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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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 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."