outcome.15
Dhari envisioned AMSI as a Sunni equivalent of the marjaiya, the Najaf-based leadership of Shia ayatollahs, whose foremost member, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, emerged in 2003 as the Shia community’s decisive voice on the structuring of post-2003 Iraq.16 The analogy was a hollow one, however, because AMSI was a new political creation, with no historical or theological basis for its authority. It was in essence an ad hoc committee of clerics united by little more than a common belief that Iraq was in the midst of a great liberation struggle against foreign occupation. Within just a few months of its founding, AMSI began issuing a newspaper called al-Basair (The Vision).17 It seems likely that this title was an intentional allusion to a newspaper of the same name, published in Algeria in the 1930s by a clerical association opposed to French rule.18
AMSI nominally had a collective leadership, but in practice, Dhari dominated its decision making. His perspective was influenced in part by his own background: his grandfather, Dhari al-Mahmud, had been a sheikh of the Shamar tribe and a celebrated figure in the 1920 revolution against British rule in Iraq, an event celebrated ever since by Iraqi nationalists.19
But while Dhari’s AMSI claimed to speak for Sunni clerics on political issues, it did not have actual administrative authority over the clerical class. That role still belonged to the state-sponsored waqf bureaucracy. In the summer of 2003, disputes over control of a handful of mosques in Baghdad convinced the Shia-led, U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council to split the Saddam-era Ministry of Endowments (Wizarat al-Awqaf) into three separate waqfs, for Shia, Sunni, and minority affairs.20 Since most Shia mosques had never been under government control, the new Sunni Waqf retained most of the mosques and other resources of its Saddam-era predecessor. It also maintained a similar understanding of its mission: to fund, manage, and supervise mosques in a manner consistent with state policy.
The Sunni Waqf never embraced Dhari’s rejectionist position towards the post-2003 political process. Since the waqf was a state institution, the right to choose its leader belonged to the Iraqi Governing Council. This gave a leading say to the Iraqi Islamic Party (IP). Officially founded in April 2003, the IP served as the vehicle for the proto-Islamist and Brotherhood-inspired networks that developed in 1990s Iraq. The IP’s main leaders were older men who had been Muslim Brotherhood activists in pre-Baath Iraq. However, the party self-consciously defined itself as independent of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt-based leadership.21 In particular, its leaders were convinced that cooperation with the U.S.-led political process—or, as they sometimes called it, “peaceful resistance”—was a better path for Sunnis to follow than violent insurgency.22
The IP helped install as head of the Sunni Waqf a 69-year-old university Arabic professor named Adnan al-Dulaymi, whom they had good reason to believe would be sympathetic to their approach.23 Although he had no credentials as a religious scholar, Dulaymi’s history of Muslim Brotherhood activism went back to the 1950s, and he was well known in Sunni religious circles. He fled Iraq in the 1990s after hearing he was wanted by the security services, probably for involvement with the Brotherhood. Seeking refuge in Jordan, he traveled frequently through the Arab world to raise money for Iraq’s proto-Islamist, faith campaign–era charitable networks, gaining access to donors in part through a letter of endorsement (tazkiya) written by the famous Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qardhawi.24
AMSI and the Sunni Waqf quickly found themselves working at cross purposes. Dhari and Dulaymi, who had been on friendly terms before 2003, were now advocating opposite strategies. While AMSI called for election boycotts and praised “the resistance,” Sunni Waqf president Dulaymi was attending public conferences on Sunni election participation.25 He also helped organize a fatwa by religious scholars opposed to Dhari’s line, in which they declared it a religious obligation to join the army and police.26 Dulaymi was eventually removed from his position, in July 2005, after his political activism—organizing Sunnis to oppose the incumbent government in elections—irked the Jafari government. He was replaced by his deputy, Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarrai, in a relatively smooth transition.27 Samarrai backed off on direct electioneering but continued Dulaymi’s line of treating the Iraqi state as legitimate, despite its reliance on U.S. military support.
