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When U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, Shiite Muslims—having long suffered under the oppressive Saddam Hussein regime—displayed religious fervor; at last they were free to worship without harassment from the government.
As their mosques grew in attendance, a growing need for religious leaders developed—a void that was filled with the inexperienced, the uneducated and the unqualified.
Meanwhile, the Sunnis—now suddenly in the minority in terms of national power and influence—experienced their own religious growth, spurred on by the onslaught of a foreign military force invading the land and ending Iraq’s Sunni-led government. The subsequent fervor of religion and nationalism attracted Islamic extremists, both foreign and homegrown, who preyed upon the poor and uneducated.
This cauldron of religious extremism boiled over in kidnappings, assassinations, terrorist bombings and beheadings. Sunnis and Shiites alike, some once friends and neighbors, became deadly enemies.
In a March 3, 2008 article, titled “Young Iraqis Are Losing Their Faith in Religion,” the International Herald Tribune (IHT) reported the following: “After almost five years of war, many young Iraqis, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.”
Iraqis in their teens and 20s, having been reared in a world of kidnappings, disappearances, beheadings and bombings, have grown weary of the severe “do’s and don’ts” Islamic extremists imposed upon them. Caught smoking? Be ready to have your fingers broken. Boys who wear long hair? Be ready to have it cut, and then forced to eat it. Even wearing shorts brings severe penalties.
No longer wanting to live under the burden of extremism, many young people in Iraq are turning away in droves. Weekly prayer sessions are shrinking in attendance. Graduate students are losing interest in attending religious classes.
“In two months of interviews with 40 young people in five Iraqi cities,” the IHT article continues, “a pattern of disenchantment emerged, in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives.
“‘I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us,’ said Sara Sami, a high school student in Basra. ‘Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don’t deserve to be rulers.’
“Atheer, a 19-year-old from a poor, heavily Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said, ‘The religion men are liars. Young people don’t believe them. Guys my age are not interested in religion anymore.’”
Some youth, once pawns caught up in religious zealotry, have become petty criminals, Iraqi-style gangsters who prey upon the vulnerable.
At first, “Violent struggle against the United States was easy to romanticize at a distance,” the article continued.
“‘I used to love Osama Bin Laden,’ proclaimed a 24-year-old Iraqi college student. She was referring to how she felt before the war took hold in her native Baghdad. The Sept. 11, 2001 strike at American supremacy was satisfying, and the deaths abstract.
“Now, the student recites the familiar complaints: Her college has segregated the security checks; guards told her to stop wearing a revealing skirt; she covers her head for safety.
“‘Now I hate Islam,’ she said, sitting in her family’s unadorned living room in central Baghdad. ‘Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing.’”