Rise of the Shiites

From Lebanon to Iran, Shiite Muslims have experienced a resurgence in power, which could have far reaching consequences across the globe. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  September 3, 2006

|~|71682411-200.jpg|~|Revered: A central figure in the Shiite faith, Imam Hussein is revered by millions of Shiites who pay homage to him every year on Ashoura day.|~|They are the forgotten Muslims to some. To others they are heretics and deviants. Their loyalty to their own state is suspect and is endlessly questioned. Long persecuted, alienated and mistrusted--the Shiites today are undergoing a renaissance. From Iran where the 1979 Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini erected an Islamic Shiite state, to Iraq where pilgrims flock to the holy Shiite sites in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, to Lebanon, where Shiites are now buoyant after the perceived victory of Hezbollah against Israelis the power of the Shiites is in the ascent. This awakening is but a culmination of recent events in the region. It started with the war in Iraq that saw the demise of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, which had brutally crushed the Shiite population that makes up 65% of the country. The end of his rule marks an important juncture in the resurgence of Shiitea and an upsurge in their political consciousness. That consciousness has been pent up for years, which invariably explains why the current of Shiite power is so pronounced today. The core of the Shiite-Sunni divide is rooted in several wedges, but ostensibly starts with early Islamic history with the killing of Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, the third Imam and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The anniversary of his death is called Ashoura, a day of mourning and religious observance for Shiite Muslims with some flagellating themselves. Hussain is considered by Shiites as the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad and his death and commemoration is considered as a struggle against oppression. It was the dispute over succession in the seventh century and this death that ignited the chasm between the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shiites. In addition to the coming to power of the Umayyads [the first Islamic dynasty (661-750)] and the Abbasids [second of two great dynasties (750-1258) who came to power under the auspices of a Shiite movement], according to Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in the US and author of "The Shia Revival." "Essentially the Shiites lost the battle for the political console of the Muslim world and became a dissident community," says Nasr. The second major wedge is when two major empires replaced the Islamic caliphate; the Safavids in Iran who were Shiite [came to power in 1501] and the Ottomans in Turkey that controlled the Arab world and were Sunni. "The Ottoma-Safavid rivalry became a surrogate for the Shiite-Sunni rivalry and the Ottomans lasted far longer," explains Nasr. The third divide is the rise of the post World War I Arab world, where the structure of power confirms the Sunni domination particularly in places like Bahrain, and Iraq, where the Shiites were the majority but the British gave the power to the Sunni ruling dynasty, according to Nasr. "The British policy confirmed sectarian attitudes and Arab nationalism was secular on the surface but it was sometimes clearly anti-Shiite and that's exactly why eventually in Lebanon the Shiite parted way with Arab nationalism [but] not with the Arab cause," points out Nasr. These are the historical processes that confirm the sectarian character, but then it was a history of persecution and being marginalized that added to the rift. The animosity towards the Shiites and the inclination by some to want to ostracize them increased with the emergence of Khomeini and his Islamic revolution. "Khomeini threatened the countries around him. He threatened Iraq and he threatened Saudi Arabia and each responded in a wrong way. Iraq ended up attacking Iran and ended up in a ten-year war. Saudi Arabia worried about Khomeini's appeal to the Shiites in particular but also to Sunni Saudis and Saudi Arabia emphasized this fact that Shiites are heretics more. The first decade of Khomeini trying to mobilize Saudi Shiites, Lebanese Shiites and trying to stage a coup in Bahrain and cause trouble in Kuwait all hardened views," explains Nasr. The coming of Khomeini in 1979 and his revolution was a riveting experience, which on the one hand brought about a yearning among Shiites in some countries to rise up as they did in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia (where they make up 10% of the population), to assert themselves, and on the other hand, led to governments brutally crushing what they considered to be fanatical dissidents. "In Saudi Arabia because of the Wahabi ideology (a puritanical form of Islam) that is very defensive, the Shiites were not integrated and remained concentrated in the eastern province. There was a famous intifada that they had in 1979. That was the Islamic revolution and the Shiites went out in the intifada and asked for their rights. They were crushed at the time," explains Mai Yamani, a prominent Saudi scholar and an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). Jamal Khashoggi, now an adviser to Prince Turki Al-Faisal and formerly a journalist who interviewed Osman bin Laden explains the hatred of Shiites as being rooted in the Salafist movement, which embodies a puritanical form of Islam and rejects mainstream theology. "The Salafis are natural rivals to the Shiites. The Salafi and Wahabi way of thinking is always anti-Shiite, they just don't see the Shiite as true Muslims. As long as you are a Salafi you think that way, the Shiites are their natural enemy. The first Saudi state, the Wahabi state, clashed more than once with the Shiites," explains Khashoggi. This hatred underscores the ominous reality of the unabated violence in Iraq that has targeted and killed of thousands of Shiite. The picture undoubtedly is different from one country to the next, but overwhelmingly the Shiites have felt persecuted and that persecution has presented itself