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
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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.

The parade ended at the Pakistani mission to the United Nations, on the East Side, where Istafa Naqvi, a Shia community leader, passionately denounced Saddam and proclaimed that U.S.-led forces would remove him. Naqvi invoked the American eagle, with its sharp claws, which he envisaged tearing the head off "the worst dictator in the world." Agha Jafri, the main Shia leader in New York, cried, "President Bush, why are you waiting? We want you to liberate Kerbala!" Fox News and a couple of network television outlets picked up the story of Muslims marching against tyranny and terrorism in downtown Manhattan. But the print media, even conservative dailies like the New York Post and the New York Sun that had reported on the anti-terror stance of Shia Muslims in the past, ignored the event.

THIS DECISION is understandable. To some reporters, the parade no doubt seemed a typical New York ethnic observance, colorful but irrelevant to the broader public. But in the aftermath of September 11, we can little afford to neglect Muslim voices raised against terrorism. The simple truth, recognized by every Shia community and religious leader in America, is that the Shia Muslims suffer from a terrible public image. Shias are labeled wholesale in the Western media, and in the high circles of the State Department, as suicide bombers. This problem dates, naturally, from Khomeini's revolution in Iran in 1979 and the seizing of U.S. hostages, an unhealed wound in the minds of most Americans. For the New York print media, as well as the functionaries at State, sorting out the differences among Iraqi Muslims, and moving past the shallow assumption that all Arab Muslims are anti-American, is too big a job. In recent weeks, anti-Shia propaganda has emerged as a staple of the liberal media, full of dire predictions that the fall of the Butcher of Baghdad will result in Iraq's being torn apart, as Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds fight each other for power.

According to the naysayers, an unreformed and irredeemable Iran stands behind all Shias everywhere, and is prepared to impose a new extremism in post-Saddam Iraq. Incompetent voices at the State Department proclaim the need to back old, exhausted politicians, who will presumably serve as pliable tools, in preference to Shia leaders like Ahmad Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Congress, and his secularist ally Kanan Makiya, author of Republic of Fear and the intellectual conscience of the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi Shias in America firmly deny that they are agents of Iranian reactionaries. They are ethnically Arab--not Persian, like the Iranians--as they never tire of pointing out. And unlike certain Iranians, they are inclined to forgive America--even for its disgraceful betrayal of 1991, when, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush incited the Shias to rise up, then had the U.S. military stand aside as Saddam's forces slaughtered them.

Iraqi Shias look forward not to a clerical regime, but to a federal, constitutional Iraq in which all communities enjoy equal rights. After two years of discussions, they recently produced a major document, the Declaration of the Shia of Iraq (see www.defenddemocracy.org). The signatories "believe that Iraq can only be reviv[ed] if its future is based on the three principles of democracy, federalism, and community rights." The text itself summarizes the demands of the Shias as: "1. The abolition of dictatorship and its replacement with democracy; 2. The abolition of ethnic discrimination and its replacement with a federal structure for Kurdistan; 3. The abolition of the [Saddam] policy of discrimination against the Shias." In describing the political future of Iraq, it calls for "a democratic, parliamentary, constitutional order, that carefully avoids the hegemony of one sect or ethnic group," and "a single citizenship for all Iraqis." In addition, it proposes a healthy basis for the new Iraqi order: "a civil society and its community bases."

Regarding the Iranian "threat" to the new Iraq, Khomeini has been dead for 14 years, and "Khomeinism" is slowly but surely passing away before our eyes, as the new generation in Iran pushes the national leadership toward a goal similar to that of the Iraqi Shias--a "civil society" within a nonreligious state. Even leading clerics like Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, designated successor of Khomeini, have declared the experiment in Islamic rule formulated by the latter a failure. Rather than fear Tehran, we should anticipate that a democratic Iraq in which Arab Shias exercise a significant influence will provide an incentive for the consolidation of the reform process in Iran. After that may come major steps in a Saudi transition to a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy. Liberating Iraq, applauding reform in Iran, and assisting the subjects of the Saudi kingdom in dismantling the Wahhabi terrorist network, as well as removing the Wahhabi ideological monopoly over Mecca and Medina, means facilitating the definitive entry of the Arab and Muslim world into the global system of pluralism, capitalism, prosperity, and stability.

