Magazine article The Christian Century

Sunni Clerics Back Anti-U.S. Violence

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sunni Clerics Back Anti-U.S. Violence

Article excerpt

FOR SHEIK Mohammad All Mohammad al-Ghereri, a Sunni Muslim cleric in Baghdad, the question is no longer whether to tell his followers to fight the Americans, but how to assure that they wage war properly.

"The holy warriors should have a clerical leader with them to advise them on all points, such as how to properly treat the Americans they capture," he said in his austere mosque in the Iraqi capital's Zafarenieh district.

For fellow Sunni cleric Abdul Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, the issue is not whether his followers should kidnap foreigners, but which ones. "Isn't the trucker who brings supplies for the Americans and helps the occupation also part of the occupation?" said Abdul-Jabbar, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the country's largest Sunni religious grouping. "I think so."

To Mohammad Amin Bashar, a Sunni cleric and professor at Baghdad's Islamic University, the limits of classroom debate are likewise clear: "When two students come to us and have a disagreement, we tell them it's all right to disagree. The important thing is that we have a unified position in resisting the occupation."

If Sunni clerics are a window into the soul of the violent resistance to U.S. aims in Iraq, the landscape they reveal couldn't be bleaker for American-led forces trying to quell an insurgency that shows no signs of abating.

Among Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority, the U.S. can at least count on a few high-ranking clerics to counter junior preacher Moqtada al-Sadr's fiery calls for holy war. But among the Sunni "ulema," or clerical leaders, who guide the Sunni masses, the calls for armed opposition to the U.S., no matter the cost, have become increasingly strident.

"There is no discussion," said Imam Mahdi al-Sumaydai, a high-ranking Sunni cleric who was jailed for six months by the Americans for his inflammatory teachings. "Jihad [holy war] is a must in the religion to defend your property, your honor or your religion. How can anyone deny our right to jihad?"

An estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people are Shi'ite. Roughly 35 percent are Sunnis, including both Arabs and Kurds. Publicly, the U.S. military and the Bush administration, as well as interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, describe those who battle the U.S.-led coalition as "dead enders," criminals, gangsters and losers of the former regime making a last desperate stand in the lace of the interim government's successes.

"The insurgents see a successful Iraqi interim government taking control of the country," explained the commander of the army's First Cavalry Division, Major General Peter Chiarelli, when asked why the insurgency seems to have intensified in September. "They see improvement of basic services. They see their power base slipping away. They see elections on the horizon. If you're a terrorist, that must be your worst nightmare."

But on the streets, the calls by clerics for jihad are spreading into the mainstream, seeping into a popular culture liberated, ironically, by the same occupation they're opposing. Unencumbered by Saddam Hussein's strict censorship laws, videos of armed mujahedeen (holy warriors) battling Americans--often set to rhythmic religious music--sell briskly at CD shops and in bazaars.

"People are trying to be more religious right now because they think it's [part of the] opposition to the Americans," said an Iraqi translator working for Westerners who asked that his name not be published. …

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