As fighting escalated, AMSI’s line grew more militant. It refused to condemn the growing excesses of Salafi-Jihadi insurgents, generally blaming mass-casualty bombings on American or Zionist agents.28 Over time, this put it increasingly at odds with the mainstream Sunni community. An arrest warrant was issued against Dhari in 2006, forcing him into exile in Amman.29 AMSI’s headquarters at Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque was confiscated by the waqf in 2007.30 AMSI continued issuing statements from abroad but its influence inside Iraq waned, as did that of its leader, Hareth al-Dhari, who passed away in Amman in March 2015.31
The full history of Sunni clerical politics during the post-Saddam transition is beyond the scope of this article, but three important observations are in order: 1) There was no purge or replacement of Saddam-era imams and preachers (although Dulaymi did get to appoint some new employees to the waqf payroll32). 2) Even when AMSI and the waqf were in disagreement, they conducted their disputes with the greatest possible rhetorical restraint, without ever resorting to public insult. 3) At no point were Sunni religious leaders able to agree on a common political strategy.
After the U.S. Withdrawal: Towards a Sunni Marjaiya?
The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq in December 2011 should have been a chance for a new start for the Sunni religious leadership. With no more foreign troops in the country, the legitimacy of the Iraqi state was widely accepted by Sunnis, even critics of then- prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Only a few of the most hardcore Baathists and the Salafi-Jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, later to become ISIS), insisted that the country was still under some kind of clandestine American or Iranian control. Despite many reservations about Maliki’s leadership, Sunni religious leaders were, for the most part, looking for ways to integrate into the new Iraqi political order, not to challenge its existence.
The state and the Sunni religious leadership enshrined their mutual desire for cooperation, or at least for respectful coexistence, in the Sunni Waqf Law No. 56 of 2012, passed in October of that year by the Iraqi parliament. The law mandated continued state support for Sunni mosques via the Sunni Waqf bureaucracy and created a mechanism for ensuring the waqf’s independence from political authority. It also restricted the prime minister’s power to choose the Sunni Waqf’s president to selecting a candidate accepted by the Fiqh Council of Senior Scholars for Preaching and Fatwas (al-Mujamma’ al-Fiqhi li-Kibar ‘Ulama al-‘Iraq li-l-Da’wa wa-l-Ifta’).33
The Fiqh Council was a more serious attempt to implement the idea, advocated by Dhari as far back as 2003, of creating a Sunni equivalent to the Shia marjaiya. Sunni religious leaders had talked of the idea of creating a kind of council of leading religious scholars in 2007,34 but it was only in 2012 that they actually agreed on a list of names and announced its formation. The aspiration for the Fiqh Council to serve as a Sunni equivalent to the Shia religious leadership in Najaf was embedded in the council’s own internal charter, which insisted that
the council is an independent Sharia authority [marja’aiya shar’iya mustaqilla] for the Sunnis, and like the other religious authorities [al-marja’iyat al-diniya] in Iraq, it is neither a government body nor a civil society group, and it has no need for any law or legislation to establish it.35
In fact, the Fiqh Council had no historic basis for its authority, and the main rationale for its creation was political—the need for a Sunni marjaiya. Passage of this law reflected a certain degree of trust by Iraqi politicians that Sunni religious leaders would no longer undermine the state and therefore could be trusted to manage their own affairs. But ironically, it may also have been in part designed to assuage concerns from Shia religious leaders about their own independence from state control. The Sunni Waqf Law No. 56 of 2012 was passed alongside the Shia Waqf Law No. 57 of 2012, which dictated that the head of the Shia Waqf should be appointed “by the cabinet after receiving the approval of the supreme religious authority [marja’], who is the legal scholar from among the scholars of Najaf accepted by the majority of Shi’ites in Iraq for purposes of taqlid.”36 The Shia Waqf in Iraq is actually a much smaller institution than its Sunni counterpart37 because most Shia mosques and educational institutions in Iraq are and have always been organized and financed outside of state channels. However, the need to respect the Shia marjaiya’s independence from state control may have necessitated legislative recognition of a parallel independence for the Sunnis, even though this lacked a corresponding historical precedent. In fact, the Fiqh Council soon proved unable to fulfill the leadership role it claimed and for which it had won state recognition.
