25 Jun 2014

Karbala’s holy shrines, under threat from Isis

It’s rare to be allowed to film in the holy shrines at Karbala, but yesterday we did just that as shrine guards and other staff performed their daily “changing of their guard” ceremony. I think the governor of Karbala gave permission because he fears that the shrines are in danger and he wants foreigners, including non-Muslims, to see their beauty and understand their significance.

The huge mosques have been refurbished in recent years, fresh gold glistening on the domes, yellow-and-blue tiles lit by chandeliers. Inside the mosque to Abbas, the standard bearer for his brother, Hussain, in the Battle of Karbala in 680, the faithful prayed and chanted. An old man sat on the floor reading a huge Koran, and a little girl with a plait down her back recited hadiths by heart. Children held out their arms in a salute which I was told symbolised their refusal to abandon Hussain and Abbas, the saints of Shi’ism, as they had been abandoned back in the seventh century.

A thousand years might sound like a long time, but not round here. The Sunni extremists of Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, who have seized much of northern and western Iraq in recent weeks, have set their sights on Karbala. To them the battle of 680, which led to the split between the two strands of Islam – Sunnism and Shi’ism – is not decided.

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“They are old guys from the past,” said Abdel Sayeb Khodayer, a pilgrim I met at the entrance to the shrine. “They want human beings to turn back to ancient times. But human beings should move forward and progress.”

Last week the spokesman for Isis issued a threat to the holy city, saying: “We will settle our differences not in Samarra or Baghdad but in Karbala, the filth-ridden city.”

The differences between Shi’ism and Sunnism, like those between Catholicism and Protestanism, sound arcane to an outsider. But extremist Sunnis like Isis hate Shias as much as they hate Jews and Christians, regarding them as idolators and apostates. Such enmity between sects is alien to most Iraqis. Mixed marriages are common here, and while the government propaganda that claims “We have no Shia and Sunni, we are all Iraqi” is untrue, this is at heart a tolerant society.

Many blame the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, a Shia, for discriminating against Sunnis in government and the military. He has pushed many Sunnis into the arms of the extremists. Shia militia may protect the shrines but they are also further polarising Iraqi society. The danger is that everyone here is being forced to the extremes.

Watching the peaceful scene as pilgrims, some from Pakistan, Iran and other Muslim countries, prayed and chanted it was hard to imagine what Karbala must have been like all those years ago, when the Prophet’s descendants battled for the leadership and direction of the faith. But it was all too easy to imagine the carnage and devastation if the extremists of Isis try to carry out their threat to attack the most holy place in Shia Islam.

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