To Shiite Muslims, this is the holy month of Muharram, when they honor the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed in a battle fought at Karbala in the 7th century. The height of this month is the celebration of Ashura, which was marked worldwide on Thursday.
You may wonder how one celebrates an important holiday like this. Do you have cake and ice cream? Do you exchange presents? Do you solemnly light a candle in memory of these brave soldiers of the faith? Do you go down to the mosque and say a prayer? Or do you, perhaps, parade through the streets beating yourself bloody with a flail made of steel chain, while intermittently whacking your young sons on the head with a sword until their faces run red with blood?
In a sane and civilized culture one of the other modes of celebration would prevail, but among Shia throughout the Muslim world, the bloody parade of penitential violence and ritualistic child abuse is preferred. The practice is particularly important in Iraq where huge parades took place in the major cities and the streets ran with blood. The largest celebrations were in Karbala where 2 million pilgrims crowded the streets.
Under Saddam Hussein the Ashura rituals were banned throughout Iraq, and Iran, effectively ruled by a Shiite theocracy, also bans the festival. In both cases Ashura was banned because of the religious violence and fanatic excesses associated with the holiday. However, under the new government in Iraq, Ashura was openly celebrated last year for the first time in decades and was celebrated again this year. Government troops turned out to protect the marchers, dressed all in black rather than in their official uniforms.
In light of the recent dramatic overreaction to the publication of mildly anti-Islamic cartoons in Denmark, the practices associated with Ashura serve as a stark reminder of how far removed from the modern, civilized society most of us embrace many parts of the Muslim world really are. This is not violence associated with a political cause or freedom fighting or even terrorism against a perceived enemy. Those we can understand. This is ritualistic self-abuse and child abuse motivated by near-psychotic religious mania over an event which happened more than 1200 years ago, something fundamentally alien to modern, western civilization.