Monday, April 04, 2005

Famous Minaret in Iraq Damaged

A couple of days ago, I saw a news article about an historic minaret called the Malwiya Minaret in the Iraqi city of Samarra that was damaged in an insurgent attack:

SAMARRA, Iraq (Reuters) - An ancient Islamic minaret, one of Iraq's most important monuments, has been damaged in an explosion,witnesses in the town of Samarra say. Photographs show part of the top section of the spiralling 52-metre tower, built in the 9th century, was blown away in the blast, leaving crumbled brick and clay.

It was not clear when the explosion occurred. U.S. snipers occupied the tower until a week ago.

The Malwiya minaret is one of the most important sites of Islamic antiquity. It was built by Abbasid Caliph Al-Motawakel in 852 AD, whenSamarra was capital of the declining Abbasid empire.

Residents said insurgents might have detonated the blast to prevent U.S. forces from using the tower again.

The Malwiya Minaret is perhaps the most famous and intriguing piece of architecture in Iraq. Here are some pictures I found of the minaret both before and after the blast:



This article suggests one fundamental question: why did the US military have snipers in this minaret to begin with?

As I see it, there are three very fundamental reasons why the US military should never have allowed this minaret to be used for this purpose:

Reason #1: It makes the minaret a valid target

The American military's own rules of engagement allow religious and historic sites to be targeted if they are used by snipers. To quote Major General Thomas J. Fiscus, the Judge Advocate General for the US Air Force: "Under LOAC [Laws of Armed Combat], any normally protected entity, such as a mosque or cultural site can lose its protection if the enemy uses it in a way that makes it a military target."

If the US military's own rules of engagement would have allowed the minaret to be targeted, why do they think the insurgents would act differently?

While the cause of the damage was obviously an insurgent attack, some of the blame for this historic monument being damaged must fall on the commander who decided to use it as a military installation: if there were never any snipers in that minaret, the insurgents would not have considered it a target.

Reason #2: It desecrates a religious site

A minaret is part of a mosque, much like a church steeple is part of a church. In Western society, there is generally a stigma against carrying weapons into a church, since doing so is considered an affront to God. In some places (including a number of US states) there are laws in the books prohibiting carrying weapons into churches for this exact reason.

A few years ago, I had the privilege to attend a military wedding in Canada, where the bride and groom left the church under an arch of crossed swords held by an honor guard. What I found interesting was that the entire honor guard remained outside the church during the ceremony out of respect for God, since they were carrying weapons (swords).

While most of the American soldiers deployed in Iraq may be Christian, they should realize that the God we Christians pray to is the same God that Muslims pray to, and thus a mosque should be accorded the same respect one would give a Christian church.

Insurgents in Iraq have periodically used mosques to store weapons, and as a base of attacks against American troops: this is fundamentally wrong. However, the American troops use of a minaret for a similar purpose is equally wrong. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Reason #3: Respect

The Malwiya Minaret is one of the most significant historic landmarks in Iraq. At least three Iraqi bloggers I know of have graced their blog title-bar with a picture of this minaret, and it also has a prominent place on Iraq's currency:

Iraqi Bill showing the Malwiya Minaret Posted by Hello

Given these facts, and the historic significance of this minaret, it is troubling to imagine how an Iraqi might have felt walking down the street in Samarra and seeing a soldier with a sniper rifle at the top of this historic monument. I would imagine a general sense of cultural defilement, belittlement, and outrage would be the result - almost as if his country and his culture had been raped.

Perhaps an American might feel the same way if a foreign army setup a sniper post in the Statue of Liberty.

The American military commanders need to use some common sense with things like this. It shouldn't take a lot of common sense to figure out that using this minaret as a sniper post could infuriate a lot of people, and if you know this, don't do it. Simple. The American military has been trying for the past two years to "win the hearts and minds" of Iraqis, and have been doing a lot of work in this area: repairing infrastructure, rebuilding schools, handing out candy to kids, and the like. But, sadly, all it takes is one ignorant and short-sighted decision like desecrating a national landmark by using it as a sniper post to undo all of that hard work.

PS: The good news in all this is, from the picture above, the damage does not look to be too severe: hopefully there will be little problem restoring the minaret to something close to its original state.