in different forms. In Lebanon, Shiites are looked upon as second-class citizens, though they are the largest minority in the country and constitute 45% of the population. In Bahrain, where the Shiite represent about 75% they have largely been kept at bay outside the political sphere. And as Nasr explains, "Iraqi Shiite soldiers were never really rewarded as part of the Iraqi glory after the Iran-Iraq war. Their sacrifices are expected but there was no sort of reward as being part of the family of the nation. In Saddam's eye's the Arab nation, the Iraqi nation had a very Sunni definition." "In many regards it doesn't matter how much they fought for the Palestinian cause in the 1960s or how much they support the Arab cause or how much blood they gave in the Iran-Iraq war they are always treated as an outsider." Though not entirely comparable, there are some similarities between the persecution of Jews and Shiites. "There are parallels between Jews and Shiites in the sense that both communities have a history of persecution and have maintained a strong memory of this, and that this has become constitutive of their modern identity," says Bernard Haykel, Associate Professor at New York University. "The Holocaust is an integral part of modern Jewish identity and similarly the martyrdom of Al-Hussain and the persecution of Shiites at the hands of successive Sunni dynasties/regimes¡Äis very strong for Shiite identity." But he cautions, "Here the comparison ends because the Jews and Shiites are quite different in terms of their theology and also in terms of their religious institutions and structures of authority. The Jews are more like Sunnis in that their religious authority is diffuse whereas the Shiites are more like the Catholic Christians." The allegiance of Shiites has repeatedly been questioned and their loyalty to their nation considered suspect. Recent comments by the Egyptian president illuminate this recurring argument that has surfaced across the region at times in countries that don't even have Shiite within their fold. "Shiites are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live," said Egypt's President Mubarak. King Abdullah of Jordan has also voiced his concern about a "Shiite crescent" extending from Iraq to Lebanon. When the Shiite militant group Hezbollah unilaterally killed 8 Israeli soldiers and kidnapped another two, it was criticized by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt and its operation described as a reckless adventure. The Shiites and their leaders [Supreme leader Ali Khamenei in Iran, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Moqtada Al Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric in Iraq along with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani] reject the accusations and assertions that they are leading an expanding and maximalist strategy. More importantly, the Shiite population in other Arab countries resent the questioning of their identity, which they see as anchoring an unjustified deep-seated hatred towards them, especially so, as the Shiite are no longer the minority they were in earlier times. "How Shiites identify themselves depends very much on context and the degree to which they feel discriminated against," says Haykel of New York University. Increasingly the politics in the region is reinforcing the Shiite sense of identity and its largely coming from the West or from the Sunni regimes themselves. Statements by Sunni political leaders reinforce the notion of Sunnis hating Shiites, that they are different and that essentially they are not going to be accepted as Arabs, as equal Lebanese or as equal Iraqis. "The Shiites are increasingly laying claim to defining what it means to be an Iraqi and in Lebanon that is clearly what Hezbollah is doing, we decide what being Lebanese means," explains Nasr. "There is a Shiite awakening and I don't think it's as regional, as particularly the Sunnis might see it. Across the Arab world, but it is also true of Afghanistan and to some extent Pakistan, the Shiite numbers have increased dramatically in the past decade in the past decade particularly in places like Iraq and Lebanon. But whether they are a majority like in Iraq or Bahrain or a sizeable minority like in Lebanon or a smaller minority like in Saudi Arabia, they have not had a say in politics and a share in power." The rejection of the status quo by the Sunnis of the status quo is all too apparent and Iraq is a case in point. That is not just the conclusion of various scholars surveyed by Arabian Business, but a visible reality exemplified the Arab League's reluctance to get involved in Iraq to stop the fighting and by aloof Arab states, who have invariably stood on the sidelines and only began to get involved in the latter stages of the electoral process in the country, where it became all too apparent that the majority Shiite voice would become dominant, ending years of Sunni rule. "The fact that Iraq itself has become so important to Arabs, Iranians and Muslims makes everything happening in Iraq far more important. Iraq is now driving Sunni attitudes towards Shiites. In places like Jordan where there are no Shiite to begin with. Over the decades, and this is something the Americans didn't really think about when they were thinking about [invading] Iraq¡½political power has become very sectarian," points out Nasr. What Iraq showed the Shiite is that it is possible to have change and that change benefits the Shiite because of the way the region was set up. "When you have dictatorships that rely on Sunni identity¡Äthe Shiite don't get major executive positions. Political change benefits the Shiite. What Iraq did is create expectation of change among the Shiite," explains Nasr. What type of change, and how it manifests itself, concerns many though. "No doubt the Shiite role in the region is growing. This is clear. The Iranian role is growing. That is clear. The Arab role is retreating. That is clear. And there is growth in the Shiite role in Lebanon and that also is clear," says Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University. But that change does not necessarily mean violence or an insurgency. "The majority of Shiites in Saudi Arabia have determined that they belong to