The rise of religious extremism in Iraq is a result of the US-lead invasion in 2003. In dire times it is not uncommon for people to turn to religion and extremist groups who knew this used Anti-US sentiments to gain support in Iraq after Saddam’s fall.
Extremists groups crossed the border from Iran (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq // “Badr Corps”), Saudi Arabia and Jordan (“Al-Qaeda in Iraq”). Prominent religious leaders, whose strong stance against the presence of Coalition forces in Iraq had won over many Iraqi’s, began to envision an Islamic theocracy in Iraq. Damage caused to important religious sites also inflamed caused people to rally behind their religious leaders, who have become more extreme as the occupation continues. As a result of the invasion and the cunning of extremist leaders, religious extremism has thrived in Iraq since 2003.
Through out history it is noted that people tend to turn to religion in times of crisis and war as faith allows us to remain optimistic. This means the already deep roots of religion in Iraq became suddenly much more important during and after the 2003 invasion, providing religious figures with the confidence to speak their minds and promote their own motives. Irani religious leaders including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani provided imported Shiite leaders with credibility and support by endorsing the United Iraqi Alliance (Shiite Bloc) in Iraq’s first round of elections.
This combined with popular anti-US sentiment and the huge power-vacuum left after Saddam’s fall provided the chance for Shiite extremist groups to extend their militia’s and forward the struggle for Islamic revolution in Iraq.
There were other forces pushing for Islamic revolution in Iraq who found their support in the initially alienated//targeted Sunni area’s mostly north of Baghdad. Salafi extremist groups like “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” follow the model of Islam popular in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. By disbanding the Iraqi army the Coalition forces had left the Sunni sect unemployed, open to bribes and full of anti-US sentiment, it is these factors which allowed up Salafi extremism to survive in Iraq post-Saddam.
These groups have lost support as the Iraqi population begins to realize their motive; to bring their own kind of Islamic revolution to Iraq. Salafi extremist groups maintain a strong presence in Iraq and by agitating the Shiite population and targeting Iraqi civilians are pushing Iraq towards civil war and further religious extremism.
Iraq contains many of the world’s most important historical places, notably many important religious sites from Islam and Christianity among many others. Along the Euphrates River is also where Sumerian tribes built the first known great civilization of man. During the 2003 invasion many historically and religiously important sites were looted or destroyed, and many of those left unharmed have since become victims of bombs, damaged in combat operations or become the target of sectarian violence.
Recently an important shrine in Samarra was bombed, with the result of causing widespread anger and uprising, particularly amongst the Shiite population in Iraq. The attack is consistent with Salafi doctrine and furthered religious divisions and inflamed religious leaders- again pushing Iraqi’s towards extremism. The failure of Coalition Forces to secure Iraq’s holy places and their part in the damage caused to these historically significant places should not be over looked; it is a key factor driving religious extremism in Iraq.
Was it inevitable that religious extremism would prevail after Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime fell? Some would say this is true at least amongst the Shiite majority who are heavily influenced by religious figures in Iran. This idea has merit to it if Shiite leaders were unified in a large sectarian alliance like what recently happened with the joining of Sadrists to the United Iraqi Alliance (the Shiite bloc), in the recent elections.
If the United Nations had sent a mission to replaced Saddam Hussein’s regime the one thing these groups truly share, anti-US sentiment, would not have held such an alliance together. Hating the UN just isn’t as credible as hating the US after they act against a UN decision, so I doubt the same level of extremism could have survived in Iraq’s mostly moderately religious culture.
Though the presence of coalition forces in Iraq is the main factor driving the turn towards religious extremism, it is not to say their leaving right now would end the problem. Religious extremism is deep-seated and powerful in Iraq now more than ever and even if the unstable neighbouring regimes that back extremists fall, the threat of Islamic Revolution in Iraq would still be high.
The recent rejection of Salafi extremist groups in Sunni areas, and the avoidance of all-out sectarian war after the Samarra bombing shows that Iraqi society can handle internal problems, they just need time. Will religious extremism end? I hope so. Is religious extremism more dominant in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion? Definitely.