Sasan Aghlani
Consultant, International Security
Too much of a focus on body counts, resource scarcity and national borders as the main indicators of why people fight can obscure the significant impact that religious space can have on a conflict.
Lady Zaynab mosque, Sayyidah Zaynab, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, Syria, 2007. Photo: Wikimedia.Lady Zaynab mosque, Sayyidah Zaynab, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, Syria, 2007. Photo: Wikimedia.

Loss of territory to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the mass executions of Shia have undoubtedly had an impact on the mobilization of fighters inside Iraq opposing the group. But after the capture of Mosul and Tikrit by ISIS, a message from the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, highlighted the power of religion as a mobilizing force in armed conflict. In the audio message Adnani addressed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as ‘Rafidi’, a derogatory term for Shia meaning rejectionist. He pledged that ‘the settling of debts will not be in Samarra and Baghdad, rather in Karbala al-munajjasah [Karbala the defiled] and Najaf al-ashrak [Najaf the most polytheistic]’.

His use of the words ‘munajjasah’ and ‘ashrak’ was a sectarian play on words referring to the two cities viewed by the Shia as being the most important cities in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Karbala is also known as Karbala al-Muqaddasa (Karbala the Holy), and contains the mausoleum of the third Shia Imam, Hussein ibn Ali. Najaf is commonly referred to as Najaf al-Ashraf (Najaf the Most Honourable), and contains the mausoleum of the first Shia Imam and fourth ‘rightly guided’ caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Threats against Karbala and Najaf have prompted an immediate reaction from Shia both inside Iraq and beyond its borders. When a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential living Shia religious authority, called on all able-bodied Iraqis to ’confront and fight the terrorists’, Sistani was compelled to reiterate that the subject of his call were Iraqis, and not just Shia. Ayatollah Fadhil al-Milani, Sistani’s representative in London, also released a video message clarifying that there was no need for Shia outside of Iraq to confront ISIS.

Fighters are already mobilized in Syria on the basis that Shia shrines in Damascus such as the Sayyidah Zainab Mosque are under threat from extremist ‘Takfiri’ militant groups intent on destroying these holy sites. The narrative of protecting Zainab’s shrine is a potent one: militias in the country bear names such as the Brigade of Zainab’s Protector and the Abu al-Fadhl Abbas Brigades. In 2013, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned that the destruction of Zainab’s shrine would ‘carry with it grave consequences’, and that ‘countries supporting these groups [would] be held responsible for this crime if it takes place.’ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has also stated unequivocally on live television that ‘regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Khadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines’.

Understanding sacred geography in conflict

The explicit threat against the sacred geography of Najaf and Karbala has the potential to escalate the crisis in Iraq from a domestic to transnational conflict, drawing in fighters from around the world. For this reason, there should be a greater attempt to understand how sacred geography can transform the stakes of armed conflict.

In 2001, UN General Assembly Resolution 55/254 called upon states to ‘exert their utmost efforts to ensure that religious sites are fully respected and protected’ and ‘adopt adequate measures aimed at preventing […] acts or threats of violence’. Just what these ‘adequate measures’ should be remains unclear. Armed forces across the world often need to operate in religious sites but at the risk of undermining long-term relations with the local population; and those making the calculations are often unaware of the repercussions.

This is not to assert that sacred geography is the only factor to look at when assessing militant mobilization in Iraq and elsewhere. Nevertheless, incorporating a less secular lens for analysing international security would be useful and working through the practical implications of the UN resolution – and setting firmer guidelines − should therefore become a priority.

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