The Return to Violence and the Failure of the Sunni Marjaiya
The attempt to put the Iraqi state’s ties to Sunni Islam on firm ground quickly proved a failure. The primary reason was, once again, Sunni religious leaders’ inability to agree on a common political strategy and their tendency to overestimate the Sunni community’s strength— or, seen less charitably, their demagogic embrace of unrealistic proposals.
Protests against the Maliki government broke out across the Sunni provinces of Iraq in December 2012. The proximate cause was an arrest warrant for Minister of Finance Rafi al-Isawi, one of the more prominent IP-aligned Sunni politicians. More deeply, the protests derived their energy from a mix of the Sunni elites’ response to arrests of Sunni politicians, and more general popular Sunni anger at Iraqi security forces’ tactics. These tactics included mass roundups and torture of Sunni men, sometimes in the course of counter-terrorism operations, but often simply as a kind of kidnapping-for-ransom by corrupt security forces officers, who demanded bribes in return for release of innocent detainees.38
The protest movement, while peaceful, served to increase tensions between the Sunni community and the Iraqi government to a dangerous level, and it paved the way for Fallujah’s fall to ISIS-led militants in January 2014 and Mosul’s in June of that year. The Sunni protest movement’s trajectory towards insurgency has been discussed extensively in these pages,39 but a few observations should be made about the specific role of Sunni religious leaders in these developments.
Nearly from the beginning, Sunni religious leaders jumped to the forefront of the protest movement, putting their stamp on both its tactics and its demands. Fridays became the major day for demonstrations. Large Friday prayer services, held as city- or province-wide rallies in open spaces and featuring politically themed sermons, became the standard form of protest.40 The idea of a Friday prayer rally as a form of political demonstration was probably borrowed from Sunni revolutionaries in neighboring Syria, along with the practice of attaching an appropriate political slogan to each Friday, such as “Maliki or Iraq Friday,” which was followed by “Iraq Is Our Choice Friday.” The Fiqh Council, and the clerical establishment in general, cooperated enthusiastically by closing local neighborhood mosques on certain Fridays to encourage worshippers to attend prayers at the central rally sites.41
Sunni religious leaders, as prominent boosters of the protests, must bear much of the fault for the movement’s inability to agree on a common set of demands. One wing of the protest movement, led mostly by younger, IP-aligned religious leaders, demanded a Sunni autonomous region.42 The creation of new autonomous regions (beside the pre-existing Kurdistan Region) is theoretically possible under Iraq’s 2005 constitution. It was probably never realistic to expect a Shia-led government to acquiesce to Sunni autonomy. However, the idea was popular with some elements of the Sunni community, and it seems to have been useful for building support for the protest movement and putting its leaders at the forefront of the political scene.
A second wing of the Sunni protest movement, also led by clerics, absolutely rejected the idea of an autonomous region, holding fast to an ideal of Iraqi unity, and perhaps also to a widely shared (although false) belief that Sunnis constituted a majority of Iraq’s population and could therefore eventually take back control of the state itself through democratic means. As will be seen, their rhetoric was even more divisive than that of the Sunni autonomy advocates.
