Daily Archives: 20 October 2006

Iraqi Sunni vs. Shia Memories of the War with Iran

Sunnis associated growing Shia power with Iran. Sunni leaders, especially those with Ba’thist ties, even accused the Shia point-blank of being tools in a nefarious campaign to subjugate and control Iraq. Hazem Shaalan, who served as defense minister in the interim government of the secular Shia prime minister Iyad Allawi, called Iran Iraq’s enemy number one and claimed that Tehran was responsible for most of the violence in the country. Shaalan hoped to prevent emerging ties between Iraq’s Shias and Iran from determining the course of Iraqi politics. This became clearer when he characterized the election list of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) as the “cat’s paw of Iran.” Shaalan’s views were a reflection of the way that many Iraqi Sunnis and some secular Shias saw the UIA and the government that it would form after winning the January 2005 elections. It was not only openly Shia but was led by men who had maintained close ties with Iran since the 1980s. Many Sunnis spoke of it with bitter derision as “the Safavid government.”

When, during the ensuing constitutional debates, elements of the UIA called for federalism and a Shia autonomous zone in the south, Sunnis were quick to dismiss the idea as an Iranian plot to dismember Iraq. All this underlined the strikingly different notions of identity, and also perceptions of the Iran-Iraq war, that were at play among the Sunni and the Shia. Whereas Sunnis emphasized the Arab-Iranian and Iraqi-Iranian divide and still saw Iran through the blood-coated lenses of the 1980s, Shias felt an attachment to the religious identity that they shared with Iranians, who were their only source of support in the aftermath of their ill-fated 1991 uprising. They saw the war as Saddam’s sin, in which Shias from both sides of the border were caught up as combatant-victims. In the minds of Iranians and many Iraqi Shias, the Iran-Iraq war became the Iran-Saddam war. Shia soldiers on both sides fought for faith and country, but they were wrapped into a Sunni dictator’s war of ambition and fear. With Saddam gone, the memory of the war unites rather than divides Shias in the two countries.

That Shias would vote for leaders such as Ibrahim Jaafari and Abdul-Aziz Hakim, who had spent the war years living in Tehran and whom many Sunnis saw as traitors, showed the widening gulf between the two communities. This became more evident after Prime Minister Jaafari opened diplomatic ties with Iran and expressed regret for Iraq’s conduct during the war.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 198-200

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On the State of Shia Civil Society

The Shia universe of discourse is now the site of the entire Muslim world’s most interesting and thorough debates about Islam’s relationship with democracy and economic growth, and indeed about Islam’s situation vis-à-vis modernity. In heavily Shia Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, popular political discourse and debate are far more concerned with modernity and democracy than is the case in Sunni-dominated countries.

The Shia, in other words, are both an objective and a subjective democratic force. Their rise in relative power is injecting a robust element of real pluralism into the too-often Sunni-dominated political life of the Muslim world, and many Shias are also fmding democracy appealing as an idea in itself, not merely as an episodically useful vehicle for their power and ambitions.

In Iran, the theocratic character of the Islamic Republic obscures the reality that electoral considerations play an important role in politics. Since the Shah’s fall in 1979, there have been nine presidential and seven parliamentary elections. Although the elections are open only to candidates approved by the clerical leadership, the campaigning and voting are taken seriously by the population. In 1997 a reformist cleric, Muhammad Khatami, won the election in a landslide after the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, openly endorsed Khatami’s conservative opponent. Iran is the only country in the Middle East where a former head of state has stepped down from power at the end of his constitutionally mandated term of office and continues to live peacefully in his own home. The undeniable and serious flaws in their country’s electoral process have not prevented Iranians from learning about democratic practices and internalizing democracy-friendly values. Indeed, the debate over democracy has been near the heart of Iranian politics for a decade now….

Also in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s 1980s “oracle,” Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, has over the past decade taken a more moderate tack. He has distanced himself from the Khomeini legacy and now argues that no Shia religious leader, not even Khomeini and definitely not his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has a monopoly on the truth. Like all other believers, says Fadlallah, leaders are fallible and open to criticism. Fadlallah has also deviated from Hezbollah and Iran’s positions on a host of other social issues, including the role of women in society and politics. He first endorsed Sistani, rather than Khamenei, as the source of emulation for Shias in matters of religion, and then claimed that role for himself.

For the past decade Fadlallah has been holding meetings once a month at the mosque attached to the shrine of Zaynab in Damascus. Shias from Lebanon, Iraq, and especially Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—many with secular leanings—go to these sessions. Fadlallah combines progressive social views with anti-American rhetoric and criticism of Iranian and Hezbollah theocracy. Iran’s regime has bitterly denounced him, and some of the attacks emanating from Qom, Iran’s religious capital, have caustically questioned his religious credentials. Fadlallah’s case, along with those of Montazeri and his fellow Iranian reformists, highlights how much things have changed since Khomeini’s death and reveals how strongly the debate over ideology, politics, democracy, and reform has gripped the Shia world.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 179-182

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