Has violence boosted devotion in Iraq?

islamic devotionWho would have thought that a religion story out of Iraq, or the Middle East for that matter, would have something to do with subjects unrelated to headscarves and terrorism? In an unfortunately short piece, The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent Sam Dagher writes about how Iraqis are turning to their faith as their country is torn apart by various religious factions. How's that for ironic? Thanks to reader Nancy Reyes for the tip on this story.

Dagher cites anecdotal evidence that Iraqis are taking their faith more seriously, and some of it -- such as the one million Shiites going to the Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine last week, despite the danger -- is quite convincing. Acknowledging that it is not easy to put a number on Iraq's religious devotion, Dagher nevertheless finds evidence for the increasing religious devotion:

Nashaa Jouie Salman lies on a small bed with her arm and waist bandaged -- the result of a recent mortar explosion. Her two grim-faced daughters, in black abayas, hover around the bed; the faces of her late husband and son, victims of Saddam Hussein's regime, stare from portraits above.

"We console ourselves with faith and patience," says another of Mrs. Salman's sons, Abdel-Karim Hmoud, who was wounded in the same blast. The explosion killed his 6-year-old niece, Aya. "We are believers, so whatever comes from God strengthens our resolve even if it's bad."

While religious devotion is partly driving a devastating sectarian war in Iraq, it's also keeping many average Iraqis going in the face of death, kidnapping, destruction, displacement, and lawlessness. For many, faith remains the one constant and the only way to cope with the daily agony and perils.

It's a refreshing change from the usual story that focuses on clashes between extremists vs. reformers, though that aspect is not completely absent from this picture. The story isn't as simple as a community ravaged by violence turning to God for help and support. Dagher shows how Saddam Hussein's reign squelched various forms of religious devotion and how, with his repressive regime gone, old religious traditions and practices are on the rise, particularly from Shiites.

The only problem I have with the story is the apparent dismissal of the two contrasting elements -- increased religious devotion and an Iraq falling into sectarian/religious violence -- as possibly being connected in any way. There is this vague reference that seems to dismiss that as a possibility:

Any increased outward expression of faith may be a way for people to reaffirm their beliefs, since many "heinous crimes are being committed in the name of religion," he says. "People are defending what they believe in deep inside."

Beyond personal views, religion frames almost every struggle in Baghdad. Black and green banners, symbolic of Shiite Islam, fluttered in the summer wind at the entrance of Al-Ameen, the southeastern neighborhood where Mr. Hmoud, Salman's son, lives. His home sits on a side street where the marks of the explosion that injured his mother are still visible. On the June day of the blast, he was helping his mother get out of the car. They had brought back Aya, who died in the blast, to spend the night with them. He later discovered the mortar was fired by Shiite militiamen inside Al-Ameen and had been intended for US troops stationed at nearby Camp Rustamiyah.

I have trouble believing that the rise in personal religious devotion and sectarian/religiously-inspired violence are happening in a vacuum. I am not in Iraq so it's impossible for me to say whether it is the case, but it is a question that I wish Dagher had addressed further.

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