Violate: "To do harm to (property or qualities considered sacred); to desecrate or defile."
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"I am in a very sad position. I do not see any freedom or any democracy. If
this could lead into a freedom, it is a freedom with blood. It is a freedom of
emotions of sadness. It is a freedom of killing. You cannot gain democracy
through blood or killing. You do not find the freedom that way."
Eyewitness to the raid on Abu Hanifa in Baghdad.
Last week's U.S./Iraqi raid upon the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad is deeply disturbing if we hear about it not as an abstraction, but in full detail by an eyewitness and participant (See: Terrorizing those who are praying
). It makes us think of many things - the deliberate use of fear in the assault upon innocents as they gathered in prayer, the disrespect for a culture - its sacred buildings and customs, the brazen contempt by members of the military toward the group gathered, expressed in gesture and in word - many, many things. On legal grounds, the raid was a breach of the Geneva Accords related to the treatment of civilians. On moral grounds, it was a violation of innocence and a desecration of what, to many, is a holy place. This place, the Abu Hanifa mosque,
will now be perceived as the latest of many outrages on the part of the American military and its Iraqi partners. It is already being called "the Fallujah of Baghdad."
The intrusion into an ongoing prayer service caused understandable pain, rage, and outrage for many Iraqis. It causes us to ask as well, how could this happen? How could there be such blatant disregard for innocent persons engaged in a religious activity and such blatant disrespect for a place of worship? The violence that broke out in Baghdad following the raid is a response to this (See below) - to the killing of 4 civilians, the wounding of at least 9 others, and the traumatizing of an estimated 1500 persons who participated in the service.
It is true that some mosques contain weapons caches stored there by resistance fighters; that within Abu Hanifa there may have also been insurgents present somewhere within its interior; and that the Imam conducting the service was known to be opposed to the Allawi government and to the U.S. - led forces. The question arises then: does this justify the behaviors that took place? Does it justify the taking of innocent life or the disregard for a prayer service that is a central part of a culture's self-expression? In reflecting on this, we must remember that there is never only one way to respond to a situation.
If we look at the weapons that are being employed by U.S. forces in Iraq, we see that there are physical weapons such as kalashnikovs, grenades, bombs, and mortar being used. There are also emotional weapons being employed - weapons of contempt. 'Weapons of contempt' are attitudes displayed that disregard the dignity of non-combatant individuals - their dignity as persons and their dignity as a culture which holds sacred certain values. It would, perhaps, be hard to say, for most Iraqis, which are more difficult to endure - the physical weapons or the weapons of contempt. One causes physical destruction, death, wounding, and homelessness. The other causes horror, despair, outrage, and in some, the wish to fight back with weapons of terror. Both are intertwined in many U.S. led
How has this all come about? How can actions take place that endanger the lives of civilians over and over and over again and reduce to rubble at least half the mosques in Fallujah? How can the creation of fear and terror among worshipers at a time of prayer be permitted? There is not only one answer to this question, for the matter is complex. However, a central part of any answer is that we have lost track of the meaning of respect for the sacred, for the holy. At a time of conflict, we have lost track of what it truly means 'to worship'.
Let us look at this further. Many claim to worship and to be religious, including many in the military. But put into practice in the middle of a war, what is actually being worshiped is power,
not God. What is actually held to be the highest
priority is military efficiency, not right conduct. This has been seen over and over again since the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Out of the worship of power comes the decision to use whatever means necessary
to reach the objective that is sought. It is the need for power and for control that guides the choice - not rightness, not protection of the rights of civilians, not protection of holy sites. What is 'worshiped' is the single-minded orientation toward 'achieving what we have set out to do'. It defines the practical goals along the way - in this case, the goal of ridding Iraq of
insurgents so that national elections can take place in January and the invasion of Iraq can be justified. Kofi Annan's comments in recent weeks sought another alternative, another way, but they were not listened to by U.S. policy-makers.
