Every day, almost every moment, tears flow from sobbing Shiite Muslim believers here in the Imam Hussein shrine as they cling to the ornate silver and gold frame that encircles the grave of their most revered saint.
Imam Hussein may have perished in battle more than 13 centuries ago, choosing to die for his faith rather than surrender to a far larger enemy army. But Iraq’s majority Shiites say this legendary example of defiance could not be more relevant today, as Sunni extremists advance across the north and center of the country, aiming to reignite sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has vowed to attack Shiite shrines and cleanse this “filth-ridden” city of Karbala – site of Imam Hussein’s 7th -century battle, southwest of Baghdad – as well as the shrine city of Najaf, farther south.
To Shiites, the message not only from history but from current religious leaders is clear: They must fight back if their shrines and their faith are attacked.
“It’s life or death, and not only for me – no Shiite will give up their Imam,” says Abed Mohamed Jabbor, a body shop worker, after emerging from the inner sanctum of the shrine room.
Inside, a mosaic of mirrors illumines the sacred space, where rubbing by countless hands and lips has polished the metal frame. This is the epicenter of the Shiite world, a place that attracts millions of pilgrims every year, where concepts of defiance and sacrifice, of courage and love, can evoke idealism and soaring rhetoric among awestruck adherents.
“Imam Hussein sacrificed himself for freedom, so although ISIS dreams of entering here they will never do it: Everyone will fight them, from the men and boys to the women and girls,” says Abdulrahim Diwan al-Husseini, a retired military officer with gray stubble, as he steps away from the grave. “When I finished my visit, I prayed to be a martyr, for my religion and my Imam,” adds Mr. Husseini.
He registered as a volunteer to take up arms, answering the call last week by Iraq’s highest Shiite authority to defend Iraq and its holy shrines. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said the ISIS “terrorists” should be challenged, and tens of thousands of recruits have risen up to respond. On Friday, the octogenarian cleric gave a more urgent warning, saying that if ISIS is not dislodged by fighting “today, all will feel sorry tomorrow."
In his fatwa, Ayatollah Sistani was also careful to call for national unity – in a refrain often repeated here – saying that Iraq’s Sunnis were not only brothers to Iraqi Shiites, but were the "same as ourselves.” But yesterday he took a swipe at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled Iraq with a strident Shiite-first policy since 2006. Sistani called for a new “effective” government that “should open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis."
Iraq has been riven by sectarian killing sprees before. Sunni extremists ignited the most recent one in 2006-2007, blowing up a shrine holy to Shiites in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Back then, Shiite militias operated death squads that tortured and killed Sunni captives, just as Al Qaeda in Iraq targeted Sunnis and cleansed mixed towns and districts.
More recently, ISIS has distinguished itself in Syria’s civil war with beheadings and several crucifixions; since capturing Mosul, it claims to have massacred 1,700 Shiite soldiers, among other atrocities.
ISIS “ideology is very radical, they don’t believe in living peacefully with others, so they are a danger not just for their sectarian enemy [Shiites], but also liberals and other Sunnis,” says Seyed Afdhel al-Shami, the deputy head of the Imam Hussein shrine.
“They are human monsters,” says Mr. Shami of the “throat-slitting culture” practiced by ISIS. “They are advancing and we should find and destroy them.”
“I am a Shiite, and I don’t care who is prime minister, a Shiite, Sunni or a Kurd – just that this country can stand up and help the world,” says another shrine official, Ali Salem. “Maybe [moderate Iraqi Sunnis] want their rights, and we are with them. But not this way, with explosions."
Why Karbala matters
For Shiites, the importance of Karbala – with its gilt dome of the Imam Hussein shrine and its two golden minarets rising above the dust blown in by surrounding deserts – resonates far beyond Iraq’s borders. The shrine is surrounded by a maze of gritty, poor neighborhoods, laced with overhead electricity and telephone wires, and pock-marked with shops selling religious trinkets of Shiite saints. Often crammed into those alleyways are Shiite pilgrims from Iran to Lebanon to Pakistan to southeast Asia.
“The Iranian nation will not deny any attempts to defend the holy shrines,” President Hassan Rouhani of predominantly Shiite Iran said this week. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, said Iraq’s shrines were so great that Hezbollah was “willing to sacrifice five times as much [for them] for them as we sacrificed in Syria.”
Karbala's Gov. Akeel al-Toreihi says the saga of Imam Hussein is universal and in fact peaceful, despite the often bloody iconography and focus on martyrdom. On the plains of Karbala, Imam Hussein – a grandson of the prophet Muhammad – died with 72 followers as they were surrounded by tens of thousands of soldiers loyal to an unjust caliph called Yazid. Ever since he has been known to Shiites as the “Lord of the Martyrs,” whose qualities of faith and resistance are to be emulated.
“Of course we want to send this message to the world, that Imam Hussein refused to fight; they forced him to fight,” says Mr. Toreihi. “They saw Imam Hussein crying, with tears on his cheeks. They asked him why, and he said, ‘For the enemy, because they don’t know this is leading them to hell.’ He loves all humanity.”
And there are other differences between Shiites and the extremists of ISIS, he says. “Even the ideology of jihad is different,” says Toreihi. “Our jihad is defending. Their jihad is attacking.”
Inside the shrine, believers say their faith will protect them – just as Shiites have survived all these centuries as Islam's minority sect.“Imam Hussein teaches us to be strong, courageous, to love each other and live in peace and with humility,” says Husseini, the retired military officer. “We don’t accept injustice…. God created us to be free people, not to be slaves."
Tapping such sentiment to enlist real defenders of Karbala is not difficult, says Ali Hamadani, a tall man in a fine gray suit who is in charge of recruiting at the shrine. He says ISIS and Al Qaeda “are not from Islam,” and that even if his Shiite recruits don’t have cars to get to the front lines, “we will crawl on our hands and knees.”
“According to [Sistani’s] fatwa, we prefer death over life,” says Mr. Hamadani, with a flick of his yellow prayer beads. “It is a holy death; it is with God for eternity."