Thursday, February 23, 2006

Opportunity in Rubble

More than 100 people are killed in the aftermath of a bomb attack on the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, a key Shia Muslim shrine in Iraq. Everyone in Iraq - and across the Middle East - knows that a full-blown civil war would be much worse. It is for that reason that Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, was worried enough to go on television to warn how dangerous such a conflict would be. Iraq does not have a civil war, but it has the makings of one.

Long before the golden dome of the mosque in Samarra was destroyed there were serious incidents, between Iraq's different communities, which involved large loss of life. Though all sides have suffered it is the Shia who have arguably lost the most with thousands of people dead in hundreds of sectarian attacks. In the past twenty-four hours responsible leaders have recognized the danger, and have not allowed their country to slide into the nightmare called Lebanon after 1975. However, the destruction of the al-Askari shrine takes the danger of a civil war in Iraq to a new level and why we all should hold our collective breath.

This bombing has produced bigger protests than the killing of humans did and presumably could multiply the danger and the violence. The reason is that the holy places in the Middle East are very special for the people who consider them sacred, and that applies to all the different religions and sects. These holy places are a vital part of the way that people see themselves. In short, the attack on the shrine was seen as a direct assault on the identity and rights of the entire community.

A lot now depends on the Shia leaders, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top religious leader, and the radical nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who broke off a trip to Lebanon to fly home as soon as he heard what had happened in Samarra. They have both called for national unity, and for Shia people to defend themselves if the authorities cannot.

The West should be concerned with the action (bombing) but not the result (protesting). Arab culture is such where it is natural to express rage and sadness, collectively, on the streets. The challenge for Iraqi political and religious leaders is to control and channel the anger, to let it be expressed but not to get out of control. This is where the West should be concerned. If the Iraqi citizen through channeled protests does not show force against the insurgency, in essence, reclaiming the country from them and the Coalition forces, then the cycle of violence will enter a new level, unimaginable till now. Most Iraqis, of all sides, do not want Civil War and why some extremists do, and are trying as hard as they can to make it happen. This is the moment for the Iraqi people to collectively stand up, silent no more, and take what is rightfully for them—their country.

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