The main religious opponent of the Sunni autonomy movement was Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, an Anbar-born scholar who had moved to Jordan a few years before the fall of the Baath.43 He sat out most of the first post-Saddam decade in Amman, issuing fatwas that called on Iraqis not to participate in the elections because they were rigged by the Americans.44 In December 2012, al-Saadi returned to Iraq for the first time since 2003. He was quickly welcomed by many Sunni protesters, especially those in Anbar, and put himself forward as their spiritual leader.45 Al-Saadi’s rhetoric focused on uprooting the post-2003 political process, restoring the old Iraqi army,46 and, perhaps most offensively, taking a census that would record (for the first time in Iraqi history) whether residents were Sunni or Shia. Al-Saadi was convinced, of course, that the results would show that Sunnis were Iraq’s largest community.47
During 2013, Al-Saadi and the Fiqh Council issued competing religious rulings on the federalism question. Al-Saadi ruled that forming new autonomous regions was religiously forbidden because it would “weaken and divide” the country.48 The Fiqh Council nonetheless went ahead with a clerical conference on federalism. This produced not exactly a fatwa, but a declaration that Islam permits creation of a federal autonomous region and that respectful discussions must continue on its suitability for contemporary Iraq.49 Advocates of a Sunni Region treated this as a victory for them and a rebuke to al-Saadi.50 Al-Saadi, enraged, issued a statement reiterating that a Sunni autonomous region was forbidden by Islam. Moreover, he politely but firmly called into question the Fiqh Council’s claims to be a Sunni marjaiya:
The claim that the statement comes from the Senior Scholars of Iraq … is inaccurate, as many senior scholars did not participate … furthermore, the majority of those present [at the Sunni Region conference], despite my respect for them all, cannot properly be described by this term.51
The Sunni community’s lack of a common political agenda ultimately doomed the protest movement. Sunni religious leaders, instead of being a source of unity, actively took part in the divisions, betraying the idea that a common Sunni religious leadership could guide the community. While one wing of the Sunni religious leadership was calling for autonomy, another was denouncing the idea as heresy. Saadi at one point proposed that he or his representatives lead negotiations with the government at the Imam Askari shrine in Samarra (revered by the Shia and by many Iraqi Sunnis). However, both the government and the shrine’s Shia administrators rejected this suggestion, and the lack of Sunni clerical unity was probably a factor in their decision.52
Eventually, the Maliki government worked with the minority of Sunni politicians opposed to the protest movement to shut it down. In November the cabinet, at the request of Sunni MP Ahmad al-Jiburi, who was aligned with Maliki, ordered the “suspension” of Sunni Waqf president Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarrai and his replacement by his deputy, Mahmud al-Sumaydai.53 This was presented as an emergency response to allegations of corruption against Samarrai, although its real purpose was almost certainly to suppress the role of waqf-funded mosques and imams in the protest movement.54 By this time, however, the protests were too popular in the Sunni community—and too widely supported in clerical circles—to be easily repressed.
The Fiqh Council was no doubt upset to see its authority under the Sunni Waqf Law ignored, but without real historical roots in the Sunni community, it lacked the political leverage to do anything about it. The day Samarrai was removed, the council ordered all Baghdad mosques shut for two days. In a statement that did not mention Samarrai or the waqf leadership, it framed this decision as being part of the broader Sunni protest struggle.55 Most likely, the council members realized that a majority of Sunnis, even those active in the protest movement, did not see the right of the newly founded Fiqh Council to appoint the Sunni Waqf president as the hill they wanted to die on. Two days later, the Fiqh Council, perhaps realizing that an open-ended closure of Sunni mosques in Baghdad was not a viable strategy, reversed course and ordered them re-opened, “in response to calls” from politicians and public figures. This second statement also made no reference to the Sunni Waqf leadership dispute.56
The Sunni protest movement came to its bloody end in January 2014, when federal security forces tried to clear out the protest sites in Anbar and militants took over the city of Fallujah. Abd al-Malik al-Saadi endorsed the uprising, issuing a statement in which he called on Anbaris to “defend your faith, your honor, and your land” from Iraqi army soldiers, whom he now referred to as “occupiers.” His statement also accused Maliki of trying to “wipe out” Sunnis.57 The Fiqh Council issued an ambiguous and somewhat confusing statement calling for continued Friday protests and asking the people of Anbar “to defend themselves, as this is a legal and religious obligation.”58 Thus, while al-Saadi and the Fiqh Council had not fully set aside their differences on Sunni political goals, they were now united in giving religious justification for violence against the army and other security forces in Anbar—effectively a return to insurgency. For the time being, other Sunni provinces saw continued ISIS bombings and ambushes but no mass uprisings of their own.
