Sunday, October 23, 2011

Post #11 - Understanding Shi'es

When looking at Iran, there are four aspects of this topic that must be understood as much-needed cultural context; they will covered in my next several posts. First:

Shi'ite Islam

Our collective experience of the Iraq War, as covered in the press, has made a minimal exposure to the main divisions within Islam virtually inescapable. But do we know much more than just the labels? The Shi'ite branch of Islam (now comprising about 13 percent of Muslims in the world) has its historical genesis in the struggle for succession following the death of the Prophet Mohammad. Shi'ism diverges from Sunni Islam in that it considers Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali and Ali's sons, Hassan and Hussein -- each of whom were killed in internecine struggles within the Islamic community -- to be the rightful heirs to the mantle of leadership after Mohammad's passing.

The second difference is that Sunnis emphasize the role of the leader (caliph) going to he who is best suited to act as the protector of the Islamic community, whereas Shi'ites have put more emphasis on the leader being the person with deepest knowledge of the teachings of Islam He should be invested with the title through lineage and scholarship, rather than being elected.

Meaningful distinctions between Sunni and Shi'ite, even in contemporary life, are usually missing in what we see and hear of Muslims in the media. Yitzhak Nakash, director of Brandeis University's Middle East program and author of The Shi'is of Iraq, was reported by the Wilson Center's Middle East Program to have told a Wilson Center audience in January, 2007, that the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution emboldened Shiites and "reinforced a trend of activism within Shiism that continues to this day.” However, Shiites have been moving away since the Gulf War of 1991 from violence and toward accommodation with the West; they have also sought power sharing arrangements with other members of their societies. Nakash also pointed to the rise of Shiite clerics as community leaders capable of exerting moderation over followers. Sunni clerics, by contrast, have lost their authority and have been unable to restrain radical Islamists.

Barry Lando, former investigative producer for CBS's 60 Minutes, talked with journalist Amy Goodman about his new book Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, From Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush, and how we got into the present situation:

"... Saddam had invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, and the United States moved in to push him out of Kuwait; when they did, George Bush called on the people of Iraq rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. This call was relayed by the CIA’s secret radio stations all over Iraq, and US airplanes also dropped millions of pamphlets over Iraq, telling the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam. And they did. And the uprising spread like wildfire across southern Iraq. These [actions] were among the Shiites. The Kurds also rose up."
"Then, the US (Bush Sr. and James Baker), became worried, because they realized they weren’t going to be able to control this uprising. They had wanted a military coup, a nice, neat military coup that in the end they could really control. But what, in fact, happened was a popular revolt. They were worried that perhaps Iran would come in, would try to make use of it; that the Kurds would try to set up an independent country that would disturb Turkey, their allies; that the Saudis wouldn’t like what was going on there. And so, they turned their back on the uprising."
"They allowed Saddam to continue using his helicopters to attack the villages, and the Shiites had no way of fighting back...-- I spoke to a Special Forces officer who was just a few kilometers away from where the uprising was going on -- you had the Shiites coming to the American lines and saying, 'Look, we're not asking you to fight for us. Just give us weapons. We will fight ourselves.' The Americans had hundreds of millions of dollars of arms that they had seized from the defeated Iraqi military. They destroyed those weapons, rather than turn them over to the rebels...The Americans refused to even talk to them...So, finally, the revolt was over, and Saddam came in and killed, slaughtered, anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 Shiites."

A Boston Globe article by Anne Barnard, published a few years ago, was based on interviews with present-day Iraqi visitors to Iran, who were going in significant numbers, especially to visit sites that are considered holy by Shi'e Muslims. Barnard follows such a traveler, Jalil Abbas, through his sojourn in Iran and shares his reactions:

"Abbas, 45, [did not] feel nervous here, even though he spent most of his 20s as a conscript solder in Saddam Hussein's bloody eight-year war with Iran. "
"Making his first trip across the border, Abbas said he saw a different Iran from the dangerous, meddling power that Iraqi and US officials describe when they accuse the neighboring country of fueling the fighting in Iraq. Instead, he and many of his fellow pilgrims found a deep resonance with their Shi'ite faith, a social order they admired and, most of all, a respite from violence. "

"'We envy the Iranians for the way they live,' Abbas said on his fifth day in Iran. He felt a kinship with them, he said, that was growing stronger than his ties to Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who share his nationality, Arabic language, and ethnicity."

"...'We are Shi'ite and they are Shi'ite. We are the same faith,' Abbas said. 'Iran is the only country that helps us Shi'ites.' ...The Iranian government...welcomes another 1,500 Iraqis a year for medical treatment. It offers the poorest pilgrims free housing, religious instruction, and reminders that Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran sparked the war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Shi'ites."
"To Abbas, Iran looks well organized, prosperous, calm. The country is 'falsely accused' of harming Iraq, he said -- by Americans, who arrived as friends but are 'turning into enemies.' His good feelings about Iran came despite his contempt for Iraq's pro-Iranian parties, which he called 'militias' out for jobs and money. As for clerical rule, he dreams it can be established some day if Shi'ite southern Iraq becomes a semi-autonomous region. "
"One thing confused him. Despite Islamic rule, 'Iranians have less faith, are less religious than us. We don't know why,' he said. 'Saddam's regime tried to take these rituals from us, but could not.'"

Building mural in Tehran
This view – of Iraqi Shi'ites being the more devout and Iranians more lax in their observances – is not one that we are likely to hear coming out of the White House or the State Department. The policy nowadays is that it is the clerical rule in Iran that is attempting to undermine Iraqis' desire for secularism (or, at least, a tolerant, “polyglot” relationship between government and religion). In fact, many visitors to Iran are surprised by the absence of overtly religious rites and influences, outside of the “holy” cities of Qom or Mashhad. [to be continued]

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