Iraq: A power struggle in religious garb

by Maureen Fiedler

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If anyone tries to tell you that “interfaith relations” or “interfaith understanding” is nice, sweet, gentle and pious … but not really important … just point them to the violence currently consuming Iraq. Improved interfaith relations are absolutely necessary to stop the violence in that country. This is the stuff of peacemaking in today’s world. 

The leading terrorist group in Iraq today is ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). It is so violent that even al Qaeda refuses to identify with it! ISIS is Sunni Muslim, and its warriors are murdering Shia Muslims – by the hundreds.   

On the other hand, the Iraqi government is run by Shias, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki … a man not known to have an ounce of interfaith understanding. His government has largely shut Sunnis out of power, and he wants it that way. (That’s why the United States is urging him to “share power,” which translates roughly: “quit discriminating against Sunnis.”) 

And now that Sunnis have a violent force in ISIS, “Shia militias” are forming rapidly to kill Sunnis. And the spiral continues.

So, just as Christians can forget the gospel call to peacemaking, so Muslims can forget their Islamic call to “salaam,” or peace. 

The background in Iraq is this: Saddam Hussein was Sunni, part of an elite that kept the majority Shia in Iraq out of any real power or privilege for many decades. Resentment among the Shia (who are a majority in Iraq but a minority among Muslims worldwide) was strong. When the U.S. invaded (not understanding much of this reality), it removed Hussein and the Sunnis, and the Shias took power. The Shias were bent on making up for lost time, so they blocked the Sunnis from power and status. That paved the way for the problems we see today. 

This animosity and violence are reminiscent of the so-called “wars of religion” between Protestants and Catholics in the 1600s when any semblance of Christian charity or even minimal “tolerance” vanished in animosity and bloodletting. In both cases, a power and status struggle was cloaked as a “religious” struggle, and religion of any kind generally makes war more intense and bloodier. (After all, combatants believe they are fighting for God.) 

That’s very similar to the struggle we see in Iraq today: a power struggle in religious garb.  

This week, I interviewed Josh Landis of the University of Oklahoma and Gregory Gause of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar on this struggle and its religious overtones. You can hear that interview here.  

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