What, then, is the holy, and why have we lost track of it? To ask such a question creates a conundrum right away. Because the sense of holiness is, by definition, something that is beyond words. If it is not an experience
, then it is not something to which the word applies. You cannot 'think' holiness. You must feel it. And generally speaking, the deeper the experience is, the less able we are to put words to it. That is why the saints have often spoken of their first-hand experiences as 'ineffable'. 'Ineffable' means 'unable to be grasped by the rational mind' and therefore unable to easily be put into words.
The word 'sacred' is meant to signify that which is 'holy'. But whereas 'holy', in English, still tends to refer to an experience, 'sacred' has come to be more of an abstraction as in 'sacred art', 'sacred architecture',
Even though a specific experience cannot readily be translated, a general statement can nevertheless be made that holiness is the 'experience of the living
presence of the Divine' - of God, by whatever name God is called. This experience can come in many ways - quickly as a flow of energy that feels like lightening, or gently and sweetly as a breeze that conveys a sense of purity and sanctity. The experience of holiness conveys to senses beyond the rational mind that something far beyond ordinary reality is present. It causes us to be in awe, to fall to our knees, to feel grace and blessing, and to want to humble ourselves. The response of bowing is the authentic response to that which is holy,
for bowing acknowledges the difference between the human and the Divine. It also acknowledges the Divine within
the human. Bowing
acknowledges the beauty, goodness, and ineffable qualities that far surpass what we normally perceive within the human realm. It is apparent that the attitude of humility and the practice of bowing are polar opposites to much of what we see in Iraq - to the attitudes of arrogance and contempt which are, and have been, displayed in a variety of U.S. military actions. One might say that war in general demands these attitudes, and that would be true at the lowest
level of what human beings are capable of. However, mankind has endeavored to rise from this lowest level. It has endeavored to learn something from its history - that there is a price to pay for unbridled arrogance and contempt. The world payed that price during and after World War II. That is why the world said it would not allow it to happen again. It would not allow the attitudes and practices justified by the
Third Reich during that war to happen again. The world then created the Geneva Conventions as a hope-filled response for the future - a response to the holocaust. It created a new standard of how human beings were permitted to treat each other, even at a time of war.
It is with this in mind that we must consider the current expressions of arrogance and contempt on either side, and hold to a higher standard what we consider to be acceptable conduct. The occurrence at Abu Hanifa is not acceptable. It clearly violates the rules that have been put in place to preserve and protect civilians, to preserve and protect those who are wounded, and to preserve and protect places of worship.
An experience of holiness can take place anywhere, at any time, but the experience is more readily had, for some, by being in a place where prayer and worship take place night and day, month after month, year after year, century after century. Places of worship do not necessarily feel
like holy places. They may
feel so, but they may also exist primarily as buildings for people to congregate in, to pray in weekly, or to conduct activities in that have a sacred as well as a social aspect. A place becomes holy through acts of grace, when a pivotal event occurs which joins the human realm with the Divine, even for a brief time. But also when it happens, over a period of time, that the people who come to pray there are devout - when there is an intensity, and purity, and longing to their prayer. Yet, even in places where this is less true,
places of worship will still contain a current of energy that reaches toward God. The hopes and aspirations of the people who pray there will then reside in the place of worship, even if they themselves have lost touch with the depth of feeling that is the experience they seek.
Because formal worship in this country has, in many places, become separated from the sense of the holy, being 'religious' does not necessarily mean that one has access to this sensibility. A Catholic Mass, for example, invites participants who receive the sacrament to feel the depth of meaning that it is meant to have. Some are touched in this way as they do so. There are those who attend worship services within other traditions who will also be similarly touched. But for many in America, weekly religious expression involves a striving to stay attached to something that we have lost the sensibility for.
