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Mecca is out, Karbala is in: Iraq tries to change direction of Muslim prayer

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has announced that henceforth Muslims should pray toward Karbala, a city in Iraq, and not Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

Assuming Maliki is serious, this is potentially of great significance. Mecca is associated with Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and is something all Muslims can agree on. But Karbala is holy only to the minority Shia sect. The Sunni-Shia quarrel revolves around the question of who Mohammed’s rightful successor was, and Karbala is where Shia Imam al-Husseini was martyred in the 7th century, sealing the Sunni-Shia split.

The fact that Maliki, a political leader, rather than a religious authority, is trying to force the switch suggests that this is as much a political as a religious issue. It may represent an effort to solidify Maliki’s political base—the Shia, who are a majority in Iraq, albeit not in the larger Muslim world—at the expense of the Sunni and the Kurds.

It would also be further proof of Iraq’s becoming an Iranian satellite. There are no English-language reports of Iranian participation in Maliki’s announcement, but Iranian influence should not be ruled out. Changing the direction of prayer toward a Shia shrine, even if only the Shia community takes it seriously, would support the efforts of Iran, the largest Shia country, to dominate the Middle East.

But it’s a risky proposition. Sunni-Shia tension in the Middle East is already quite high. This decree gives al Qaeda-niks and other Sunni extremists an excuse (if excuse were needed) to intensify terrorism against the Shia.

A bubbling Middle East will continue to boil.

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