A closer look at Muslims

Published 9:27 am Thursday, January 14, 2016

Several people spoke to me after last month’s column on Muslims. Taking a cue from their comments, I’ll expand on that column and present some information I couldn’t include because of space limitations.

One memory that I left out from my time in Pakistan was the very dramatic Shia celebration of Ashura, which marks the death of Hussein, the son of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, at the battle of Karbela. That obscure event is unfamiliar to most Americans but all Shia Muslims know it very well because it started the split of Shias and Sunnis in Islam.

I’ll never forget it because I watched the Matam, or self-flagellation, from a hotel rooftop in Quetta, Pakistan. Matam is the emotional expression of Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, a day of mourning for Ali and his son, Hussein.

On that day, hundreds of Shia men stripped to the waist and formed themselves into rows and columns where they could whip their backs with six inch knife blades, which are attached to a two-handed wooden handle by a short chain. These men would march a short distance and then stop to rhythmically whip themselves. They would repeat that again and again throughout the entire parade route.

From five stories above the street, I clearly could see the bleeding backs of those men. Those men, who ranged from young teenagers to old men, tried to create scars, which are a badge of honor in their community.

Sunnis, women and non-Muslims should stay away for their own safety because there have been riots and considerable violence during these events. A non-Shia Muslim or a woman could say something that would incite rage among the Shias.

Ashura is more than just a dramatic local custom in a remote part of the world. It is an example of the emotion of Shias who view themselves as the victims of other Muslims.

On a wider scale, all Muslims view themselves as victims of Christian and later colonial Europe. Five or 600 years later, the term “crusader” is still a real insult among Muslims.

A thousand years ago, Islam was among the most advanced cultures in the world. Science, medicine and mathematics were far advanced over Europe.

About that time, however, large segments of Islamic society became static. Innovations were no longer tolerated and Islamic culture became entirely traditional. Gradually Islam was pushed out of Spain and the Balkans. Later Christian colonial powers carved up the Middle East among themselves after WW I.

After WW II, the creation of Israel over Muslim objections was an extreme insult to Muslims. Jerusalem is the place where Mohammad ascended to Heaven. In the eyes of Muslims, Israel is the first objective in their dream to reestablish the caliphate, which would rule Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.

Fundamentalist Muslim groups realize that the religious passions like I witnessed In Quetta can be molded politically and used to further their political purposes. Fighting Islamic fanaticism is, therefore, very complicated because there is no line between religious grievances and political grievances. In fact, there is no separation of religion and politics in Islam.

Claims that al Qaeda and ISIS are caused by global warming or economic reasons are completely ridiculous. Those two groups are motivated solely by politics and religion.

Until ISIS is discredited as a religious cause, it will continue to attract supporters. The best way to accomplish that is to defeat ISIS and demonstrate to the Muslim world that ISIS is not favored by Allah. Military defeat will dispirit existing ISIS supporters and considerably reduce the inflow of new fighters.

Western tolerance is not a panacea with regards to Islamic fanaticism because there is no tolerance among Muslim fanatics. They don’t understand tolerance and interpret it as weakness. But then reason and logic are never effective with fanatics in any religion.

On the other hand, among non-fanatical Muslims, fairness is the best policy. The trick is to be fair to the non-fanatical Muslims while defeating the fanatics.


Michael Waldron is a retired lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army, who was born and raised in Niles. He previously served on the Niles Community School Board of Education. He can be reached at ml.waldron@sbcglobal.net.