Once upon a time, I berated American troops for entering a mosque wearing boots. But it is clear after this Thanksgiving weekend — when Iraqi Shiite Muslims grabbed Iraqi Sunni Muslims inside a mosque, doused them with gasoline, and burned them alive — that we are way past boots, past the American occupation of Iraq, and past debates on staying the course.
Iraq is now in the throes of a far larger war, among Muslims and within the faith. It would be wise for third parties to get out of the way of such a clash.
The origins of the conflict go all the way back to the big seventh-century Muslim split, which stemmed from a disagreement over the line of succession to the Prophet Muhammad and produced the differing Shiite and Sunni sects.
But over the centuries, more baggage and a myriad of issues, factions, and schools of thought have attached themselves to this conflict. Now the time has come to settle who, exactly, speaks for the world's 1.1 billion Muslims.
To be sure, America in Iraq has emerged as a focus in the conflict because 150,000 of our soldiers are doing battle there. But once you remove the superimposed American picture, it immediately becomes clear that we have no horse in this race.
The patient on the operating table is the Muslim world. The questions its surgeons are trying to answer are how Muslims will get along with each other in the future, whose views will become dominant, and whether Islam will undergo its much-delayed reformation.
At the moment in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria, and as far away as Pakistan, the doctors are attempting to find answers via bloodshed rather than dialogue. The stakes are high as we wait to see who will prevail: jihadists, traditionalists, fundamentalists, modernizers, liberals, or Wahhabis. Indeed, will it be Shiites or Sunnis or factions within, or a system of checks and balances that accommodates the entire rainbow within this churning Islamic universe?
Incontestably, the world would be better off if we could prevent mad dog jihadists, hopelessly reactionary Saudi Wahhabis, or Iranian warriors from winning. But Iraq demonstrates how raw and savage the battle will get as Islam redefines itself after 13 centuries of somnolence. This, after all, is the kind of epic battle that happens every few centuries and consumes generations.
It is also a war about the inner workings of the Muslim mind.
On Thanksgiving Day, a Palestinian Arab woman of 61, mother of nine, and grandmother of 41, blew herself up after recording a video. In her suicide tape, Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najar holds up an M–16 rifle and says, "I offer myself as a sacrifice to God and the homeland." At her funeral, two of her sons praised their mother and expressed the wish that some of her grandchildren — their own children, who were standing nearby — would kill themselves one day, too.
Instead of shock and awe at the multiple layers of dehumanization in all this, the woman was praised widely as a martyr and an idol from one end of the Muslim world to the other.
Herein lies Islam's other issue — its intellectual problem. Where jurisprudence is offered nowadays in Islam, it is designed not to advance people to a higher moral plane, but to egg them on to killing, suicide, and a cult of death.
Such, then, are the traumas of the Muslim mind these days as it travels through a dark world of mayhem and confusion. It would be condescending for the West to propose solutions to what is essentially an internal debate, albeit a pretty savage one. In that sense, we no longer have any business being in Iraq.
Of course there are patriots who believe Iraq comes ahead of religion, but they are the ones rushing for the exits. About 4 million have left — the teachers, the doctors, the educated, the intellectuals, the Christians, and those Muslims who are in mixed Sunni-Shiite marriages. Ditto the parallel situations among ethnic and religious minorities squeezed out elsewhere, from places such as Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Arab territories, and Syria.
Amid this turmoil, there is little point in exploring "Christian-Muslim dialogues."
Islam needs some time out to figure its game plan for this century.