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Is Iraq a Religious War?

It may not be a religious war for most Americans, who tend to identify with their country, rather than their religion, when it comes to war. However, Muslims see themselves much more as a single religious "nation," and thus are more likely to see the Iraq war as an invasion of one religion by another. Since we need to win Iraqi confidence, we should avoid giving this impression. Instead, we're doing the opposite by allowing religious groups to distribute pamphlets with titles like "A Christian's Duty" to U.S. soldiers.

Thousands of marines have been given these pamphlets, which have a tear-out section to be mailed to the White House, pledging that the soldier in has been praying for the President. The pledge says, "I have committed to pray for you, your family, your staff and our troops during this time of uncertainty and tumult. May God's peace be your guide." It's produced by a group called In Touch Ministries. While this is a worthy sentiment, the presence of the pamphlets in the war zone present a powerful propaganda opportunity for Moslem fundamentalists, who want to galvanize Arab opinion against the U.S. by characterizing our troops as a Christian invasion force.

Arab television has been reminding viewers in the Middle East of the slaughter and the violence that happened during the Middle Ages when the pope sent Christian crusaders to fight against against Islam. Fawaz Gerges, professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern studies, says, "There is a high risk that Iraq will become a symbol of Muslim resistance against American military presence similar to Afghanistan for the Soviets." When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they set up an atheist Communist state.

One thing we've done right is try hard to avoid damaging ancient Muslim religious sites. Many of these sites are mentioned in Jewish and Christian scriptures as well. Troops that invaded from the south crossed the area that has traditionally been considered the site of the Garden of Eden. They passed by Abraham's birthplace of Ur and the heart of ancient Sumer, whose poetry told of a creation and flood like that in the book of Genesis. They avoided the tomb of the founder of Shi'ite Islam and the world's largest Muslim graveyard, as well as ancient Babylon.

The most sensitive place to Muslims is the city of Karbala, the site of Shi'ite martyrdom during the fight in 680 about who would rule world Islam. The rivalry was between the prophet Muhammad's family and the caliph in Syria, who was backed by a group of the prophet's followers. At Karbala, the Muslim caliph massacred the prophet's Muslim nephew. Sulayman Nyang, an historian of Islam, says, "That [memory] is one reason the [coalition] forces have apparently bypassed Karbala. You don't want to re-create any mythical revivification of that martyrdom of the past." The Sunni-backed regime of Iraq has persecuted Shi'ites since the founding of Iraq in 1932. We don't want to seem to be supporting Shi?ites or Sunni Muslims?just liberating the citizens of Iraq.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, there was struggle for the leadership of Islam between a council of followers, who gave rise to the caliph, and the blood relatives of the prophet, who backed his son-in-law, Ali. The caliphs won and founded Sunni Islam, to which the vast majority of Muslims worldwide belong. The Sunnis built the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.

When Ali was alive, he lived in what is now Iraq. In 680 his son Husayn went to Damascus, Syria, to claim Muslim leadership. At Karbala, the caliph's forces massacred Husayn's family and displayed his severed head in Damascus. Shi'ite means "followers of Ali."

Archeologists want the military to avoid sacred areas as well. "The military have taken some precautions to find out where these sites are and to avoid them as possible," says Jack Meinhardt, of Archaeology Odyssey magazine. "I know they have contacted archaeologists?This is a cradle of civilization and the origin of some of the biblical traditions. The region is one of the world's richest, if not the richest, sites of archeological remains."

For a totally new view of the inner meaning of religion, check out William Henry.

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