Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and Christians continued living cheek by jowl rebuffing the toxic mix of religion and politics inside the warrens of Bab al-Sheikh, drawing inspiration from the 12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, whose final resting place is located there
In 2006, a bomb ripped through the Askari Mosque in Iraq’s Samarra, damaged its centrepiece golden dome, left scores dead, and deepened social fissures. The bombing at the Shia shrine sparked a decade-long civil war and retaliatory sectarian violence. The conflict would displace over a million and leave more than 6,500 civilians dead in 2013 alone
A rapprochement was in the works when I visited Iraq as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS. The conflict was far from over, but Bab al-Sheikh, a dusty maze of streets on the eastern bank of the Tigris in Baghdad, stood out as a shining example of co-existence.
Old bonds continued to thrive in Bab al-Sheikh, which held out hope that the reconciliation would eventually succeed fully in unifying the country. Residents hoped more and more people like them would sooner understand the recent roots of sectarianism, its racial and geopolitical elements, and end the self-destructive violence.
The war came hard to the locality’s edges and bombings killed dozens in its outer market. But Bab al-Sheikh residents did not let sectarianism drive a wedge between them. Deep inside the warrens of Bab al-Sheikh, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and Christians continued living cheek by jowl. They continued rebuffing the toxic mix of religion and politics that was tearing Iraq apart.
This was not perhaps a coincidence for Bab al-Sheikh is no ordinary locality. The final resting place of the 12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani is located in the neighbourhood, which gets its name from his epithet.
The residents believe the saint (1077-1166) watches over them 10 centuries after he passed away. Sheikh Abdul Gilani’s legacy binds the neighbourhood together. The residents told us Bab al-Sheikh remained an island of calm not just over the last decade but every time divisions were engineered.
The locality has rebuffed the sustained sectarian hatred stoked in the region since 1979. State-sponsored sectarianism was fanned in the region to prevent Iran from exporting the revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-led popular uprising ushered in by overthrowing the Pahlavi monarchy.
Pan-Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood congratulated Khomeini and saw him as an inspiration. This triggered fears among Arab monarchies that they could be next, prompting the promotion of ethno-sectarian conspiracy theories. The theories linked Iranian Shias, particularly to a Persian conspiracy to revive their ancient empire.
Saddam Hussein, who helmed Iraq’s Sunni-dominated government and feared the country’s Shia majority may try and replicate the Iranian revolution, jumped on the bandwagon. The sectarian ideas gained traction when the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s polarised the region. It heightened tensions even though, as Hassan Hassan wrote in The Atlantic in 2018, ‘it was also seen as an ethnic war between Arabs and Persians.’
Over the years, anti-Iran and anti-Shia rhetoric was weaponised, drawing on the 16th-century Safavid Dynasty’s legacy of converting Iran into a Shia state. Iranian influence was sought to be countered by also exporting Salafism through a proliferation of televangelists and TV channels. Hassan Hassan wrote this added ‘racial and geopolitical components to the sectarianism.’
The fall of Saddam, who kept blatant sectarianism in check, and the American reliance on the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter a broad-based challenge to its occupation escalated the sectarian rift. The sectarian violence peaked with the 2006 bombing. Sabrina Tavernise and Karim Hilmi of The New York Times, who visited Bab al-Sheikh a year later at the height of the bloodshed in 2007, called the neighbourhood an extraordinary place.
The locality, they wrote, ‘has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted other neighbourhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians live together here with unusual ease.’ Tavernise and Hilmi wrote the war has been kept from the locality’s heart largely ‘because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of intermarriage.’ Monther, a suitcase seller, told them from ‘the time of our grandfathers, same place, same food, same everything.’
Hamza Malik of SOAS University of London, who visited the area earlier in the summer of 2007, wrote the ‘pervasive ferocity’ of the ‘aggressive mood seemed all but absent.’ This was the time, he wrote, when the rest of Baghdad was ‘engulfed under the oppression of daily car bombings and unyielding sectarian violence.’
Malik wrote residents felt safe enough to continue to ‘venture out and about, relax at the local cafes, and mingle with other people, regardless of their sect or religious persuasion.’
Tavernise and Hilmi echoed him. They felt safe enough to visit Bab al-Sheikh six times over two months, walk through its streets, greet women sitting at street-level windows, spend time in a barbershop, and visit Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish homes.
Abu Nawal, a resident whose family lived in Bab al-Sheikh for four generations, told them how a group of men from Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr’s office came to a local cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area. The café owner pointed to a sign, which said all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited while asking the men to leave.
Members of a Sunni party were similarly rebuffed sometime later. Abu Nawal told the Times he despised ‘the poisonous mix of religion and politics.’ He played off the names of extremist militias calling themselves ‘things like the Islamic Army.’ Nawal referred to his group of friends as the Arak Army, or the ‘righteous defenders of an anise-flavoured alcoholic drink.’
Tavernise and Hilmi wrote Naval’s neighbourhood has another rare asset: moderate religious men.
Muhammad Wehiab, a Shia imam whose family has lived in Bab al-Sheikh for seven generations, felt so connected to the neighbourhood that one night he lay down on a tiny alley outside his house and watched the stars in the night sky while talking on the phone in 2007.
Wehiab thought Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraqi Prime Minister, must be envying him. ‘No bodyguards. Just free. This is the blessing,’ Wehiab told the Times. Wehiab regretted Muslims behaved terribly towards one another in Iraq and gave Islam a bad name to gain power as he sat in an armchair in his quiet living room.
Wehiab’s friend, a Sunni cleric who called worshipers to prayer at the mosque at the shrine of Abdul Qadir Gilani, echoed him. ‘The greatest jihad is the jihad of yourself,’ the Sunni cleric told the Times as he ticked off qualities of Abdul Qadir Gilani—intellectual, scholar, and moral teacher. ‘Please, please, write as much as you can that we do not want war,’ he urged.