The pressure of the atmosphere around you, the average intensity of the sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, the force of gravity, genetics, nutrition, whether Mommy loved you—there’s a limitless number of variables in the equation that produces an individual. That constellation of particulars determines the way your body is constructed, how it looks and whether your personality attracts or repels.
Religious movements are like that too.
Which means it’s daft to imagine that religious belief has nothing to do with context. It has everything to do with context.
A piece about Iraqi prison breaks in Thursday’s New York Times does a good job of illuminating this fact. The American invasion stoked ethnic, sectarian and anti-imperialist grudges that now fuel conflict across the old Mesopotamian arc. Perpetrators of violence that thwarted U.S. interests were killed or captured; the hothouse environment of prisons like Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib nurtured religious radicalism that has now been loosed, spore-like, as a consequence of security breeches enabled by the instability and corruption of the American-backed regime. On-the-ground reporting brings these abstractions to life:
Abu Aisha was a car mechanic before 2003 but found new purpose in fighting the Americans.
Shaker Waheeb, perhaps the most dangerous Al Qaeda figure to emerge [in Syria] recently, was one of those captured. Mr. Waheeb was studying computer science at a university in Anbar when the American invasion of Iraq led him to quickly change paths and fight the Americans.
Perhaps more importantly, the article never loses sight of the thread of religiosity that runs through the tangle of relationships among Al Qaeda, Sunni resistance movements in Syria and the Shiite governments in Baghdad and Damascus. The politically fraught and deeply theological partnership between the U.S. and Israel goes unmentioned but looms in the background of the story nonetheless, as does the regional rivalry between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government of Iran.
From one angle, the Times story is an unfortunate reiteration of the conflict narrative that typifies most reporting on Islam outside U.S. (and that accounts for the relative dearth of non-conflict-related reporting on the lives of American Muslims). But, given the grim reality of the violence spreading across a region that everywhere bears some mark of our military or industrial power, it remains important for Americans to understand how the globalization of their interests shapes religion and politics in far-flung places. To that end, anyone who perseveres to the lasts grafs of the Times piece will understand what makes this bit of reportage distinct from FoxNews fear mongering:
Ahmed al-Dulaymi, 31, who fled from Abu Ghraib, is working as a farmer in Diyala Province
“Many of my friends were good people, but because of the government’s actions, my friends have become dangerous people and leaders in Al Qaeda,” he said. “Injustice is what gives birth to Al Qaeda.”