Salahaddin Bahaeddin is chairman and cofounder of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), an Iraqi Kurdish Islamist party ideologically affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
In 2013, the party won ten seats in the 111-member Kurdistan Region Parliament. Bahaeddin also served as one of the five Kurdish representatives in the post-war Interim Iraqi Governing Council, before his election to the Iraqi National Assembly.
Prior to entering politics, Bahaeddin was a teacher — a career which ended when he was arrested, tortured and ultimately dismissed from his position for refusing to serve in the Iraqi Army. After a decade in exile, he returned in 1991, following Saddam’s withdrawal from the newly semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
The Clarion Project has been vocal in calling for the United States to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terror organization — following similar designations from the governments of Egypt, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
However, Clarion maintains it is important to understand the Muslim Brotherhood from their perspective. This interview represents a rare opportunity to do just that and we thank Mr. Bahaeddin for his willingness to speak to Clarion Project.
The following is an interview with Mr. Bahaeddin conducted by Clarion Project’s Kurdish Affairs Analyst Zach D. Huff:
Clarion Project: This is the first time Clarion Project readers are hearing directly from a leader aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Can you briefly explain the history and ideological affiliation of your party in Kurdistan, and what guides the philosophy of your governing and theological agenda.
Salahaddin Bahaeddin: The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) announced our political party on February 6, 1994 as a nationalist and a civic political party with an Islamic background. The vision of our political party is social justice, reform, striving for justice, human rights, liberties and achieving rights of our nation.
Governance in our perspective is a human process and it has to be civic, come from people, and it should guarantee the separation of powers, protect the right of all citizens without discriminating between any ethnic groups, religion or gender.
Clarion: You are someone who had the honor of being selected by the United States to serve on the post-war Iraq governing council and your party participates in the parliament and ministries of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It seems like you’ve enjoyed relative political freedom (compared with Egypt and Syria). What have you learned while participating in the Kurdish and Iraqi democratic process?
Salahaddin: We have never been part of any external political agenda. We are independent in our political practices and policy making. We are a Kurdish and an Islamic party. Our nation is Kurdistan, and we serve our nation with a moderate and balanced interpretation of Islam.
Clarion: The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics and platform are often referred to by critics as “stealth political jihad,” a tactic used to undermine the West from within. What is your response to them? Do you have aspirations to change the West from within? Do you seek a regional or global Islamic state?
Salahaddin: In our perspective “jihad” is different from “fighting.” All civic efforts, campaigns and non-violence acts can be considered “jihad.” There is political jihad, jihad of education, jihad of educating people, economic jihad, and there is also a jihad of fighting which should be done within a legal framework.
We do not have any plan to confront or fight Western civilization; we believe in dialogue, tolerance and peaceful coexistence of all civilizations. KIU is working in the Kurdistan Region, and all KIU members living abroad have to abide by the legal and social principles of their residence country.
We have always told our Kurdish communities in Europe and the U.S. to abide by their country’s principles — and try to be helpful and respectful citizens. They should not have any conspiracies, agenda or action against Europe and the US. They should be a respectful example of Islamic virtue and values.
Governance, in our perspective, is a human activity constrained by laws and regulations. Government is elected by people and it protects justice and equality. We believe that Islam embraces a civilized and democratic state.
Clarion: In the past, your party attempted separation from the Muslim Brotherhood, citing a growing difference in ideology and practice. If it’s too much of an albatross, why do you continue as an affiliate?
Salahaddin: During 1960s we were following the Brotherhood’s school of thought. In 1971, Saddam’s Baath Party regime prohibited the activities of the Brotherhood. After that, all activists in Iraq who were involved in political activity acted according to their own interpretation of the Brotherhood’s vast school of thought since all Brotherhood centralized activities were dissolved.
In 1994, we announced our political party (the KIU). We did not have any direct relations with the Brotherhood, but in term of ideology, we benefited from the Brotherhood scholars and thinkers. This is why the KIU is not totally disconnected from the Brotherhood.
However, we have differences, especially when it comes to our political agenda — because we believe in our nation’s rights, openness, reform and a moderate and modern understanding of political thoughts and practices.
Clarion: When Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was listed as a terror organization by their government, your party made statements in solidarity with them. Why?
Salahaddin: We are against the military coup, and the oppression and massacres done by el-Sisi in Rabia Square against Morsi’s elected government of 2011. The elected government was removed, thousands of civilians were arrested and jailed, and there were clear violations against human rights in Egypt. It had nothing to do with terrorism.