The beginning of such a transition also means that America can fulfill its promise as a liberator, making clear to millions of Muslims that we have turned a page in our history, and will no longer support corrupt regimes in the name of immediate interests or the amoral principle of loyalty to our putative friends, no matter who they are or who they kill. That kind of thinking led us straight to September 11, when the products of the Saudi-Wahhabi order demonstrated that 60 years of accommodation to the Saudis had only made it easier for them to strike at our heart.

Of course, to an outsider observing a Shia ceremony, it is unsurprising that the extremist reputation attached to these Muslims by the Iranian revolution should have stuck. Shia Islam is hot, not cold, and passionate, rather than passive; its adherents express an obviously authentic anguish over the cosmic drama in which their heroes took part, in Iraq, a millennium and a half ago. The trauma of Kerbala occurred in the century after Muhammad's death, when issues of authority were unsettled, civil war spread throughout the Muslim community, and extremist tendencies flowered. Muhammad was succeeded as the leader of the Muslims by four caliphs from among his companions. The third of the caliphs, Uthman ibn Affan, established the hegemony of his own family, a dynasty known as the Umayyads, over the Muslims. This nepotism was resisted by many, and among the dissenters there emerged an extremist group known as the Khawarij, who attacked all who differed from them.

Like the Khawarij, Wahhabi terrorists today massacre Muslims who differ from them, along with Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others--from the twin towers and the Pentagon to the teeming cities of Pakistan, where Saudi-backed terrorists, who have slain a hundred Pakistani Shia doctors, also conspired to murder the American journalist Daniel Pearl. Thus, for the Shias little has changed; the eternal confrontation of good and evil unfolds. The corrupt Umayyads have become the depraved followers of Saddam and the Saudi reactionaries, polluting Islam in the interest of political power. To liberate Islam from corruption, dictatorship, and terrorism is for the Shias a sacred mission. The story of Kerbala, which always lies heavy on their hearts, is the story of Muslims' resistance to tyranny and terror. It is the story of a righteous and pure leader, Imam Hussein ibn Ali, who led a small force to battle through the darkest night. That legacy inspires his heirs to confront the September 11 terrorists, the murderers of Daniel Pearl, and the hypocrites who squat in Mecca and Medina, usurping the vaunted role of "guardians of the Holy Sites."

Unlike the Saudi Wahhabis, Shia Muslims have never sought to impose their dispensation on the whole of the Islamic world community; nor have they attempted to impose theological conformity within their own ranks. Their tradition recognizes the rights of minorities, because they have always been a minority, and esteems differences in opinion, because their very existence arises from controversy and debate. In Iran, Shia Islam took an anti-Western direction that had more to do with the history of the Iranians and their relations with Britain and the United States than with their understanding of Islam. Elsewhere in the Islamic world--in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Albanian lands--Shias are best known for their commitment to education, enlightenment, the liberation of women, social justice, progress, and, most important, independence of thought, or ijtihad.

In 1991, America abandoned the Iraqi Shias to the mercies of Saddam's killers. Now, we have an opportunity to repair that mistake and, with their help, to establish an Iraq that will pioneer the new Arab and Muslim reality. They are there, waiting for our help, and eager to give us their help. We are asking them to leave their fears behind; so let us also move beyond our own anxieties. A good start would be to bring Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, Sheikh Kedhim Sadiq Mohammed, and others like them to Washington, to meet with the men and women guiding our efforts in Iraq, and to meet with the capital's press, the better to explain the future of Iraq as envisaged by Iraqis themselves. With or without our aid, they will always march in the footsteps of Imam Hussein, ready to confront evil. Let us give them the tools that may permit them to prevail.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror" and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.