Vague, undefined "sects" in Iraq

pic02I know, I know. I know that I could write this exact same post almost every day. I'm getting tired of writing it and, based on the lack of reader comments, you are getting tired of reading it.

But, honest, I clicked on this Los Angeles Times report by Borzou Daragahi, the one with the headline "In Iraq, Civil War All but Declared," and I really thought that this was going to be the one, this was going to be the story that tried to describe the actual differences between the Shiite and Sunni believers who are slaughtering each other and pulling Iraq into a state of "sectarian" civil war.

But I was wrong.

This is, of course, the same doctrinal and political divide -- that line in Islam is hard to draw -- that lurks behind the divided Muslim reactions to the Lebanon-Gaza crisis. A gripping Los Angeles Times report by Kim Murphy demonstrated that reality the other day, but, once again, did not give us any background on the history and the doctrines involved.

But back to the original story from Iraq. Read the opening paragraphs and then stop and ask this question: Why? Why is this happening? And why is this religious element of the story not a basic part of the journalistic formula for covering this war?

BAGHDAD -- Retaliatory massacres by gunmen and bombers linked to rival Muslim sects have left more than 130 people dead across Iraq over the last two days, the latest casualties of what some politicians now are calling an undeclared civil war.

At least 57 Iraqis were killed Tuesday and scores more injured when a suicide bomber lured a group of day laborers to his minivan with the promise of work before setting off explosives. The bombing in Kufa rained blood, burnt debris and charred body parts on a small market across the street from the Muslim bin Aqil mosque, the main platform for radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada Sadr.

Since the beginning of May, attacks by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslims have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a United Nations study and Iraqi police reports. The Kufa blast, coming on the heels of mass killings and bombings attributed to Sadr's Al Mahdi militia and its Sunni Arab enemies, brought the battle to the Shiite cleric's doorstep, igniting fears of a fresh wave of reprisal killings.

"The message is clear, and the message confirms the sectarian differences," said Fadhil Sharih, a leader of the Sadr movement. "It seems clear that it's been moving toward the direction of civil war."

IraqMosque2There's a new variation -- "sectarian differences."

Is that the same thing as saying that these "sects" have different beliefs, practices and histories? And if they are "sects" -- which is an interesting and I would argue inaccurate term to use in this context -- then what is the basic form of Islam, the normative form of Islam? What does that religion teach and how is it different from these two "sects" that are at war with one another?

I know, I know.

I know that this fighting is about power politics as much or more than it is about religion and doctrine (although, again, it is simplistic to try to draw that kind of line). Nevertheless, as Paul Marshall of Freedom House put it the other day during our Oxford Centre seminar: It is true that politicians can manipulate religious sentiments and convictions. But for this to happen, the religious sentiments and convictions have to be real and powerful in the first place.

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