Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Azan—a call to prayer

I go to bed entirely too late and wake up way too early. That’s the combat role I suppose, long hours and little sleep. The guy across from me, a Navy Chief, has an alarm clock that sounds like azan, Arabic for the call to prayer. It’s really loud.

When we’re outside we hear the faithful Muslim calls, reminding them of salaat, or prayer. Last night, after the prayer made just after dark, or salaatul maghrib, I heard a small arms machine gun firefight in the distance. Since it’s so calm here, things like that remind me we’re still at war.

In fact, here are some more not-so-subtle reminders of what’s occurred with our group over the last few days. Among other things, our group has: gotten blown up by bombs (yes, plural; no deaths or loss of limbs or eyesight, thankfully), the injured were flown out by MEDEVAC helicopters, shot flares at suspicious vehicles, stopped and captured would-be insurgents, found improvised explosive devices (IEDs, also plural), and found decaying human remains. That’s pretty much the norm here, except it’s the first time our guys have found human remains.

Bodies of Iraqis considered ‘traitors’ (munafiq) by anti-Coalition Forces, or simply al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), are found occasionally. It didn’t take a trained homicide detective to figure out that the dead Iraqi husband, brother or father was blind-folded with his hands tied behind his back and in a brutal execution-fashion he was shot pointblank in the head.

Ayman al Zawahri, al Qaeda’s infamous and infectious ‘number two’ (I don’t mean to reference scat, but if the shoe fits…) recently warned the ‘traitors’ among the Iraqi Sunni Arab tribes here in al Anbar. In other words, the bitter, apathetic terror magnate wants AQI to kill those who want peace in the Middle East and he released a video statement to encourage more death and carnage. To borrow the words of Rodney King (kids don’t follow his example or the cops that beat him), “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Amar al Hakim, a big-time Shia leader, flew here to ar Ramadi (a city in the Sunni area of the al Anbar province) on a U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter a few weeks ago to meet with Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha. Abu Risha is the brother and successor of the pro-Western Sheikh Sattar whom I wrote about in an earlier blog after I heard and felt the explosion that killed him. Abu Risha leads the Anbar Awakening, a group of Sunni Sheikhs that want peace. No doubt, the pro-U.S. Sheikh is a big target for assassination.

Well, Amar al Hakim, a Shi’ite (Shia and Shi’ite are synonymous), hugged and prayed and ate food together with the Sunnis. That’s a miracle! Things like that simply do not happen. The Sunnis and the Shia hate each other; they have for several years.

Here’s what Amar al Hakim said in a speech at that gathering: “We are not Shi’ites. We are not Sunnis. We are all Iraqis, and we must reconcile.” Those words, my friends, nearly bring tears to my eyes. He is talking about forgiveness. He’s talking about peace.

Deeply imbedded in the Iraqi culture is blood revenge, which is something like saying, “if your great, great grandfather was mean to my ancestors, then I’ll seek his revenge and kill and hate your family forever.” That kind of retaliation has driven a deep wedge between families, clans and tribes. And on a larger scale, although both the Shia and Sunni are Islamic, the religious differences have kept them fighting each other for eons.

In October 2006 the Sheikhs in Anbar (Anbar Awakening) forged a bond with the U.S. military, but it wasn’t until January 2007 when things started to change for the better. A tremendous change has occurred since then in this region. A couple of close friends were here in the ‘Sunni Triangle of Death’ before things became peaceful; they’ve told me about their horrible war experiences, tragedies and death. What a blessing to have some peace!

There was a 90 percent reduction in violence during Ramadan this year compared to last year. Throughout Iraq, General Petraeus recently said that there was a 60 percent decline in attacks over the last six months. The body that was found was at least six months old and probably older.

And to what do we owe this change? I believe prayer. I believe hearts were softened. I believe the Iraqi people were tired of seeing their friends and family die, and they were tired of killing. They were compelled to be humble. And yet, they could have kept fighting. In sum, the collective, fervent prayers for peace were heard.

Praying for peace, especially during this time of year, seems appropriate. Whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other faith, there is predominately the belief in a Supreme Being—although some may call Him a different name or describe Him a different way. Most believe that God is the God of the universe, the Creator, the Judge and the Father of our spirits. I believe that. And I believe we are all spiritual brothers and sisters.

When it gets down to it, peace is the one thing we should seek after. It’s unfortunate that there are wars and killing. It’s terrible and horrible, but since the day Cain slew Abel, there have been wars and killing. It will likely get worse. But who would stop the likes of Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein if not the military man or the modern-day Joan of Arc?

War is sometimes necessary for the preservation of peace. It’s a dichotomy that has led scholars, religionists, lawyers, and warriors to debate the Just War Theory for years.

In the end, though, we all must want peace, and as President Thomas S. Monson, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once emphasized, “Prayer is the passport to peace.”
An associate of mine in the national security field—a retired Navy Reservists and mathematician by trade—wrote the following to me recently after I suggested prayer helped change the war effort here in al Anbar. Said he,

Dear Jeffrey,

Thanks for the inspiring note. I, too, believe in the power of prayer, and it bothers me a little that our public prayers in church are unchanged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe we should be praying for the people there, not just our soldiers. I once sent a note to the White House, early in the conflict, that proposed a mutual day of prayer for the people of Iraq and the United States - we would pray for each other, and pray that God would use us both to accomplish His purposes. I didn't receive a reply.

A few people have asked what I want for Christmas. I’m reminded of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wish in a poem he wrote on Christmas day 1864, during the height of the American Civil War. It was near this time that he received news of his son being wounded in that war and his wife had recently died. He titled the poem “Christmas Bells”. Since then the poem has turned into a well-loved Christmas carol. Borrowing from the New Testament, Longfellow wished for nothing less than “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

At this special holiday season and always, I ask that the division of political parties, religious differences and intolerance, hate and war and atrocities end. With the trillions of dollars spent on war we could feed every hungry soul, clothe every needy person, shelter and care for the sick and the afflicted. That is my prayer, my hope and my deepest wish this holiday season.

No comments: