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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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.