Young Iraqis are losing their faith in religion
BAGHDAD: After almost five years of war, many young Iraqis, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.
In two months of interviews with 40 young people in five Iraqi cities, a pattern of disenchantment emerged, in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives.
"I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us," said Sara Sami, a high school student in Basra. "Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don't deserve to be rulers."
Atheer, a 19-year-old from a poor, heavily Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said: "The religion men are liars. Young people don't believe them. Guys my age are not interested in religion anymore."
The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religiousness among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology. While religious extremists are admired by a number of young people in other parts of the Arab world, Iraq offers a test case of what could happen when extremist theories are applied.
Fingers caught smoking were broken. Long hair was cut and force-fed to its owner. In that laboratory, disillusionment with Islamic leaders took hold.
It is far from clear whether the shift means a wholesale turn away from religion. A tremendous piety still predominates in the private lives of young Iraqis, and religious leaders, despite the increased skepticism, still wield tremendous power. Measuring religiousness furthermore, is a tricky business in Iraq, where access to cities and towns that are far from Baghdad is limited.
But a shift seems to be registering, at least anecdotally, in the choices some young Iraqis are making. Professors reported difficulty recruiting graduate students for religion classes. Attendance at weekly prayers appears to be down, even in areas where the violence has largely subsided, according to worshipers and imams in Baghdad and Falluja. In two visits to the weekly prayer session in Baghdad of the followers of Moktada al-Sadr last autumn, vastly smaller crowds attended than had in 2004 or 2005.
Such patterns, if lasting, could lead to a weakening of the political power of religious leaders in Iraq. In a nod to those changing tastes, political parties are scrubbing overt references to religion.
"In the beginning, they gave their eyes and minds to the clerics, they trusted them," said Abu Mahmoud, a moderate Sunni cleric in Baghdad, who now works deprogramming religious extremists in American detention. "It's painful to admit, but it's changed. People have lost too much. They say to the clerics and the parties: You cost us this."
"When they behead someone, they say 'Allah Akbar,' they read Koranic verse," said a moderate Shiite sheik from Baghdad. "The young people, they think that is Islam. So Islam is a failure, not only in the students' minds, but also in the community."
A professor at Baghdad University's School of Law, who would identify herself only as Bushra, said of her students: "They have changed their views about religion. They started to hate religious men. They make jokes about them because they feel disgusted by them."
That was not always the case. Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs. Shiites, considered to be an alternate political force and a threat to Hussein's power, were kept under close watch. Young Shiites who worshiped were seen as political subversives and risked attracting the attention of the police.
For that reason, the American invasion was sweetest to the Shiites, who for the first time were able to worship freely. They soon became a potent political force, as religious political leaders appealed to their shared and painful past and their respect for the Shiite religious hierarchy.
"After 2003, you couldn't put your foot into the husseiniya, it was so crowded with worshipers," said Sayeed Sabah, a Shiite religious leader from Baghdad, referring to a Shiite place of prayer.
Religion had moved abruptly into the Shiite public space, but often in ways that made educated, religious Iraqis uncomfortable. Militias were offering Koran courses. Titles came cheaply. In Abu Mahmoud's neighborhood, a butcher with no knowledge of Islam became the leader of a mosque.
A moderate Shiite cleric, Sheik Qasim, recalled watching in amazement as a former student, who never earned more than mediocre marks, whizzed by stalled traffic in a long convoy of sport utility vehicles in central Baghdad. He had become a religious leader.
"I thought I would get out of the car, grab him and slap him!" said the sheik. "These people don't deserve their positions."
An official for the Ministry of Education in Baghdad, a secular Shiite, described the newfound faith like this: "It was like they wanted to put on a new, stylish outfit."
Religious Sunnis, for their part, also experienced a heady swell in mosque attendance, but soon became the hosts for groups of religious extremists, foreign and Iraqi, who were preparing to fight the United States.
Zane Muhammad, a gangly 19-year-old with an earnest face, watched with curiosity as the first Islamists in his Baghdad neighborhood came to barbershops, tea parlors, and carpentry stores before taking over the mosques. They were neither uneducated nor poor, he said, though they focused on those who were. Then, one morning while waiting for a bus to school, Muhammad watched a man walk up to a neighbor, a college professor whose sect Muhammad did not know, shoot him at point-blank range three times and walk back to his car as calmly "as if he was leaving a grocery store."
"Nobody is thinking," Muhammad said in an interview in October. "We use our minds just to know what to eat. This is something I am very sad about. We hear things and just believe them."
By 2006, even those who had initially taken part in the violence were growing weary. Haidar, a grade school dropout, was proud to tell his family he was following a Shiite cleric in a fight against American soldiers in the summer of 2004. Two years later, however, he found himself in the company of gangsters.
Young militia members were abusing drugs. Gift mopeds had become gift guns. In three years, he saw five killings, mostly of Sunnis, including that of a Sunni cabdriver shot for his car.
