Thursday, May 10, 2007

Radicalization Spillover

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates 50,000 refugees flee from Iraq to Jordan each month. But some cross the border in the other direction as well.

The Jordanian city of Zarqa, for example, has become a breeding ground for Sunni Islamic militants seeking Jihad in Iraq. A May 4th article in the New York Times, "In Jihadist Haven, a Goal: To Kill and Die in Iraq," describes six men, all under 25 years old, who represent a growing shift towards radicalism in Zarqa.

Their teenage years might be considered typical even in the United States; they enjoyed pop music and sports, and considered careers in physics and professional soccer. But these activities were interrupted and dreams decimated soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A young woman from Narqa sums up the change: "Religion was something we just got from our parents. But after the war started, we decided we have to show the world we are Muslims."

Abu Ibrahim (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) and his five friends, each driven by his own circumstances and radicalized by one another, hired a smuggler to get them across the border from Syria. But while the other young men killed themselves in suicide bombings and shootings, Ibrahim was detained in a Syrian prison and eventually sent back to Jordan where he continues to dream of "fulfilling the rules of God": "It is our duty. If we don't defend our religion who should do it?"

Perhaps even more disturbing than the increasing numbers of young Sunni men seeking Jihad in the wake of the Iraq war is their intensifying anger towards Shiite Muslims. Ibrahim listed his targets as "first, the Shiites. Second, the Americans. Third, anywhere in the world where Islam is threatened." With videos of Shiite militias torturing and killing Sunnis circulating on the internet, more and more Sunni radicals echo Ibrahim's priorities.

The rift between the religious sects is deepening not only in the Middle East, but is also spilling over into the rest of the world. In my home state of Michigan, for example, vandals targeted Shiite-owned businesses and mosques earlier this year, and the Muslim Student Association at my own University of Michigan adopted rules preventing Shiites from leading prayers.

But even as this violence and discrimination pales in comparison to recent events in Iraq and just beyond its borders, perhaps Michigan's experience provides a small ray of hope. Today, May 10th, Muslim leaders from across Michigan will come together in Dearborn to sign a Unity Agreement. Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights wrote this in Tuesday's Detroit News:

Let us behave like the prophet with compassion, courtesy, sincerity, humbleness, patience, dignity, fairness and understanding, recalling that our prophet created the bond of brotherhood among citizens and immigrants in Medina. Despite their differences, he took serious steps against prejudice based on nationality, race and culture.

Differences in opinion are not only allowed in Islam, but critical thinking is vital in dealing with new developments. When thinkers disagree with piety and sincerity, and if the goal is solving problems, variation in thinking leads every side of a debate closer to the truth.

Peacebuilding measures, grassroots movements and economic aid towards Iraqi reconstruction should likewise focus on the common ground between Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. Reconciliation may be, as Erik points out, extremely difficult - but at least the Sunni/Shiite honor code in Michigan provides some evidence that it is not impossible.


Anonymous said...

Is this situation in Iraq a result of 'multi-culturism'? Iraq was not a natural state but created by the British about 1947. The Kurd, Sunnis and Shias never wanted to be together as one nation.

T said...

If a Muslim American Sunni in Michigan sat down and talked to a Sunni in Iraq, do you think they could truly relate to one another?

rwst346 said...

Great entry. This is very factual, non-polititcized information!

Emily Stivers said...

Anonymous: the nation currently known as Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the French and British as agreed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In 1920, it became a League of Nations mandate under British control with the name "State of Iraq." It is true that the French and British were unconcerned with ethnic and cultural divisions when they divided up the Middle East, the same way they did in Africa without regard for Hutus, Tutsis and other tribes.

The roots of conflict between Sunnis and Shias go much deeper than the lines drawn per Sykes-Picot. The sects differ on core principles of the Islamic faith, including the succession of authority after the Prophet.

However, to say these differences are unbridgeable and that the sects have to have separate states is going too far. While there will always be tension between Sunnis and Shias, they live together in peace in many countries. The problem is, the current conflict has aggravated tensions and inspired violence to a disturbing extreme.

I believe that with mediation, development and other peacebuilding measures, we can facilitate compromise and reconcilliation between Iraq's divergent religious groups.

Emily Stivers said...

T: of course it depends upon WHICH individuals you pull from Michigan and which from Iraq, but I believe some could relate. Shared principles do exist, and that is why they are both Sunnis.

However, such dialogue is not necessarily what I had in mind. I believe that if Sunnis and Shias in Michigan can draw up an honor agreement, perhaps hope exists for their counterparts in the Middle East.

It is a small hope, I grant you. But it's too easy to look at the mess in Iraq and throw our hands up in hopelessness. We have to take inspiration and believe peace is possible or we will fail before we begin.

Emily Stivers said...

rwst346: thanks. EPIC tries not to take a political stand on any issue. We're just interested in helping the people of Iraq negotiate peace and development through non-military strategies.

Anonymous said...

Very well thought out argument. I just hope that some how, some way, the people of Iraq are able to come together to work for a better life for them all.

Lynn said...

All well and good. I still don't see who is going to go in and do this mediation that both sides would accept.

Emily Stivers said...

Anonymous & lynn: we are working on a follow-up entry dealing with the capabilities of the NGO community to provide services and training in Iraq, and another regarding just how a mediation solution might work.

Stay tuned!


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