Following are excerpts from an interview with Kuwaiti journalist, Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib which aired on Al-Arabiya TV on March 14, 2008:
Interviewer: Don't you think that Hizbullah won the July 2006 war, when it stopped the Israeli war machine, and put an end to the Israeli conceit?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Our problem is that we have a somewhat naïve view of this issue – as if an Israeli defeat necessarily means that we won, and since there is a loser, there must be a winner. If only wars were as simple as that. It is possible for both sides to lose – and that was the case here. Israel suffered some material losses, as well as a few casualties, and it lost its reputation as an invincible army. But if you consider the situation in Lebanon... I always say that we must define "victory" first. When an infrastructure worth billions is destroyed, when you have thousands of casualties, when your country has regressed, and when your tourism has been completely destroyed – how can this be considered in any way a victory, and how can we possibly take to the streets in celebration, in light of such regression? It would be better if we could evaluate the negative things that happened, in order to avoid them in any future political circumstances. That's what I was talking about.
Interviewer: Do you think it was Hizbullah's aura of sacredness that brought upon you all this criticism, this rejection, and those threatening letters, calling you a Jew, a collaborator, and an apostate?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: I encountered a lot of rage because I criticized a so-called religious party. In my opinion, the Islamic and Arab peoples are still waiting for a savior. We are constantly waiting for a hero – a person who will come and save us from our ruin and decay. In the political history of the Arab and Muslims, one sees that we adhere to certain leaders and we follow them, without any consideration for the consequences.
Interviewer: Do you have a problem with religion?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Of course not. My problem is with religious coercion. That is what goes on in most Arab countries.
Interviewer: What do you mean by religious coercion?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: When you impose a particular school of religion on a certain country... Let's take Kuwait as an example, since I am a Kuwaiti. In Kuwait, the predominant school of Islam is Sunni.
Interviewer: That is because the majority of the population is Sunni?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: The government is Sunni too. Hence, a certain group inevitably faces injustice and violation of some of its rights.
Interviewer: How can you claim the government is Sunni while it has some Shiite ministers?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: True, but most of the ministers are Sunni.
Interviewer: But we cannot claim that the government is Sunni in character.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Of course it is Sunni in character.
Interviewer: Even though there are some Shiite ministers?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Of course. The ruling family is Sunni, and the leading school of Islam is definitely... The Islamic curricula taught to our children are Sunni. The charity law for companies is a purely Sunni law. The Shiites don't have such a thing.
Interviewer: So you are defending the Shiites because their rights are not respected?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: That's not what I mean. In Iran, for example, it is the Sunnis whose rights are violated, and they suffer from pressure because they are a minority. If you separate religion from state and have full civil rights... Secularism protects religions and does not oppose them. When you treat all religions on the same level, you guarantee everybody's liberty to exercise their religious rights.
Our mission, as journalists, is to make it clear that the principles of secularism and liberalism, which have gained a bad reputation recently in the Arab world, are not...
Interviewer: Why have they gained a bad reputation?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Because they are characterized as heretical.
Interviewer: You mean that they are confronted by accusations of heresy.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Yes. Anyone who is secular is accused of being a heretic, which is absolutely untrue. Secularism is the belief in the separation of religion and state. In other words, religion belongs to God, and the state belongs to all. Every person is free to practice his religion and follow his spiritual path, but all are subject to a civil state. That way, we ensure just treatment for all, instead of Sunnis enjoying more rights than Shiites, or vice versa, and Christians having no rights whatsoever in an Islamic state.
I won't say that I am either Shiite or Sunni – I declare myself to be a Kuwaiti, and that's it. As for my spiritual path, it is between me and my Creator.
Interviewer: So you prefer not to present yourself as belonging to any school of Islam...
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Absolutely. I present myself only as a Kuwaiti.
Interviewer: Do you think that presenting oneself as a Kuwaiti, for example, rather than as a follower of a particular school of Islam, has become necessary in our countries, in light of the rise of sectarianism?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: It has become essential. Let me ask you a question...
Interviewer: Usually I am the one asking the questions...
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Today, I will ask you a question. If you asked people about their religious authorities – their sheiks, mullahs, ayatollahs, whatever... If your religious authority were to issue a fatwa, which runs counter to the interests of your country, who would you follow? Would you act in accordance with your country's interests or the fatwa? The answer would have very grave consequences. That is why we are calling for the separation of religion and state...
Interviewer: What do you expect the consequences of this answer to be?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: There is a strong sectarian bias toward the religious authorities rather than the state, and this is catastrophic for our Arab countries.
Interviewer: The people would answer that religion is more important that the state. They would say that they were created for the sake of religion.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Do you know why? Because we draw a comparison between religion and state, but they are not comparable. Religion is a spiritual path, which is based on intent. You cannot establish states on the basis of spiritual paths – on the basis of intent, on what one conceals rather than reveals.
Interviewer: Don't you think this runs counter to the path of the prophets, to the path shown by the Prophet Muhammad?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: The Prophet Muhammad is a great and unique phenomenon. In addition to being a wise politician who bore a divine message, he was holy in a way that will never recur in another human being. That is why he could gather those people around him, and rule them in matters of politics, religion, and society. All the people listened to him, and therefore, what happened after he died? What happened hours – not years – after his death? Sectarianism broke out immediately, because he was the one uniting them.
Interviewer: But the sanctity did not disappear. It remains in the holy texts.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: I do not dispute this. All I'm saying is that you cannot use these texts to build a modern state. I say this is impossible, because there are many different ways of understanding these texts. In addition, in modern countries, there are not only Muslims. You cannot build a country on Islam alone, and exclude followers of other religions.
Interviewer: So you want a state that has nothing to do with Islam?
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: I want a state that is not based on religion - a civil state. But one of the conditions is to protect people who want to practice their religion. Let me give you an example. The Bohra is a Muslim sect, which has recently been denied the right to have a mosque in Kuwait. Why?
Interviewer: You want to defend religious rights with secularism.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: Secularism protects the rights of minorities, and all the religious rights. Of course.
Interviewer: Sometimes the rights of the majority are lost amid all the talk about the rights of the minorities.
Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib: How can they be lost, if you establish a civil regime that protects everybody, and tells you that just as you are free to follow your Sunni path, I am free to follow my Shiite path, and Christians and Jews have their rights too? This way we are all equal and protected by the secular regime, which treats us all without discrimination.