Shrine bombing, restraint, and the apocalyptic imagination

Apocalypse is the mood in Iraq today. Clerics and prisoners are being killed, reprisals for the gaping hole in a shrine’s once-golden roof.

The bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra targeted the tombs of the 10th and 11th Imams – in Shi’ite tradition, the descendants of the Prophet, and infallible leaders of Islam. Nearby is where the 12th and final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi disappeared.

Mahdi is a messianic Christ-like figure in Shi’ite tradition. When end days come, many Shi’ites believe, he will return, signaling the arrival of judgment day. The Shi’ite militias led by Muqtada al-Sadr feel his return is imminent, as does the President of Iraq.

And so the Sunnis, apparently, have bombed this shrine to the Mahdi’s father and grandfather in Samarra. In the midst of trying to find a national unity government, violence erupts. The U.S. and Israel are partly to blame, protesters say. Because they have helped create these conditions.

These religious traditions have been warring for centuries. In the middle of the 1600s, the Ottoman Sunnis and the Safavid Shi’ites pushed each other in and out of Baghdad, and sectarian tensions have been high in the region ever since.

Bush appeals for restraint, and calls for pursuing “justice in accordance with the laws and constitution of Iraq.” But this is a state without legitimacy in the public mind, a constitution that has yet to prove its strength. If in fact it stands up to this test, and civil war is averted, and criminals are brought to justice in a Perry Mason-like setting, then the rule of law will have been aided by a miracle.

The apocalyptic imagination is much more attuned to violence and reprisals, I fear. Look at Bush’s own response to 9/11.