Egyptian Mufti: Volcano of Anger over Najaf
The claim by Mahdi Army fighters that US bombing damaged part of a wall of the Ali shrine complex could be explosive. Wire services report:
Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf’s Old City in a fierce battle between US forces and Shiite militants, who remained in control of a revered shrine here as negotiations dragged on for its handover to religious authorities.
Late yesterday, US warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second night, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the Imam Ali Shrine compound’s outer walls were damaged in the attacks.
But the US military said it had fired on sites south of the shrine, from which militants were shooting, and did not hit the compound wall.
These sorts of incidents speak to morale issues in Iraq and elsewhere. Hannah Allam of Knight Ridder explores the reluctance of Iraqi police to fight the Mahdi Army. Often they have cousins in it, and besides, they don’t like killing Iraqis on behalf of the Americans (that is how they see it).
Just how explosive the news of damage to the shrine could be is demonstrated by the reaction in Egypt to the fighting so far.
Shaikh Ali Gumaa (Jum`ah), the Mufti of Egypt, has warned of a “volcano” erupting in the Muslim world as a result of the U.S. military action in Najaf. Al-Jazeera.Net quotes him as saying,
“After the attack on the shrines of the Prophet’s noble companions, after the humiliations and the terrorizing and killing of civilians, the world cannot expect… that a volcano of anger and indignation will not explode,” Gumaa said . . . Gumaa said since occupation forces claimed to have saved Iraq from dictatorship, “the Dar al-Ifta cannot accept any justification… that enables them to play this ugly role, rejected by the world’s reasonable people and lovers of peace”.
Sunni Islam most resembles, it seems to me, Protestant Christianity in its authority structures. Sunni ulama or clerics are more like pastors than like priests. As in Protestantism, there is no over-arching authority. (The caliphate lapsed in 1258, and, despite occasional attempts to revive it– most recently by the Ottoman sultans from 1880 until 1924– Sunnism remains decentralized).
As with Protestantism, Sunnism now tends to be organized by country. Each country will have a government-appointed Mufti or jurisconsult, who issues written opinions on issues brought to him. He is not a court judge with practical cases to judge (that would be a qadi). His fatwas or rulings are for the most part advisory, and tend to address more abstract issues.
Egypt is a great center of Sunni learning because it is the seat of the prestigious al-Azhar seminary/ university, to which Muslims from all over the world come to study. The Rector of al-Azhar is probably the highest Sunni official in the country, and his voice resonates throughout the Sunni community. The Mufti of Egypt is the second highest Sunni official in Egypt.
Gumaa sees Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is buried in Najaf, as a “companion” of the Prophet Muhammad. This point of view is different than in Shiite Islam, where Ali is the Imam and wali amri’llah, the vicar of the Prophet both spiritually and temporally.
But note that Gumaa still has a highly reverential attitude toward Ali (considered the fourth Caliph by Sunnis) and toward his shrine city of Najaf. This attitude is common among pious Sunnis.
Note also that Gumaa sees the U.S. as attacking Najaf and its holy sites, not as defending it from the depredations of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. This perception is very widespread in the Muslim world. Indeed, I suspect that it represents 99 percent of Muslims outside Iraq itself. American commentators often feel that they have played a trump card when they point out that it is Muqtada who has desecrated the shrines, not the U.S., which is only trying to rid them of his goons. While this argument may be convincing to some Americans, it just doesn’t fly in the Muslim world. Americans don’t get to tell Muslims which arguments Muslims find convincing. The U.S., as a foreign, Christian force, is seen as not having any business in Najaf, and as rampaging around there like an enraged elephant.
Al-Jazeerah did “person on the street” interviews on the Najaf issue in Cairo and Beirut. The Egyptians said things like, “this is an American attack on Islam.” Not on Najaf, or Shiism, or on Iraq. On Islam. That’s what a lot of Muslims think, and they are absolutely furious.
Some of my readers have suggested to me that it doesn’t matter what Americans do, since Muslims hate them anyway.
This statement is silly. Most Muslims never hated the United States per se. In 2000, 75 percent of Indonesians rated the US highly favorably. The U.S. was not as popular in the Arab world, because of its backing for Israel against the Palestinians, but it still often had decent favorability ratings in polls. But all those poll numbers for the US are down dramatically since the invasion of Iraq and the mishandling of its administration afterwards. Only 2 percent of Egyptians now has a favorable view of the United States.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The US is behaving in profoundly offensive ways in Najaf. U.S. military leaders appear to have no idea what Najaf represents. I saw one retired general on CNN saying that they used to have to be careful of Buddhist temples in Vietnam, too. I almost wept. Islam is not like Buddhism. It is a far tighter civilization. And the shrine of Ali is not like some Buddhist temple in Vietnam that even most Buddhists have never heard of.
I got some predictably angry mail at my earlier statement that the Marines who provoked the current round of fighting in Najaf, apparently all on their own and without orders from Washington, were behaving like ignoramuses. Someone attempted to argue to me that the Marines were protecting me. Protecting me? The ones in Najaf are behaving in ways that are very likely to get us all blown up. The US officials who encouraged the Mujahidin against the Soviets were also trying to protect us, and they ended up inadvertently creating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Such protection, I don’t need.
Radical Islamist terrorism is a form of vigilanteism. Angry young Muslim men see their own governments doing nothing about Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians, and bowing to US adventures like Iraq, and they grow disgusted. They have no hope of getting their governments to do anything about what they see as profound injustices. So they form small groups of engineers or other professionals and take matters into their own hands.
That is exactly the kind of phenomenon Gumaa is warning against. He is right about the volcano of anger.