What’s going on — doctrinally — in Iraq?

10 11 imams bI want to ask a question that may sound very, very stupid. Nevertheless, this question is at the heart of the frustration that I have been feeling for many weeks while I read the mainstream press coverage of the bloodshed in Iraq.

So here is a variation on my question, which I will state two different ways. If you walked into two different Christian sanctuaries — one Southern Baptist and the other Roman Catholic — would you be able to tell which was which? Or, if you walked into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and then into a temple associated with the Reform Judaism movement, would you be able to tell the difference?

OK, I assume that most journalists who have any experience at all on the Godbeat could answer “yes” to both of those questions. Many readers could answer these questions. So let’s move on.

Would the differences in these sanctuaries say anything about the histories of these different visions of these faiths? About the doctrines that they teach? About the daily lives of people who fervently practice these faiths? Would a reporter who dug deep in search for the answers to these questions be able to better explain to her or his readers any clashes that might develop between Protestants and Catholics, between Orthodox and Reform Jews?

Why do I bring this up?

We have, in recent months, seen oceans of ink spilled about the increase in “sectarian” fighting in Iraq. At the heart of this is the ancient schism between the Sunni and the Shiites in Islam. Not that long ago, to single out Newsweek, I saw the front-page “Holy War” blurb and thought that, at last, I was going to get to read a story that provided solid background information on the holy side of this hellish conflict. After all, the online headline was “War of the Mosques.” Once again, I was disappointed.

I realize there are some obvious places to go for information on the differences between these two great branches in Islam. (Please leave comments containing the best links that you have found online.) I also know some of the history about this violent divide. However, I really think that our mainstream media need to be integrating some of this material into their coverage. We also need a new entry of some kind right here at ReligionLink.org.

blog mdf401390We constantly read that this or that has happened at a Sunni or a Shiite mosque in Iraq. OK, if a reporter walked into a Sunni mosque and then into a Shiite, what are the practical differences that they would see? What would they hear that was different? What clashes would there be in the doctrines? How would these doctrines affect the daily lives of the believers, those with weapons and those without? How would this affect life in Muslim homes? Would the answers to any of these questions help us understand the terror that is unfolding? Why are members of these two different Muslim movements slaughtering each other? Is it merely tribal? Is a “secular” approach to Islam the answer?

To be fair to Newsweek, the reporting team of Babak Dehghanpisheh, Rod Nordland and Michael Hastings did offer us a glimpse of what is happening in the recent feature story with this headline and lengthy sub-headline: “Love in a Time of Madness — Sunni and a Shiite fall in love in Iraq. They get married, have kids. Then Muslim extremists start a religious bloodbath. What should a mixed family do?” In this story we find out, among other things:

As Iraq tilts toward a sectarian war, such strains are playing out in homes all over the country. Many of the differences between Sunnis and Shia are small enough to dismiss: how they wash their feet or fold their hands in prayer, and which religious figures they most revere. Despite years of discrimination against the Shia during Saddam’s era, mixed marriages between the country’s major groups, including the Kurds, have been very common. There are no official statistics, but prominent sociology professor Ihsan al Hassan, who has studied the subject, estimates that of Iraq’s 6.5 million married couples, 2 million are Sunni-Shia unions.

Only the most extreme Sunnis espouse a philosophy of hatred toward the Shiites. But these include Al Qaeda in Iraq — and its leader, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. His stated plan is to “drag the Shia into the arena of sectarian war” in the hope of provoking an all-out conflagration. Even mainstream Sunni leaders remain deeply suspicious of the country’s majority Shia leaders and their dominance of Iraq’s security forces.

There are a few other details in this story, but not many that touch on the seeds of this conflict.

Serious newspaper readers and those who tune in for some of the better network broadcasts need information. We have needed this information for quite some time now. At the moment, this religion ghost is marching to war.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.xanga.com/branthansen Brant

    This is a great question. Or questions.

    I once had a brilliant local imam, originally from Baghdad, as a regular radio guest. I asked him to explain this division, and he said there was no such division in Iraq. Shiite, Sunni – no difference. Next question. It was vital to him to explain that there are no divisions in Islam, as there are in Christianity.

    An aside: My wife pointed out yesterday that my son’s textbook explains the five pillars of Islam — but eliminates jihad. There are four pillars, and then “Obey God”. That’s it, in the textbook authors’ version of Islam.

    A second boy, one she tutors, is in Palm Beach County public schools. He’s told to memorize that there are five pillars of Islam, but he is not told what they are – just that there are five of them…pillar…things.

  • Corban

    Public school teaching on Islam is a matter of blowing sand in kids’ eyes.
    Another related question: the role of the Virgin Mary in Islam. Why do Muslims revere her above all women and why do many pray to her (as well as St George)? What does Wahhahbism think of this?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Every reference I have read for about the last 45 years (i.e., since I was in 5th or 6th grade, and reading about thsese things on myy own without being so much as prompted to) idnetified the Five Pillars of Islam as: the SHAHADA profession of the Oneness; the Hajj; the five daily prayers; the tithe (usually misleadingly translating *zakat* as “alms”); and the Ramadan fast.
    I suppose Brant and Corban will dismiss this a four-decade massive conspiracy of cover-up.