Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Islamic Just War Theory and the Challenge of Sacred Space in Iraq

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Islamic Just War Theory and the Challenge of Sacred Space in Iraq

Article excerpt

The ongoing conflict in Iraq has transformed sacred sites into battlefields. (1) Iraq's Sunnis and Shias are firebombing one another's mosques and executing assassination attempts on religious and secular leaders in the midst of prayer. Insurgents in Iraq are also using mosques as rallying points, tactical bases and sites for the storage of weapons in the irregular war against U.S. troops. These attacks have placed U.S. forces in a difficult position: Attacks on mosques alienate the local population, bolstering Iraqi support for the insurgency; but repeated failure to pursue insurgents into mosques hampers U.S. operations and provides insurgents with a tactical advantage.

A series of clashes between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents in the fall of 2004 exemplified the tremendous challenges posed by combat in sacred space. In early October 2004, U.S. troops launched operations at seven mosques in the town of Ramadi, the southwestern point of the Sunni triangle. Although U.S. forces remained outside the mosques while their Iraqi counterparts searched for weapons, Ramadi residents responded in anger to these incidents, decrying U.S. desecration of their sacred sites. One prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, launched an appeal to Pope John Paul II to condemn the attacks. Another, Sheikh Abdullah Abu Omar, exclaimed: "This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted. The Americans seem to have lost their senses and have gone out of control." (2)

By early November, operations in Ramadi began producing tangible results. Marines found weapons, ammunition and explosives in four Ramadi mosques including--in one mosque alone--fifty sticks of TNT, fifty-one pounds of black powder, eighty-eight mortar rounds, thirty artillery rounds, five rockets and several machine guns. Inside another, troops found explosives rigged to a transceiver, a setup presumably designed to implicate U.S. forces in the demolition of the mosque. Marines succeeded in preventing the destruction of yet another mosque, Ramadi's largest, in which they had uncovered a weapons cache. Having established positions on the roof of the mosque, they noticed a car careening towards the building. Firing at the car, the marines unleashed secondary explosions, possibly indicating that the driver had been a suicide-bomber who was intent on destroying the mosque. (3)

What are the public relations implications of various U.S. responses to the insurgent use of mosques? (4) To the extent that defeating the insurgency in Iraq involves a successful appeal to Iraqi "hearts and minds", understanding public perceptions regarding just and unjust behavior in war provides a useful analytical tool. I am particularly interested in how the Haditt--oral traditions relating to the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad--and Muslim just war theory treat the implications of conflicts at sacred sites. Because the primary audience for U.S. counterinsurgency operations is Iraq's Sunni community, the sources I focus on in this paper are those considered most authoritative by this particular community

I begin with a brief overview of the Islamic sources used in this paper to evaluate the just war implications of fighting in mosques. I then qualify my use of these sources by considering the challenges posed by a biased selection of sources, misrepresentation of these sources and the questionable relevance of these findings to the current situation in Iraq.

In the third part of this paper, I briefly survey the empirical pattern of mosque use by insurgents in Iraq, the American response to this practice and the three challenges that this situation poses to just war theory Each of these challenges is examined in the three sections that follow: The limitations on the use of force within a sacred site; the protection of civilians in or near the mosque; and the requirements that the site itself be safeguarded from violence. I offer insights into the ethical implications of each scenario based on relevant Muslim oral traditions and jurisprudence. …

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