In Muslim countries including Iraq, this may not be as true, for the Muslim tradition is one of great devotion, and devotion is a doorway to the perception of holiness. It is true that as a Muslim country becomes 'westernized', it may also become more secular. But there are many, many Muslims who understand devotion deeply and who remain faithful to the Islamic traditions in an otherwise 'modern' world. Some pray to Allah five times a day, observing what is called the "second Pillar of Islam" and interrupting their daily activities to do so. (See: Muslim devotion
). Some pray less often - three times a day, or only on Fridays - the day of prayer which the participants in the Abu Hanifa mosque were observing. Whatever the frequency, for Iraqi Muslims and for Muslims everywhere, the call to prayer, 'Adhan', is a call to the remembrance of God. And devotion, expressed in frequent prayer, in prostrating oneself, in sacred pilgrimages, and in the effort to lead a good life in surrender to God, are essential parts of what it means to be a Muslim. (To hear the beautiful and haunting melody of 'Adhan' go to: Adhan
and click on the first 'audio file' link).
It is for this reason among all the others that exist, that the violation of Abu Hanifa is a particularly serious violation. It is serious, too, if we take to heart the first Hebrew commandment which says: "I am The Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me." (Exodus 20:2-3) The word 'before' is what is critical here. What places military effectiveness and efficiency before
the value of maintaining the sanctity of a house of prayer, especially while people are praying, violates this first commandment. And yet... can we take this seriously? We have been raised with a surface understanding of what the first commandment means, generally interpreting it to mean a prohibition against worshiping other gods. But the worship of power, the worship of dominance and control,
the prioritizing of "ending the resistance" over the wellbeing of Iraqis as real
individuals who are suffering real
pain - this is also what "worshiping other gods" means.
Widespread disregard for mosques has been shown by U.S.- Coalition forces throughout the time of the American occupation of Iraq. We have fired upon areas that abut mosques, risking grave damage to them. In Fallujah, and now in Baghdad, we have fired directly upon, bombed, or desecrated the mosques themselves, no longer holding a line around the perimeter of such buildings. We have also employed the 'weapon of our contempt' to respond to the people whose outcries can be heard in relation to the activities of our military - outcries that are even louder now following Fallujah, following Abu Hanifa. The 'weapon of contempt' disregards what is sacred or holy. It influences the timing and manner of the way in which decisions get made about what may or may not be allowed in relation to Muslim places of worship and to the people within
It appears clear that the U.S. military and the Iraqi forces working in association, consider these things to be less important than the primary goal of "breaking the back" of the resistance. Unfortunately, we, the American public, are all too easily seduced into holding these values as well. Part of this is due to the illusion created by the military and by the media that "there is no other way" - no other way to insure that democracy and a 'free Iraq' will come into being (See quote above). And part of it is created by our own separation from sacred values so that we cannot actually believe that we (or the military) could put the protection of a prayer service above
the need either to arrest the Imam conducting it, or above the capture of insurgents who might be located somewhere within the mosque. We no longer know what it means to consider a
place 'holy' in this way, nor what it means to bow in the presence of the Divine.
As we reflect on Abu Hanifa, it is important for each of us to see how far we have come in our own beliefs, in our own separation. How far have we come from experiencing an understanding that what is holy must be protected in its sanctity. How far have we come from knowing what 'holy' is? If we reflect on this question for ourselves, it may be the first step toward returning to a way of life in which time and energy can be put aside to reconnect with what has been lost. If we don't ask this question, we will lose, for this moment, an important aspect of our spiritual heritage. We cannot lose it altogether, for it is what we are made of, it is at the core of who we are. Perhaps the tragedy that was committed at the Abu Hanifa mosque can be turned to good if it causes us to regain something within our own lives. Let us hope so. And if nothing else,
perhaps it can cause us to remain firmly planted in utmost respect for that which others consider to be central to their spiritual lives.
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"Terrorizing those who are praying." (Nov. 19, 2004)
This is the only description of the raid of Abu Hanifa that I have seen that provides detail as to what actually took place.
"Violence breaks out all over Baghdad." (Nov. 20, 2004)
"Muslim Devotion: Prayer Five Times a Day."
"Islamic prayer timings."