The Magazine

A Difficult Marriage

From the December 22, 2003 issue: How Iraqi Shiites could save the presidency of George W. Bush.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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EVER SINCE 1979, Shiite Muslim clerics have scared Americans. The trepidation is, of course, understandable. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini energized a generation of Islamic radicals. His theocratic revolution in Iran held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. His disciples directed and incited lethal attacks against the United States. The slaughter of U.S. soldiers in Beirut in 1983 and at Khobar in Saudi Arabia in 1996 were inspirational for Osama bin Laden and other Sunni holy warriors who have promised victory through terrorism.

Far more often than their Sunni Muslim counterparts, Shiite clerics are charismatic. Their long, arduous legal education, which builds a self-confident, serious elite, and their historic position between ruler and ruled have often earned them the respect of common man and king. Shiite clerics have been powers to be reckoned with--complimented, appeased, or squashed--in great part because their authority has been popularly based. In an autocratic Muslim world, they have, more often than not, been defenders of decency. The greatest strength of the Muslim community has always been its secure and ordered home, and the clergy has been its redoubtable guardian. Even the most irreligious Shiites can revere these men because they are vivid, stubborn repositories of the wisdom, vicissitudes, and pride of an often abused and maligned community.

Shiism teaches that individual men, through their determination, sacrifice, and suffering, shape history. The Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, the father of all Muslim martyrs, did not flee certain death on the plains of Karbala in southern Iraq because his cause was just. His end, even more than the unlucky life of his father, the Caliph Ali, has become the baptismal font of the Shiite identity. Like Christians, Shiites are pretty sure that redemption will not come in this life. Their clerics often see themselves in a continuing passion play of good versus evil. They have stood between tyrants and the oppressed, between domineering Sunnis and belittled Shiites, and, not infrequently, between threatening foreigners and besieged Muslims. Though in modern times the Shiite clergy have become a diverse lot--progressives, traditionalists, revolutionaries, and reactionaries--they are similar in their continuing firm belief that the clergy has a historic duty to defend the flock. Guided by the Holy Law, nationalism, Marx, or John Locke, they see themselves as a vanguard for and against change.

The Coalition Provisional Authority and the Bush administration are now unavoidably part of the great Shiite drama that is unfolding inside Iraq. Shiites will determine the fate of a democratic Iraq; they will likely determine the political future of George W. Bush. If all goes well with Iraq's Shiites, the eventual spread of democracy throughout the Middle East becomes a real possibility. If the Shiites go south on us, then the Middle East's next "Liberal Age" (a tolerably accurate description of the period from 1880 to 1945) will likely be a long time coming. And if things fall apart, what will the future look like? When planning for success, it's always a good idea to imagine failure.

What an Iraqi Shiite dictatorship would do is difficult to foresee, but Shiite authoritarian rule is inevitable if the democratic experiment fails. The Shiites represent at least 60 percent of the Iraqi population. (The rule of thumb in the Muslim Middle East is that the Shiite population in Sunni-dominated countries is underestimated in official figures. The common breakdown of the Iraqi population--55 percent Shiite Arab, 20 percent Sunni Arab, 20 percent Kurd, and 5 percent Turkoman/Christian Arab--probably gives too much to the Arab Sunnis, who have ruled the country since 1920.)

After the brutal repression the Shiites have endured in the country since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, it is most unlikely that they will again accept Sunni Arab suzerainty. The old legitimizing engine of Sunni domination--Arab nationalism--is dead among the Shiites. Though the Shiites have so far shown remarkable forbearance towards the Sunnis who were the backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime (the former know the latter, too, were trapped in an Orwellian nightmare), it's doubtful that you could find many Shiites who still trust the political reflexes of even their most abused Sunni compatriots. The Shiites also know that the Arab Sunni Middle East didn't cry in 1991 when Saddam Hussein slaughtered thousands of them during the great rebellion following the first Gulf War.