Not all Anbari Sunnis rushed to take up arms in response to these fatwas. Many in the province still had bad memories of how the insurgency had descended into nihilistic violence in 2004–2005 and feared that a new round of fighting would end equally badly. Even Sunni politicians sympathetic to the protest movement understood that religious leaders were unleashing violence they would not, in fact, be able to control. Anbar’s governor, Ahmad al-Dhiyabi, himself a pious man and IP member, no doubt spoke for many when he declared in a television address that he would be siding with the government and not with the religious leaders calling for insurgent violence in the name of “self-defense”:
Salutes and prayers to our honorable ulema! … we cannot pay our respects to you at the expense of the blood of the people of this province.… if we are following you into a dead end, and you want us to obey, no! One may not obey a human being in disobedience to God. Our God-given task is to preserve the lives of the people.59
The Sunni Religious Leaders Respond to ISIS
The violence of 2014, launched with enthusiastic approval from many Sunni religious leaders, proved disastrous for the Sunni community. ISIS began as one faction among several in a broad Sunni insurgency in Anbar, but it used Stalinist-style salami tactics to absorb or destroy other factions in Fallujah, the main insurgent stronghold. By the time Mosul fell in June 2014, it took only a few weeks for ISIS to establish its control over that city and other areas from which government forces had fled in north-central Iraq.60
Sunni religious leaders were slow to adapt. Two weeks after the fall of Mosul, and just days before the famous June 30, 2014, ISIS “caliphate” announcement, Saadi was still insisting in public that a “revolution” was taking place and that ISIS was a small and marginal faction.61 The Fiqh Council’s first response to the fall of Mosul was to call for “disciplined resistance factions and tribal revolutionaries” to be placed in control of security in Sunni provinces.62 All this soon proved to be nonsense, as ISIS announced its “caliphate” and executed members of rival Sunni factions. Al-Saadi left Iraq for Jordan, from where he continued issuing occasional political statements filled with moral equivalencies between ISIS and the mostly Shia militias arrayed to fight it.63 The Fiqh Council remained in Baghdad, and it did issue a condemnation of attacks on Christians in Mosul later in 2014, although without mentioning ISIS.64 It then returned to its main business of repeated public condemnations of supposed government and militia assaults on Sunnis, with hardly a mention of the ongoing war or ISIS.65
ISIS had no use for the traditional, waqf-supervised, and often Sufi-oriented preachers; it sent them fleeing or had them killed and replaced with its own imams.66 The Fiqh Council’s silence on this matter probably reflects its members’ sense that the war itself was the result of government policies and therefore not their responsibility to address. Some Sunni religious leaders may even have suspected that ISIS was not a real group but rather some kind of foreign conspiracy, as hinted in the Fiqh Council’s condemnation of attacks on Christians: “Such measures … are not in our interest, because there are those who are waiting in ambush for Islam and Muslims, to use claims of violence and intolerance to attack and destroy Iraq and displace its people under the pretext of terrorism.”67
Faced with Sunni clerical intransigence, the Iraqi government again resorted to appointing a new president of the Sunni Waqf, known in clerical circles but politically pliant. This time, the government’s choice was Abd al-Latif al-Humaym. Humaym had previously been one of the most obsequious stalwarts of the faith campaign, always full of praise for Saddam and his supposed embodiment of Arab-Islamic values.68 His pro-government stance survived even after Saddam’s regime perished. In June 2015, Humaym was appointed “acting Sunni Waqf president” by Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi, acting in flagrant violation of the Sunni Waqf Law’s requirement that the Fiqh Council approve the waqf president. The council issued a statement saying that the appointment was illegal, but it did not condemn Humaym or call for any kind of protest or disobedience by waqf employees.69 Despite this dispute, the council continued meeting with Prime Minister Abadi from time to time.70
Humaym’s appointment exposed the weakness of the Fiqh Council and the absence of a real consensus among Sunni clerics. A crafty and ambitious man, but also rather a maverick, Humaym is independently wealthy. For months he had been lobbying in both clerical and political circles to win the job.71 He was able to defy the Fiqh Council in part because he had public support from dozens of Sunni MP.72 His supporters argued that he would advance a more moderate tone in Sunni mosque sermons and pull back from the angry “Sunni protest” rhetoric that had accompanied the rise of ISIS.73 Other MPs criticized his appointment, siding with the Fiqh Council.
