Holy Shrines

Juan Cole, while not addressing the media angle (or my post at all, actually) observes:

Readers sometimes complain to me that Muslims seem to have lots of holy cities and lots of mosques, so is Najaf really all that special? O.K., here are the holy cities in order of holiness: Mecca, Medinah, Jerusalem, Najaf, Karbala. Najaf and Karbala are especially holy to Shiites. There are other holy sites and cities, of course, but they are mostly sacred because of association with later saints. The five I just mentioned are sacred because of their direct association with the Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law and vicar, Ali, and his grandson, Husain.

The Shrine of Ali is a tomb, and although it has a mosque attached to it, it is not just a mosque. It is a Shrine. Like the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad in Medinah or the shrine of Imam Husain in Karbala, it is a sacred resting place of holy remains. A lot of mosques could be damaged with impunity. These shrines cannot.

The ignoramus Marines in Najaf clearly don’t know all this, and since they don’t know it they don’t have any business making military policy there. They have endangered all Americans profoundly by potentially spurring a whole new wave of Shiite terrorism against us, recalling the bad old days of the early to mid-1980s (when some of our present allies in Iraq, like al-Da`wa and SCIRI were attacking US targets like the embassy in Kuwait or helping take Americans captive in Beirut).

This is fair enough. Except for one not-so-minor point: We’ve got a Shiite imam hiding out in this holy shrine and, in contravention of the laws of land warfare, using it as a base of operations for military action. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that those who hold the shrine holy would show it more, not less, reverence than ignoramus Marines who don’t?

Hat tip: Kevin Drum

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Religion, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Another point is on the Geneva Conventions. Lots of people and groups love to cry out how the US is violating the terms of the conventions, but those same people are surprisingly silent now. al-Sadr’s militia is 1) not wearing uniforms, 2) targeting civilians, 3) using a shrine as a bunker. They’re actually violating the treaties, but there’s not a peep about it.

    Sorry to go off-topic there.

  2. KevinK says:

    We have to remember that we’re the invaders in Iraq so it’s not quid pro quo as far as the rules of enganement goes.

    When we talk about “winning” in Iraq it’s not kicking everyone’s ass who stands in our way. It’s winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

    We’re loosing a little bit every time we kill or injure an Iraqi citizen.

  3. John says:

    Dr. Cole also seems to forget the events of 1979, when extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Saudis had no problem going into heavily armed combat–with major damage to the mosque–to root them out.

    Perhaps Dr. Cole will say, though, that the mosque wasn’t a shrine; only the kabba is?

    The Wahhabis themselves–in an earlier, 18th C. iteration–also plundered the city of Najaf and mosques.

    I would also dispute Dr. Cole’s implication that Kerbala and Najaf are considered sacred and/or shrines to the majority of Sunni Muslims. They are of great importance to the Shi’a, but not terribly important to the majority Sunni.

  4. KevinK says:

    And NO it doesn’t matter to them if the killed citizen was trying to kill an American invader.

    Also for a muslim to use a shrine as a base of operatations isn’t the same as an infidel to attack that shrine.

    It’s like…. oh… The US Military using the World Trade Center for a base of operations vs an invading army attacking the WTC. We’d hardly say, “well we asked for it.”

  5. Bithead says:

    If the US Marines were acting of their own choice, it’d be one thing.
    Let’s recall, please, that they are there,a nd taking action at the behest of the Iraqi government.

  6. Dean Esmay says:

    They’re trying to use Iraqi forces as much as possible, right?

  7. cbk says:

    Recently saw a military historian, Mary Haybeck, on C-Span. She argued that our expectation that a mosque was not to be used for military purposes is applying our own conventions on the situation. According to her, muslims have been using mosques in this manner for centuries, modeled after Mohammed’s own activities as outlined it in the siras.

    So, maybe, yeah, it is too much to ask that an Imam apply the same reverence on the building that we do. Of course, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t. Obviously, I think he should. And I also think he should stick to one wife and give her equal rights. But, hey, I’m western-centrist that way.


  8. Jem says:

    I’m a little disappointed that no one has yet stood up for the intellectual prowess of the Marines in question. While I cannot claim to know the capabilities of the individuals involved, I’ve met relatively few Marine officers who are ignoramuses. The good Dr. Cole is basing part of his analysis either on Hollywood movies or irrational emotionalism–neither is a credit to his intellectual gifts.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Jem: Agreed. Indeed, the Marines have been, to coin a phrase, rather “sensitive” in their conduct of operations, starting in Fallujah and carried on to Najaf. Quite possibly to a fault.

  10. Steph says:

    One little factoid about when the Saudis stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979: They didn’t do it, a unit of French paratroops did. The Saudis couldn’t trust their own army or National Guard (the private royal army) so they had to ask the French for help. Quite interesting considering non-Muslims can’t set foot within the area around the city.

  11. Mr. Cole gives the game away. You see, Marines cannot be uninformed or mistaken, they must be ignormases.

    I guess the Angry Left ran out of honey a long time ago.

  12. Fred Boness says:

    “Ignoramus Marines” I had to go look to make sure he really said that. Appalling.

  13. My apologies to Dr. Cole, it is not appropriate to address him as Mister.