Saudi Arabia and ask for their rights within Saudi Arabia. The question are they or are they not tied to Tehran is nonexistent," he adds. The situation today is changing, largely because the war in Iraq has put the wheels in motion. After the elections in Iraq, the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia brought to the fore the clash between the extremist Salafist ideology in the Kingdom and the Shiites in the eastern province. The Shiites wanted to seize the moment as Iraqi Shiites did, and were engaged in the political process. In the eastern town of Qatif, the bedrock of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, the Shiite vote was twice as large as the rest of Saudi Arabia, because the Shiites voted overwhelmingly with a 40-45% turnout, whereas the rest of Saudi Arabia was a 20-25% turnout. "The lesson is very simple: if you have no members in the council, you have no say in your own city, town or region, then an election is a good thing for you. The Shiites in the Arab world have the same problem as everywhere, the problem of being marginalized, they all are responding to the lesson of Iraq in the same way. Everywhere the Shiites believe political change, democracy, and elections, give them a greater say in the affairs of the state, and gives them a seat at the table," explains Nasr. Asked what Saudi fears are, Khashoggi says, "Saudi Arabia sees a potential for disorder in the area if somebody, particularly the Iranians, try to extend their proper borders. It will not work. All it will lead to is civil wars like what we have in Iraq right now. Iraq will never be a Shiite state, Lebanon will never be a Shiite state but if you try to make a Shiite state you either have to break it, accept the others or expel the others." "You cannot establish an Islamic Shiite republic in Lebanon and Iraq. It cannot be a Shiite a state. It has to be democratic. It has to be by consensus. It cannot be a Shiite state. When Iran was established, Saudi Arabia had no trouble with having relations with a Shiite state. Until before the war in Iraq, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was excellent. We don't care what the Iranians do, think and practice and what system of law they apply in their own rights. If there is a Shiite uprising, a Shiite revival in Iran it is their prerogative." He adds, "The choice to the Saudi Shiites is clear, to side with this reform government. King Abdullah is their hero now. Under King Abdullah, they feel their presence, they practice their religion more freely and we can even see the clergy in the royal courts along with typical Wahabi clerics that hate the Shiite. The King is trying get to the Sunni traditional clergy to accept diversity, to accept the existence of other schools of thoughts in Saudi Arabia. The Shiites of Saudi Arabia have discovered their middle ground in the government." No doubt that upsurge in political consciousness has been amplified now by the strength of Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, in the wake of the war in Lebanon. That war, was to a large extent seen by many, as an existential struggle and the survival of Hezbollah, though annoying for the Sunni contingency in the region, nonetheless, serves to strengthen the Shiite psyche and resolve and that this is their time. "The Shiites in Lebanon have become a lot more self-assertive¡ÄGone are the days when the communities felt dis-empowered and marginalized. They still feel alienated and they still feel threatened but at the same time they feel politically empowered because of the resistance and because of their communal unity and cohesion," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor at the Lebanese American University and author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion. "Shiism has been associated with persecution, marginalization and discrimination. Now this is a revolt of sorts. It's a revolt against Israel, against the US and against perceived tyranny. Political consciousness has always been for Shiites synonymous with rejection of oppression." Fundamentally, Hezbollah and Iran seized leadership of the Palestinian cause, a seminal issue for the past 60 years, in a monumental fashion, which in the Arab world is the mark of leadership. In essence, the Shiites are attempting to prove they can lead the Arab-Israeli conflict and that they are capable of flexing their muscles. This stands in contrast with Arab governments that have not been able to check Israel's power or help Palestinians obtain an independent state. Arab governments "have not been able to solve the Palestinian issue, or even mediate properly in-between. They are largely impotent [and] made a huge mistake of making this a Shiite-Sunni issue when at the Arab League they came out and criticized Hezbollah. Never ever before in Arab-Israeli history, have Arabs criticized another Arab force in the middle of a fight with Israel and they did so on the charge that these guys are Shiite," says Nasr. "You also had Salafi and Wahabi clerics who came out and issued fatwas against Hezbollah. The other side [the Sunnis] made the war a sectarian issue and then Hezbollah won in the Arab street's perception and the consequence is that it clearly emboldened the Shiite in thinking they have come through on the litmus test of the Arab cause which is defeating Israel." Here the issue of allegiance resurfaces. Are the Shiites looking to Tehran for guidance and leadership? There may be an element of truth in that. But just as it is not a question of allegiance as it is of turning to an external political reference, it is also no longer a question of Shiites alone looking to Iran. Sunni and Christian Arabs are also gazing in that direction, on the whole, because they see an Iran that is assertive, that is strong and defiant of a world superpower and the West. "Iran is becoming the defender of the Arab cause. A lot of the Arabs look at Iran as more powerful and the Shiites even more. Iran is respected, Iran stands up to the West and they admire that stance," says Yamani of Chatham House, adding, "These are the days of the Shiites. The balance of power in the Muslim world has changed for good." ||**||

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