Foreign Policy Blogs

Violence and the Loss of Faith in Iraq

Sabrina Tavernise has a brutal and harrowing piece in today's New York Times about how the cleric-driven violence in Iraq has led many to question their faith, which they have seen as bringing them nothing but misery and blood.

"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 "Allahu akbar,' they read Koranic verse," said a moderate Shiite sheik from Baghdad, using the phrase for "God is great."

"The young people, they think that is Islam," he said. "So Islam is a failure, not only in the students' minds, but also in the community."

Now, Tavernese has said she interviewed forty people over five cities, which isn't nothing, but isn't a huge sample-size, either.   Still, her conclusions stand to reason.  In the post-Saddam vacuum, religion was a way to make sense of the chaos.  Not for everyone: tribalism and family remained strong (one would expect this to be the case after a dominant figure collapses and then the very state is called into question- people fall back into older, more secure identities). 

But those identities didn't provide security; they unspun into chaos.   As the war got worse and worse, and became more brutal and more criminal, it seems some young Iraqis turned away from the hollow and deadly intonations of the preachers.

In large part these preachers turned out to be nothing more than criminals, barely concealing their venal motives with a translucent mask of piety.   The scared became unwashably profane, and the youth of Iraq- hardened, no one's fools- could see through it.   This kind of fake-jihadist is not uncommon; Mark Bowden has an excellent Atlantic articleabout one in the Philippines.

 Issac Choitner in The New Republic thinks this is a hopeful article, and I agree with him to a point.   It is good that this veneer is being ripped away, but I can't get too excited that many people had to be tortured and killed, blown-apart, for us to get here.  Still, if it shows anything, it shows what one commenter, teplukhin, succinctly described.

I think it offers hope in that it's now very clear that the jihadist “pitch” to prospective recruits is almost totally about material or at least non-religious, apolitical incentives– the same pitch, more or less, that a drug dealer makes to prospective mules.

If there's ever a surge that would work, it's a massive civil effort to get money and jobs to young unemployed Iraqi men in neighborhoods where the jihad does most of its recruiting. This isn't rocket science.

That is what the US has to do in Iraq.  The surge has helped quell some violence, but, as noted, it hasn't helped much in the way of political progress.  But even if it did help that, it wouldn't much change conditions on the ground for young Iraqis, especially young Iraqi men.  It is the same from Liberia to Serbia to American inner-cities: bored young men with nothing to do and no prospects for employment are easily turned to violence.  If the US doesn't recognize that it has an opening, a way to slow down the allure of criminal activities, then its presence there will be indefinite or a complete failure.



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.