We believe that political opposition should not be considered terrorism or extremism. We are against any military coup against elected governments all around the world.
Clarion: It appears well-established that your party in Kurdistan never committed violence or persecution of minorities. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto is “Death for the sake of Allah.” What is the definition of extremism in your view, and what does your party do in order to challenge extremism in the Kurdistan Region and among Muslims globally?
We can only speak for ourselves, and we are only responsible for our own acts. As the KIU, we are not the attorney of the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else. The Brotherhood is free to have their political agenda, as are we. Our slogan since our founding in 1994 has always been “Freedom, Brotherhood and Justice.” We support political, civilized and reformist thought, and we are against any violence.
We believe that the definition of extremism is “using force, threat or violence of any kind,” and we are against all forms of it. We were victims of violence during our political activities in the region — for example, our headquarters was burned down by other political parties in 2005, and four of our members were martyred in one of these attacks.
However, we have never thought of using violence, and we did not have a violent reaction. We went to the court, and we have always worked according to the laws that are enforced in the region. We do not believe that violence can resolve any conflicts.
Clarion: What do you say about actions of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates that use force, such as Hamas in Gaza? Are you willing to condemn them?
Salahaddin: As far as I know, Hamas has their specific circumstance due to the nature of their political struggle and we do not judge them from afar in Kurdish Iraq. It is a complicated issue, as they justify that they have a right to be against Israel because Israel has invaded Palestinian land, and Gaza is under siege.
Clarion: If you become the majority in the government, who do you plan to treat minorities, including Christians, Yazidi, Jews, women and homosexuals? Do you endorse the dhimma and jizya system? What about personal behavior, such as alcohol consumption?
If our party became the majority and the main party to form the government, we will abide by the constitution and respect all religious and other freedoms in the region.
We have good relations with minorities in the region — including continuous visits with each other and sharing joint activities. Regarding alcohol consumption, and homosexuals, there has two dimensions: the private sphere and the public sphere. If these acts are done privately, there is not any obligation [to conform to Islamic law); every individual has their own freedom. If these acts are done publicly, they have to be regulated according to the laws, constitution and legal aspects of the society.
The dhimma and jizya systems are regulated by Islamic sharia law, and they could have different names or concepts in different eras. There is not any reason behind implementation of these systems today, because the jizya was kind of tax that was paid instead of serving as a solider. Now Muslims, Jewish, Christians and all others groups in the society become soldiers, so there is no need to ask for these taxes.
Clarion: How do you plan to keep your electoral promises to the peoplein light of Turkey’s Erdogan and Egypt’s Morsi demonstrated inability to keep extremism in check or even perpetrated it?
Salahaddin: Implementation of electoral promises is always relative. No political party is able to implement all of their promises. Extremism is a psychological, ideological and social issue, it could belong to a religious ideology — or even a secular ideology could become extremist in their practices. Countering extremism needs a sufficient plan, strong will, good methodology and profound research.
The ideological part of extremism should be removed by having a moderate ideology. Extremism should be uprooted through religious texts and by Islamic scholars, to uproot and strip it from religion.
Clarion: Do you have any closing thoughts to share with those in America (including the U.S. Administration) who want to see the Brotherhood designated as a terror organization?
It is really important to avoid prejudices and to have moderate thinking while an issue is addressed and investigated, and it is important not to be hateful about others and to be objective when trying to understand them.
Islam is one of the three main religions in the world. The Quran and the life of the prophet are written and can be studied. What the followers have done after the death of the prophet is not evidence of the religion itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood has existed for more than 80 years as an Islamic school of thought, and as well as a political movement, and it has been a political project in some places around the world. There should not be an unfair judgment on the Brotherhood or any other group.
Designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist group is a mistake, and it is far from an objective, unbiased understanding of the group. There might be some extremist groups indicating they are part of the Brotherhood, but they are not representative of the Brotherhood in general. We should be judged individually.
There might be some oppressive, failed dictatorial regimes in the Arab region which seek to list Islamic organizations as terrorist organizations in order to protect themselves, but the U.S. and the European countries should not be deceived.
These Arab countries want to suppress their respective political oppositions, and the civilized and democratic U.S. and European political powers should not be dragged into and deceived by such conspiracy theories.
Clarion Project expresses appreciation to Kadar Sheikhmous for assisting in the translation of this interview.
Zach D. Huff is Clarion Project’s Kurdish affairs analyst.