WASHINGTON, January 24, 2014 — Sunni refugees fleeing Al Qaeda linked violence are flocking to the Shia holy city of Karbala, where they are being met with open arms. Last month, Al Qaeda announced that it had taken over two key cities in the Sunni majority province of Anbar, sparking fears of escalating terrorism in war torn Iraq.
That the Sunni residents of the Anbar province are travelling to the heartland of the Shia region of Iraq contradicts the popular narrative of irreconcilable fighting between the two sects.
The Washington Post reports that 72 families are staying in the Karbala pilgrims’ complex. One woman told the Washington Post “They will have to drag me screaming from this place.” According to the paper, the woman is a 57-year-old individual who requested anonymity to protect family members still living in the Anbar province.
Niqash.org gives an account from a woman only identified as Umm Mohammed, and her experience migrating from war torn Fallujah to the Karbala town of Ayn al-Tamer:
“[The] family [spent] … two days at the home of a Shiite Muslim family in Ayn al-Tamer. At first Umm Mohammed says she was worried, especially because everybody was continuously watching television reports about the situation in Anbar and she says there were a lot of people giving speeches on television, inciting hatred and violence.
However their Shiite Muslim hosts never made the Sunni Muslim refugees feel bad and the adults of the family began to talk about the importance of living together in peace and how this might be achieved.
On the third day of their stay in Ayn al-Tamer, their family and many others were invited to come and stay in a special tourist village in the south of Karbala. The village was built by local authorities to host some of the millions of tourists and groups of pilgrims who come through Karbala every year.
A delegation from Karbala’s supreme religious authority, headed by the country’s highest Shiite Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, invited the refugees to a hall in Ayn al-Tamer and told them they could come and stay in the visitor’s village if they wanted. Transport would be arranged to take them there.
‘In the beginning I was scared,’ admits Umm Mohammed. ‘Because of the things I used to hear about. And I was hesitant – like many others in our situation. But we felt the delegation that spoke with us was sincere so we accepted their invitation.’
Today the Mohammed family… is still in residence at the tourist village. ‘We have a place to rest and we are comfortable and safe.”
For more than a thousand years, Karbala has been home to Shias seeking to visit the mausoleum of Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. It is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam. According to Iraqi news outlet, Al Alam, 18 million Shiites traveled to the city in December to mark the Arbaeen commemoration, in remembrance of the death of Imam Husain.
Despite the repeated insistence that Shias and Sunnis have been in a constant state of battle since the beginning of Islam, historical analysis shows that actual sectarian fighting has been relatively uncommon.
Early battles in Islamic history featured Sunnis on both sides of the skirmishes, strongly implicating that the reasoning for the fighting was not necessarily “sectarian” in nature. Later battles between caliphates and other Muslim empires were typically clashes over land and resources. While ideological grounds may have been referenced, they were seldom the rationale for war.
Of course, modern day Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East are being ravaged by sectarian fighting. However, the phenomenon is a new one, not a continuation of an age old battle that never happened in the first place.
Mudafa Mohammed Shaban, head of the pilgrims complex in Karbala, tells the Washington Post that the intermingling of Sunnis and Shias in this incident is the “real message” of how regular Iraqis view one another.
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