The Magazine

Fear Not the Shias

Their tradition recognizes the rights of minorities, because they have always been a minority.

Mar 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 27 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

New York

Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, an Iraqi American and president of the largest Shia Muslim congregation in North America, speaks perfect English. He sits with quiet dignity in his mosque, the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York. Middle aged and slender, with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, he is draped in robes and wears a turban. Yet his words are anything but alien--rather, they are startlingly direct, articulate, and even familiar, at least to supporters of President George W. Bush and his vision for the future of the Middle East.

"The problem in Arab countries is simple," Sheikh Al-Sahlani says. "We are ruled by dictators. We want this to end. I cannot trust any Arab regime," he continues. "None of them has ever helped us. They did not accept Iraqi refugees after the [Gulf] war, except for some who were admitted to Syria. Only America helped us by taking in many refugees, and now there are thousands of us here. Only America really helped us," he repeats. "If the United States removes Saddam's fascist regime, I will support them. But also, we live here and we are loyal."

I told Sheikh Al-Sahlani how much his comments resembled those of President Bush himself and of Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary and point man for the strategy of regional transition to democracy. He nodded, with a smile. "We understand them," he said. He described the impact of Wolfowitz's recent visit to Iraqis living in Dearborn, Michigan, and said, "Many believe a change in American policy has come."

A week before, in a Manhattan restaurant, I'd heard a similar message from another Iraqi-American religious figure, Sheikh Kedhim Sadiq Mohammed of the Islamic Guidance Center, a Shia mosque in Brooklyn that serves a large Hispanic, African-American, and Arab-American community. "I am telling all the Arabs the moment has come to support the United States, to see the end of this evil dictatorship in Iraq," he said. "Many of them do not know how to react, but I am telling them to trust the Americans. I am an American citizen and I am loyal to President Bush."

I interviewed Sheikh Al-Sahlani on the night of March 9, after the annual Shia religious procession in midtown Manhattan, called to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the battle of Kerbala--the defining event in the history of the Shia sect. (I had been invited to address the gathering.) Following the procession, in the main hall of the Al-Khoei mosque, a Pakistani-American medical doctor and religious teacher of great eloquence, Sakhawat Hussain, described the events at Kerbala, in which Imam Hussein and a small party of his supporters were killed at the order of tyrants who had seized control of the Muslim community.

The battle of Kerbala occurred in the year 680. Yet as Dr. Hussain preached to a gathering of hundreds that evening in Queens, grown men wailed at the evocation of Imam Hussein's death and the slaying of his infant son in his arms as if it had happened yesterday. Young men came forward bare to the waist, and began rhythmically beating their breasts in grief at the bloodshed so many centuries past.

Kerbala is located in Iraq, where the majority of the population--up to 65 percent--are Shia Muslims. For Shias, the drama that took place at Kerbala so long ago is emblematic of a struggle that persists throughout history, but never with greater resonance than now. In the Iraqi dictator Saddam, the Shias see the latest successor to Yezid, the evil ruler who ordered the murders of Imam Hussein and his partisans. The Iraqi Shias and their clerics again and again strive to defend truth, justice, and Islam cleansed of tyranny and terror.

The March 9 procession brought 10,000 Shia Muslims from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut into the streets of the Big Apple, behind a banner denouncing Saudi-backed Wahhabism, the extremist dispensation that has encouraged the mass murder of Shia Muslims for two and a half centuries, and which underpins the hellish discrimination Shias suffer today in the Saudi kingdom. Shias are the majority in the oil-bearing Eastern Province and the southern border region of Saudi Arabia. The banner named the cruelest enemies of innocent Muslims: Saddam, Mullah Omar, and bin Laden.