Humaym viewed the Sunni Waqf presidency as much more than an administrative position. He met with military commanders to offer his encouragement in the fight against ISIS74 and briefly won himself a special position as director of reconstruction in Ramadi, the capital of his home province of Anbar, after its liberation from ISIS in early 2016.75 Controlling Ramadi’s reconstruction could have given Humaym a strong political base from which to challenge Anbar’s IP-dominated provincial government, but Humaym executed the task poorly, rushing the return of refugees in early 2016 to a city that was not even fully demined.76 As of this writing, he no longer seems to exercise any role in Anbar reconstruction work.
Humaym’s prestige and authority were further harmed in 2017 by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, particularly claims by some Sunni MPs that he had used waqf funds to pay off journalists for favorable coverage.77 He was eventually convicted and given a suspended prison sentence for misuse of funds.78 Humaym remains in office as waqf president, and although his political prominence has somewhat receded, he continues to pursue his agenda. One of his more successful recent initiatives has been the imposition of a “unified sermon” policy in post-ISIS Mosul, which requires the newly restored waqf imams to deliver a single, pre-approved message at Friday prayers.79 The Fiqh Council, which has never formally acknowledged Humay’s legitimacy, is still able to coexist with him, and in early 2017 the council and Humaym held a joint meeting with a visiting Azhar delegation.80
Humaym, true to his Baathist roots, has actually deepened the politicization of the Sunni Waqf, even as he has moved it in a more pro-government direction. As for the future, it is impossible to rule out another round of religiously inspired Sunni militancy further down the road, especially if continued politicization and infighting among clerics serves to discredit the Sunni Waqf. But for now, what is remarkable is how readily Sunni religious leaders—and their followers—accept a situation in which Sunni mosques across Iraqi are accountable to a venal man of meager clerical credentials who has been convicted of corruption. Humaym’s recognition by the Iraqi state—even under a Shia-led government—conveys legitimacy on him even in the absence of any real clerical support. This would seem to confirm the view of one Iraqi politician, who remarked in the summer of 2016 that “for us Sunnis, historically, our marjaiya has been the state itself.”81
Yet confusion about what loyalty to Iraq means still prevents statism from being a unifying ideology for the Sunni religious leadership. Sunni Arab clerics who have fled to Kurdistan or to foreign countries—perhaps most prominently the Sufi leader and self-styled “mufti” Rafia al-Rifai—continue calling for a Sunni autonomous region, although this is no longer a popular demand among Sunni politicians.82 On the other end of the spectrum, Mahdi al-Sumaydai, a Salafist who was imprisoned by U.S. forces for his role in the insurgency, is now politically allied with pro-Iran Shia groups, a move he justifies with rhetoric of Islamic unity. Sumaydai even runs his own militia, the Ahrar al-Iraq, as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). He claims it has many thousands of fighters, though the true number is probably lower. While Sumaydai’s brand of pro-Iran Salafism is unlikely to attract a large following among Iraqi Sunnis, its political utility for the Shia-led government is obvious.83
The ISIS experience has made Sunni religious leaders more cautious about insurgent adventurism, but it has not led them to close ranks behind any common leader or set of principles. This leaves them unable to fulfill the marjaiya-like role of communal representatives that they have long aspired to. In the years to come, the fractured and state-dependent Sunni religious leadership will probably do more to stir up strife than to calm it down. The political opportunism exhibited by Sunni religious leaders in the past makes it hard to predict just what form this will take. But the Iraqi state’s troubles with the Sunni religious leaders are probably not over. More broadly speaking, the Iraqi Sunni experience demonstrates that nurturing “moderate” religious leaders is a difficult process and can easily fail if it does not enjoy the right political and social conditions—including inside the religious leadership itself.