Nir Rosen in the Boston Review:
On April 7, 2006, the third anniversary of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, I drove south with Shia pilgrims from Baghdad to the shrine city of Najaf. The day before, on the same route, a minibus like ours had taken machine-gun fire in the Sunni town of Iskandariyah. Five pilgrims were killed.
My companions—a young man named Ahmed, his mother, and their friend Iskander, a driver—came from Sadr City, the Shia bastion in Baghdad named for Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, a popular and politically ambitious Shia cleric slain in 1999. They wanted to hear a sermon by Sadr’s son, Muqtada, who after the war had become the single most important person in Iraq and the only one capable of sustaining the fragile alliance between Shias and Sunnis. His power had only grown, although hopes for that alliance were now gone.
It was Friday, and like my companions, I was going to the Friday prayers. I had been following this practice since I arrived in Iraq in April 2003, when it became clear that clerics were filling the power vacuum created by the war. After the fall of Saddam and his Baath Party, looting and anarchy gave way to forces of more organized violence: men with guns, some wearing the turbans of clerics, some the scarves of the resistance, and many belonging to criminal gangs. Despite American intentions to create a secular, democratic Iraq, clerics were quickly replacing Baathists, and in the absence of anything else the mosque would become Iraq’s most influential institution.
This should not have come as a surprise. Many complex factors influence life in the Muslim world, most of them secular and mundane, but the mosque plays a central role in the community, in religious, social, and political life.