When Americans think of extremism, they conjure up ideas like the Jehovah Witness group going from house-to-house pushing their Watchtower magazines. A Mormon missionary riding a bicycles down the street wearing a white shirt and black tie with pants to match might come to mind. In the world of politics, the Left wing points to the Tea-Party types as the extremist while the Ann Coulter’s of the right point in the other direction. Depending on your viewpoint, you either like or dislike these groups. But you aren’t waiting in the bushes to shoot one of them if they come by your house.
Extremism in the Middle East is an entirely different breed of cat. Shiites and Sunni are still killing each other over a difference of opinion about a successor to Mohammed that happened way over a thousand years ago. Westerns cannot make sense out of such hostilities.
Some years ago, I was in Jerusalem and had gone up to the Temple Mount. Near the Al-Aska Mosque was a large fountain used by Muslims to wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque. I was looking into the reflection pool when a Muslim man approached me and warned me to get out. I told him that I had as much right to be there as he did. My answer nearly got me assaulted and possibly killed. What I will always remember was the fierce, grazed look in his eyes. This “true believer” was ready to attack the infidel who had wandered across some imaginary line.
Can you imagine a Baptist in America threatening a Presbyterian for picking up a hymnal in one of their churches?
However, here’s how it is playing in Iraq today. Last week a suicide bomber killed 23 people inside a Shiite mosque during evening prayers. Looking like the rest of the worshippers, the suicide bomber simply sat down in the midst of the crowd and blew himself up. Since the beginning of April, more than 2,000 Iraqis have been killed in extremists attacks. These massacres have been the most sustained violence in Iraqi since 2008. What’s it all about? Just religious differences between the Shiites and Sunnis!
In the village of Sabaa al-Bour a suicide bomber in a Shiite mosque killed 14 people and wounded 32 others. Moreover, police officers are often the targets of these attacks. Not only driving explosive laden vehicles into police stations, the extremists often attack checkpoints.
The Al Qaeda followers in Iraq often assault the Shiite-led government in an attempt to undermine public confidence in this element.
The point? Americans paid no attention to this highly destructive factor and the meaning of religious extremism in their various forays in the Middle East. As we erred in Vietnam by not assessing how the natives thoughts, we have made the same error in the Middle East. To avoid these terrible clashes, we need experts to explore the mindset of the locals and how various groups differ.
We must not underestimate the potential of extremism to produce destruction.