It was to be an op-ed in 900 words for a Western newspaper, speaking of the gratitude Iraqi Shiites feel toward the United States and its allies for having enabled them to regain control of their shrines in southern Mesopotamia for the first time in more than 40 years.
The man who was to write the piece last Thursday, on the basis of notes he had jotted down, was Hojat al-Islam Abdel-Majid Mussavi Khoei, who had arrived in Najaf, the heartland of Shiite Islam, on April 3.
As decreed by fate — or maktub, as Muslims say — the op-ed was not to be written: On Thursday Khoei was murdered by a mob close to Imam Ali’s golden-domed shrine in the center of Najaf.
Khoei had been in contact with me by satellite telephone since his arrival in Iraq. He had spoken of his hopes that a new and free Iraq would become “a living testimony” of friendship between his nation and those who liberated it from the most vicious tyranny in its history.
Who killed Khoei?
One account is that he was the accidental victim of a riot in which a group of angry Shiites tried to seize and presumably lynch a notorious collaborator with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Khoei had tried to protect the hunted man, arguing that revenge killings could trigger a cycle of vendettas and divide the Shiite community in Iraq.
Another account is that Khoei was murdered by “sleeper” hit squads controlled by Iran’s current strongman, Hashemi Rafsanjani — who, just days earlier, had warned the United States not to “meddle in Shiite affairs.”
Last March, Khoei penned a courageous op-ed, published in Arabic in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat and, in its English version, by National Review Online. In it, he dismissed Arab opposition to the liberation of Iraq by the U.S.-led Coalition as hypocritical. He said his people had suffered so much at the hands of their oppressor that they would welcome anyone who came to liberate them.
In that piece, Khoei’s mood had been angry. In the new piece he was planning to write, he intended to be more serene, relaying a confident message of hope.
Does Khoei’s tragic death mean an end of hopes that Iraqi Shiism can reemerge from decades of enforced silence to be heard on the side of moderation? Judging by the great emotion caused by Khoei’s death, the answer is: No.
Shiite scholars, theologians, and preachers have been unanimous not only in Iraq but also in Iran and the Persian Gulf in describing Khoei’s death as a great loss to the community, and in vowing to continue his mission of peace in Iraq and understanding among religions and cultures.
Khoei had played a key role in persuading Iraq’s Shiite establishment to welcome the U.S.-led Coalition’s campaign to end Saddam Hussein’s rule. He succeeded beyond his expectations.
Today, many senior Shiite clerics — taking their cue from Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of the ulema (religious leaders) in Iraq — welcome the end of Saddam’s regime and hope to work with the U.S.-led Coalition to build a new and democratic Iraq in which Shiites, the majority of the population, secure their rightful place at all levels of government.
A string of Iraqi Shiite leaders — including Ayatollahs Hassan Jawaheri, Amer al-Manshadawi and Saeed al-Saedi — have vowed to pursue Khoei’s work of “peace and reconciliation” and “joint efforts to rebuild a new Iraq with the help of the liberating coalition.”
Ayatollah Mahmoud Tabatabai-Qomi has described Khoei’s death as “the latest sacrifice by a great religious family to the cause of moderation and reconciliation.” And Ayatollah Muhammad-Jaafar Mahallati speaks of it as “a blow to all Muslims who wish to rebuild their civilization.”
“I hope this tragedy does not mean that Iraq will take the path of Iran after the mullahs took over,” Mahallati said on Thursday.
I first met Abdel-Majid Khoei in the house of the latter’s father, the grand ayatollah, in Kufa, near Najaf, in 1975.
At the time, Abdel-Majid had just turned 14 and was thinking of a future as a scientist. The task of continuing the grand ayatollah’s religious mission was assigned to Abdel-Majid’s older brothers and cousins. By 1991, however, Saddam had murdered most of the adult male members of the Khoei family, leaving Abdel-Majid not only with the heavy burden of a personal tragedy but with the awesome task of leading a religious dynasty dating back to the 14th century.
On Friday, Khoei was due to lead the first mass prayer in the shrine of Imam Ali since liberation. The prayer was held in his absence. But his name was on every lip as thousands of believers, now free from tyranny, prayed for his soul.
Khoei’s last words, in a telephone call less than 20 hours before the tragedy, were: “I still cannot believe I am talking to you from Najaf, free Najaf!”
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.