Young Iraqis’ Religion

Super article in the International Herald Tribune yesterday about young Iraqis’ changing feelings about religion as the war wears on.

BAGHDAD: After almost five years of war, many young Iraqis, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.

In two months of interviews with 40 young people in five Iraqi cities, a pattern of disenchantment emerged, in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives.

“I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us,” said Sara Sami, a high school student in Basra. “Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don’t deserve to be rulers.”

Atheer, a 19-year-old from a poor, heavily Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said: “The religion men are liars. Young people don’t believe them. Guys my age are not interested in religion anymore.”

Professors reported difficulty recruiting graduate students for religion classes. Attendance at weekly prayers appears to be down, even in areas where the violence has largely subsided, according to worshipers and imams in Baghdad and Falluja. In two visits to the weekly prayer session in Baghdad of the followers of Moktada al-Sadr last autumn, vastly smaller crowds attended than had in 2004 or 2005.

“In the beginning, they gave their eyes and minds to the clerics, they trusted them,” said Abu Mahmoud, a moderate Sunni cleric in Baghdad, who now works deprogramming religious extremists in American detention. “It’s painful to admit, but it’s changed. People have lost too much. They say to the clerics and the parties: You cost us this.”

“When they behead someone, they say ‘Allah Akbar,’ they read Koranic verse,” said a moderate Shiite sheik from Baghdad. “The young people, they think that is Islam. So Islam is a failure, not only in the students’ minds, but also in the community.”

Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs. Shiites, considered to be an alternate political force and a threat to Hussein’s power, were kept under close watch. Young Shiites who worshiped were seen as political subversives and risked attracting the attention of the police.

For that reason, the American invasion was sweetest to the Shiites, who for the first time were able to worship freely. They soon became a potent political force, as religious political leaders appealed to their shared and painful past and their respect for the Shiite religious hierarchy.

Some Iraqis argue that religious-based politics was much more about identity than faith. When Shiites voted for religious parties in large numbers in an election in 2005, it was more an effort to show their numbers, than a victory of the religious over the secular.

“It was a fight to prove our existence,” said a young Shiite journalist from Sadr City. “We were embracing our existence, not religion.”

The war dragged on, and young people from both sects became more broadly involved. Criminals had begun using teenagers and younger boys to carry out killings. The number of juveniles in American detention was up more than sevenfold in November from April, and Iraq’s main prison for youth, in Baghdad, has triple the prewar population.

But while younger people were taking a more active role in the violence, their motivation was less likely than adults to be religion-driven. Of the 900 juvenile detainees in American custody in November fewer than 10 percent claimed to be fighting a holy war, according to the American military. About one-third of adults said they were.

Violent struggle against the United States was easy to romanticize at a distance.

“I used to love Osama Bin Laden,” proclaimed a 24-year-old Iraqi college student. She was referring to how she felt before the war took hold in her native Baghdad. The Sept. 11, 2001, strike at American supremacy was satisfying, and the deaths, abstract.

Now, the student recites the familiar complaints: Her college has segregated the security checks; guards told her to stop wearing a revealing skirt; she covers her head for safety.

“Now I hate Islam,” she said, sitting in her family’s unadorned living room in central Baghdad. “Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing.”

In Falluja, a Sunni city west of Baghdad that had been overrun by Al Qaeda, Sheik Khalid al-Mahamedie, a moderate cleric, said that fathers now came with their sons to mosques to meet the instructors of Koran courses. Families used to worry most about their daughters in adolescence, but now, the sheik said, they worry more about their sons.

“Before, parents warned their sons not to smoke or drink,” said Muhammad Ali al-Jumaili, a Falluja father with a 20-year-old son. “Now all their energy is concentrated on not letting them be involved with terrorism.”

Really interesting article. And heartening.

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Filed under arab, arabist, Islamic relations, religious conflict

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