Iraq’s Inferno and How It Could Singe You

The ISIL scheme for a sectarian Islamic Caliphate can prove to be a thorn in India’s side with its threat to the latter’s oil dependence and its manifesto of Sunni-Shia hatred
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

A few days after militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, without facing much resistance from the US-trained Iraqi soldiers, they made their intentions quite clear: purge the area of their opponents and the Shia and establish the authority of Sunni Salafis. Their aggressive and violent sectarianism suggested they were in for the long haul. Killing hundreds of the Shia populace and even more government troops, they let it known that the historic Shia site of Karbala in Iraq was no longer safe.

When Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the ISIL chief, announced the formation of an Islamic Caliphate–thereby proclaiming himself a descendant of the Prophet–it signalled one of the most ambitious attempts at redrawing the national borders of many Islamic states. He also triggered  feverish preparations amongst other Muslim sects to protect their shrines and cultural values in the wake of an overwhelming rise of Sunni chauvinism.

Delhi was not immune to this raging tension. Not only was the new Indian government sent into a tizzy, finding ways to evacuate its workers and nurses from the trouble-torn country, it was also attempting to calibrate the implications of this attack by ISIL on fuel prices, which shoot up at the slightest disturbance in the Middle East. But what’s more striking is the impact of the Iraq crisis on the Muslim community in India, one of the biggest in the world.

As soon as the horrific images from Mosul began to air on YouTube and news channels, an angry Shia community started rallying around calls to save the holy shrine of Karbala. A Shia outfit, Anjum-e-Haidari, based out of DargahShaheMardon, Jorbagh, New Delhi, began to seek volunteers under the rubric ‘Razakars to Save Holy shrines in Iraq’. The volunteers had to give an undertaking that they were against terrorism and upset with what was happening in Iraq, which in their words was a “blot on Islam”. The undertaking stated that the volunteers would go to Iraq and “protect the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, by all means legal, just and moral”.

There are reports that hundreds of thousands have volunteered to defend these shrines. The only catch being that the enthusiastic razakars don’t have passports. While this could be a dampener for the organisers, the Iraq tragedy has injected an unhealthy dose of discord between the Shias and Sunnis.

In Lucknow, formerly a Shia principality, where
Shia-Sunni strife has been taking place much before its
industrial scale version in the contemporary Middle East, the violence spilled to the streets after ISIL’s takeover of Iraq. In one case, members of the majority Sunni community beat up a Shia in Lucknow. The anger against the minority within the minority has been welling since the recent Parliamentary elections. There are indications that the BJP’s victory in UP, and especially in Lucknow, would not have been so overwhelming if a section of the Muslims had not voted for NarendraModi. In some places, the BJP won about 13 per cent of the minority vote—a percentage that fits in with the proportion of the Shia segment in the minority votes in many parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The shift of this vote, many observers feel, contributed in making the much-coveted Muslim vote and its influence on government formation largely irrelevant. The disenfranchisement of this vote that preserved the secular order in the country has infused fear and uncertainty in their minds. Worse, if the sectarian schism, aggravated by the Shia-Sunni standoff in the neighbourhood is real, their vulnerability in the face of a hostile majoritarian rule could increase. Although the government is making light of this brewing crisis, hoping that the sharp electoral reverse and the change in the government would keep the lunatic fringe under check, it is anybody’s guess whether the new government has a crisis on its hands.

Intelligence agencies, though, have not bestowed much attention on this feverish stirring in the minority community. Perhaps Urdu newspapers would reveal the flaw in their assessment of the Muslim mood. Propelled by dark conspiracy theories, the minorities here as well as elsewhere see the current violence as an attempt to reconfigure the Middle East to control its natural resources and to create circumstances that diminish this community’s influence.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014