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How the Shia world is warily watching Iraq’s ‘sickness’

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a parade in Karbala on June 21, 2014.

MUSHTAQ MUHAMMED/REUTERS

Shenaz Kermali is a Canadian freelance journalist with an interest in faith and politics. She has previously worked for Al Jazeera English, BBC News and CBC Television.

Emotions are running high across the Shia world.

Within an hour after one of Shia Islam's most revered clerics called for Iraqi citizens to bear arms and protect Shia holy shrines and cities in Iraq last Friday, a U.K.-based Shia television channel began receiving calls from British viewers asking if they should book a flight to Iraq to join the fight against al-Qaeda-inspired fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, sometimes known as ISIL).

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The plea from the normally quietest Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the most urgent sign yet of the growing desperation of the country's Shia majority in the face of a resurgent Sunni militant movement. It also evoked a wave of solidarity across Shia communities in the West who feel a deep affinity with the sacred shrines associated with family members and descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The cities of Karbala, Najaf, Kadhmain and Samarra in Iraq are home to some of the most important shrines for Shiite Muslims. Millions of pilgrims across the world visit these cities each year to pay their respects to these descendants and to seek nearness to God and receive more of his blessings.

Fatima, a 28-year-old Canadian chartered accountant, told me she had visited Iraq with an organized Ziyarat (pilgrimage) group last April with her husband. She describes her experience travelling to the al-Askari mosque in Samarra – which was attacked by militants in 2006 – as harrowing at times but spiritually moving. "Once we actually got through all the security checkpoints it was amazing to actually be at the birthplace of the imams [spiritual leaders that Shiites believe succeeded the Prophet] and see how passionate the people guarding the area were. The security guards would alternate every two weeks to back to their families because with all the extremists in the area it was too unsafe to leave the property every day. Some of those guards had clearly been injured, whether losing an arm or leg – but were still so devoted."

Closer to the heartland of the Shia global community, however, emotions are taking on more of an angry tone. With news reports surfacing about the mass execution of prisoners over the weekend and ISIL's repeated calls for the destruction of "filthy, polytheist Karbala," many young Iranians have been feeling disgusted – and angry.

"There is a lot of talk on campus right now about the sickness of ISIS," says Seyed Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran. "Some people have talked about going there to volunteer to fight. ISIS is clearly trying to spread religious hatred and create civil war."

The Virginia-born professor partially attributes the rising spread of ISIL's hate-filled ideology to satellite television channels broadcast across the Middle East. Most of these religious channels are funded through private organizations and preach racial and religious hatred, Mr Marandi says. "Religious clerics give fatwas [on these broadcasts] saying you can kill innocent men and women. Extremism is a problem spreading across the globe, whether it's Boko Haram or the Taliban – and it all comes from Saudi Arabia."

But the United States is also to blame, he says.

Mr Marandi says one only needs to look back to the birth of modern-day jihadism during the end of the Soviet Cold War era war of 1979, when the CIA trained, armed and funded the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Today, ISIL exists as an even more radical offshoot of al-Qaeda and is estimated to have more than 10,000 men under its control. The group is led by an Iraqi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who believes that all Muslims should live under a single Islamic state, or a caliphate, ruled by sharia law.

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Mr Marandi goes so far as to pronounce that Western leaders should be grateful to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for preventing President Bashar al-Assad's fall in Syria. Had Sunni extremists rushed in to rule the country in his absence, he says, Syria would look no different than Iraq today.

Does this mean there is less likelihood that Iran would work alongside the United States to counter an ISIL offensive in Baghdad?

The government is skeptical, says Mr. Marandi. "They will obviously support the Iraqi government against extremism. But they are against American military action in Iraq, because they believe the Americans always make things worse by killing people.

"Also, Iranians don't believe Americans to be sincere. If America really wants to solve the problem of extremism then the problem lies in Riyadh, Doha and Kuwait."

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