It was just as bad, if not worse, for young Sunnis. Rubbed raw by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they found themselves stranded in neighborhoods that were governed by seventh-century rules. During interviews with a dozen Sunni teenage boys in a Baghdad detention facility on several sticky days in September, several expressed relief at being in jail, so they could wear shorts, a form of dress they would have been punished for in their neighborhoods.
Some Iraqis argue that religious-based politics was much more about identity than faith. When Shiites voted for religious parties in large numbers in an election in 2005, it was more an effort to show their numbers, than a victory of the religious over the secular.
"It was a fight to prove our existence," said a young Shiite journalist from Sadr City. "We were embracing our existence, not religion."
The war dragged on, and young people from both sects became more broadly involved. Criminals had begun using teenagers and younger boys to carry out killings. The number of juveniles in American detention was up more than sevenfold in November from April, and Iraq's main prison for youth, in Baghdad, has triple the prewar population.
But while younger people were taking a more active role in the violence, their motivation was less likely than adults to be religion-driven. Of the 900 juvenile detainees in American custody in November fewer than 10 percent claimed to be fighting a holy war, according to the American military. About one-third of adults said they were.
A worker in the American detention system said that by her estimate, only about a third of the adult detainee population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, prayed.
"As a group, they are not religious," said Major General Douglas Stone, the head of detainee operations for the military. "When we ask if they are doing it for jihad, the answer is no."
Muath, a slender, 19-year-old Sunni with distant eyes and hollow cheeks, is typical. He was selling mobile phone credits and plastic flowers, struggling to keep his mother and five young siblings afloat, when a recruiter, a man in his 30s, a regular customer, offered him cash in western Baghdad last spring to be part of an insurgent group, whose motivations were a mix of money and sectarian interests. Muath, the only wage earner, agreed. Suddenly his family could afford to eat meat again, he said in an interview in September.
Indeed, at least part of the religious violence in Baghdad had money at its heart. An officer at the Kadhamiya detention center, where Muath was being held this autumn, said recordings of beheadings fetch much higher prices than those of shooting executions in the CD markets, which explains why even nonreligious kidnappers will behead hostages.
When Muath was arrested last year, the police found two hostages, Shiite brothers, in a safe house that Muath revealed. Photographs showed the men looking wide-eyed into the camera; dark welts covered their bodies.
Violent struggle against the United States was easy to romanticize at a distance.
"I used to love Osama Bin Laden," proclaimed a 24-year-old Iraqi college student. She was referring to how she felt before the war took hold in her native Baghdad. The Sept. 11, 2001, strike at American supremacy was satisfying, and the deaths, abstract.
Now, the student recites the familiar complaints: Her college has segregated the security checks; guards told her to stop wearing a revealing skirt; she covers her head for safety.
"Now I hate Islam," she said, sitting in her family's unadorned living room in central Baghdad. "Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing."
Parents have taken new precautions to keep their children out of trouble. Abu Tahsin, a Shiite from northern Baghdad, said that when his extended family built a Shiite mosque, they purposely did not register it with the religious authorities, even though it would have brought privileges, because they did not want to become entangled with any of the main religious Shiite groups that control Baghdad.
In Falluja, a Sunni city west of Baghdad that had been overrun by Al Qaeda, Sheik Khalid al-Mahamedie, a moderate cleric, said that fathers now came with their sons to mosques to meet the instructors of Koran courses. Families used to worry most about their daughters in adolescence, but now, the sheik said, they worry more about their sons.
"Before, parents warned their sons not to smoke or drink," said Muhammad Ali al-Jumaili, a Falluja father with a 20-year-old son. "Now all their energy is concentrated on not letting them be involved with terrorism."
Recruiters are relentless, and, as it turns out, clever, peddling things their young targets need. Stone describes it as a sales pitch a pimp gives to a prospective prostitute. American military officers at the American detention center said it was the Al Qaeda detainees who were best prepared for group sessions and asked the most questions.
A Qaeda recruiter approached Zane Muhammad, on a college campus with the offer of English lessons. Though lessons had been a personal ambition of Muhammad's for months, once he knew what the man was after, he politely avoided him."When you talk with them, you find them very modern, very smart," said Muhammad, a nonreligious Shiite, who recalled feigning disdain for his own sect to avoid suspicion.
The population they focused on was poor and uneducated. About 60 percent of the American adult detainee population is illiterate and is unable to even read the Koran that religious recruiters are preaching.
That leads to strange twists. One young detainee, a client of Abu Mahmoud's, was convinced he had to kill his parents when he was released, because they were married in an insufficiently Islamic way.
There is a new favorite game in the lively household of the Baghdad journalist. When they see a man with a turban on television, they crack jokes. In one of them, people are warned not to give their cellphone numbers to a religious man.
"If he knows the number, he'll steal the phone's credit," the journalist said. "The sheiks are making a society of nonbelievers."
Kareem Hilmi, Ahmad Fadam and Qais Mizher contributed reporting.