Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

With sectarian pressures already running high, three mortar shells landed near the gate of a much-revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra late Monday, wounding at least nine people, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the Samarra municipal council.

The golden-domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra is one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. Sunni militants blew up the dome in 2006, helping trigger some of the country’s worst sectarian bloodshed as Shiite extremists retaliated forcefully.

Why is that mosque considered holy? No idea from AP. If you want an answer, you’ll literally have to take Time, which ran an eye-opening piece on it:

Also known as the Golden Dome Mosque for the resplendent coat added to the ancient structure’s teardrop-shaped dome a century before, al-Askari is one Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites. Built in 944, it not only houses the tombs of two 9th-century Shi’ite imams but is said to stand near a supernatural site: a tunnel into which their descendent, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is known as the 12th Imam, disappeared into occultation in 878. Most Shi’ites believe this so-called Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, will one day reappear as a messiah and bring salvation to Shiite believers.

See? Color, history, peoplehood, spirituality. Much better than J.M. Berger’s in The Daily Beast.

Berger talks about the all-or-nothing risk in declaring a new Islamic kingdom, and its competition with Al-Qaida, and the possible effects on other jihadi movements, and how the grab for the caliphate will play to Muslims worldwide.

What about faith matters? Berger simply says things like: “ISIS claimed that it had fulfilled all the legal requirements for the caliphate and that all existing jihadi groups and indeed all Muslims around the world were religiously obligated to swear loyalty to the new Caliph Ibrahim (using the name provided by ISIS in the course of proving that Baghdadi has the required lineage for the title).” It’s so brusque, he hardly leaves us time to take a breath.

Some observers manage to ignore religion altogether. In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor blames the post-Ottoman Sykes-Picot Agreement for the modern jihadi ferment. That’s like using the Versailles Treaty to excuse Nazi brutality.

Yet The New York Times, which I’ve often dinged for tone-deafness, has a perceptive piece on Shia vs. Sunni. Alissa Rubin’s Times story spells out a bit of history:

ISIS believes that the Shiites are apostates and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. The two main branches of Islam diverge in their beliefs over who is the true inheritor of the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believe that Islam was transmitted through the household of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believe that it comes down through followers of the Prophet Muhammad who, they say, are his chosen people.

The difference, says Rubin, “can now be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.” Names, hometowns, music, even styles of prayer figured into it:

Shiites and Sunnis offer prayers in slightly different ways, with Sunnis generally folding their hands or crossing their arms in front of their stomachs and Shiites leaving them extended, palms resting on their thighs.

In a chilling video that appeared to have been made more than a year ago in the Anbar Province of Iraq, ISIS fighters stopped three truck drivers in the desert and asked them whether they were Sunnis or Shiites. All three claimed to be Sunni. Then the questions got harder. They were asked how they performed each of the prayers: morning, midday and evening. The truck drivers disagreed on their methods, and all were shot.

The best rundown I found on Shia/Sunni divisions was this 2007 article from NPR. It gets into the early caliphate and — intriguingly — the fact that Shia Muslims predominate in the oil-rich regions of the Middle East.

Especially interesting is the messianic aspect of Shia, which to Sunnis is heretical:

The significance of the imams is one of the fundamental differences that separate the two branches of Islam. The imams have taken on a spiritual significance that no clerics in Sunni Islam enjoy.

“Some of the Sunnis believe that some of the Shia are actually attributing almost divine qualities to the imams, and this is a great sin,” Gause says, “because it is associating human beings with the divinity. And if there is one thing that’s central to Islamic teaching, it is the oneness of God.”

This difference is especially powerful when it comes to the story of the 12th Imam, known as the Hidden Imam.

“In the 10th century,” says Nasr, “the 12th Shiite Imam went into occultation. Shiites believe God took him into hiding, and he will come back at the end of time. He is known as the Mahdi or the Messiah. So in many ways the Shiites, much like Jews or Christians, are looking for the coming of the Messiah.”

Now, that is full-bodied understanding. It shows the Middle East strife as more than who is king of the hill. The matter goes deep into the centuries, and souls.

On Monday, NPR explained the idea of a caliphate — what it is, why it’s such a powerful ideal to Sunni Muslims, how Baghdadi is trying to manipulate it.

The caliphs go back to the earliest days of Islam. They were the successors to Muhammad, the founder of Islam in the seventh century. The battle over who should lead the Muslims following his death led to the bitter split that created the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. That division remains and is playing out in the sectarian fighting in Iraq.

Some scholars claim the caliphate effectively ended in 1258 when the Mongols, the descendants of Genghis Khan, stormed across the Middle East.

But the Turkish Ottoman empire claimed the caliphate in 1453 and exercised authority over vast parts of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond until the empire withered and ultimately collapsed at the end of World War I.

Except for the clichéd use of “fundamentalist,” I also admired this section:

Re-creating a caliphate has been a goal of fundamentalist Sunni groups for decades, including al-Qaida. From their perspective, the caliphates represented a golden age of Islam, when Muslims had vast political and economic power and were at the cutting edge in many arts and sciences. Re-creating the caliphate is the path to restoring that lost glory, in their view.

But none of these groups has made any real progress, mostly because they haven’t been able to claim control over a sizable chunk of territory.

However, the Islamic State has seized large parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and has sought to administer them as a government. In pursuing its vision of a caliphate, the group is directly challenging al-Qaida.

From Muhammad to the Ottomans to the Islamic State. It’s an exceptional article, worth printing or downloading and re-reading.

I’ll acknowledge, as I have before: Media are short-staffed, and reporters and editors have to juggle assignments. And the Middle Eastern map may be hidden under shifting sands. But spirituality runs deep underneath. You just need to dig below the surface.

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