Faith gives Iraqis solace, not just a reason to fight

Evidence of deeper devotion can be seen in all parts of Iraq.

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.

Even though it's difficult to quantify this country's religious devotion, evidence of deeper faith can be seen in all parts of Iraq. Mosque attendance may have fallen in recent years because of the threat of attacks and a weekly curfew in Baghdad on Friday, the Muslim holy day, but the faithful continue to risk everything for major religious events. Nearly 1 million Shiites flocked to the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim in Baghdad last week.

Intisar Muhammad, a Sunni, lost her husband in a roadside bombing two years ago and was then driven out of Baghdad's Amel neighborhood as Shiite militias consolidated their grip there. In addition to the five daily prayers that all faithful Muslims observe, Mrs. Muhammad now performs an extra nightly prayer known as the "prayer of need."

"I just ask God to help me raise my son," she says.

Finding fortitude in religion during wartime is "basic human nature," says Tahseen al-Shaikhli, a scholar and Baghdad native. "When everything around you is shifting and you have little trust in anyone or anything, you turn to the one constant thing: absolute faith," says Mr. Shaikhli. "It's like holding on to a stick in the middle of a raging ocean."

Large parts of Iraqi society, namely Shiites, were prohibited under Saddam Hussein's regime from openly practicing many rituals. That community has embraced public piety as never before, bringing religion to the fore of a society that once had a much more secular face.

While Mr. Hussein's Baath Party was founded as a secular nationalist movement, he shrouded his regime with religious themes in the 1990s to ingratiate himself with a populace that turned to the mosque for comfort after the first Gulf War, when international sanctions crippled the country's economy.

"[Hussein] realized the power of spirituality and religion over ideology [of his secular Baath Party]," says Mr. Shaikhli.

After the dictator's fall, Iraqi society's increased piousness was exploited by religious political parties, both Sunni and Shiite, to gain power and popularity, notes Shaikhli.

But Saleh al-Haidari, chief of the country's Shiite religious endowment, says Iraqis have always been attached to their faith. He describes how, during the previous regime, thousands used to flock to the Khulani, the Baghdad mosque where he used to preach, because they knew he would push the envelope and slip in a special Shiite prayer in defiance.

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.

Hmoud, a Shiite, did not want to delve into the motives or association of the militias. He denies that he fears retribution if he speaks out and instead says that the latest calamity to befall the family is a test of faith. To him, it's just like the deaths of his brother Satar Hmoud, a soldier in the former Iraq Army who was killed in 1988 in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in northern Iraq, and his father, Sayed Hmoud, killed five years before that, when he was shot by security forces for getting into an argument with officials.

The notion that all is in the hands of God and that there is no escaping fate is almost universal to Arab and Muslim cultures. Indeed, it's an idea that resonates in Iraq. On July 15, Abbas Ammar was killed on his 16th birthday in Baghdad's Jadriyah neighborhood. A car bomber blew himself up next to his family's kabob stand, which he was manning that day. There were other close calls, his uncle Hussein Ahmed says, but "Ammar kept insisting that whatever God has fated will happen."

• Awadh al-Taiee in Baghdad contributed.

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