An Unconventional Convention
Shia Muslims gather in Washington to express their support for the Coalition in Iraq, and ideas for going forward.
5:30 PM, May 27, 2004 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
BEGINNING THURSDAY NIGHT, May 27, and continuing through Sunday, Washington's Wardman Park Marriott Hotel will host one of the most remarkable events of recent months: the second annual convention of American Shia Muslims, organized by the Universal Muslim Association of America (UMAA). The most extraordinary aspect of this convocation, which is expected to draw 5,000 participants, is that a majority who will attend are firm supporters of the Coalition's operations in Iraq.
American Shia Muslims claim two million adherents in the United States and Canada, mainly drawn from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, with a sprinkling from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and the Balkans. Iraqi Shias are concentrated in Dearborn, Michigan, and Los Angeles and are expected to be well-represented at the gathering this weekend.
The first such convention, held in the nation's capital last year with 3,000 delegates, featured a surprising banquet speaker: deputy Defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. While this year's banquet program had not been fixed by Thursday afternoon, UMAA media representative Agha Shawkat Jafri said the delegates have received hundreds of calls from Iraqi Shias expressing hope that the convention can draw the attention of the Pentagon to their concerns, which are centered on the need for forcible action against rebel Shia leader Moktada al-Sadr.
"Our people view Moktada al-Sadr as a dangerous renegade and adventurer, who threatens the safety of every Shia Muslim in Iraq," Jafri said. "We do not want the Coalition forces to inflict harm on the holy sites in Najaf or Karbala, but we want al-Sadr firmly defeated. The best action would be to support the Iraqi Shias in combating him. Give them the power and they will get rid of the problem."
Jafri said that Shias were disturbed and hurt by the scandal of prison abuses at Abu Ghraib but understand the difference between the Coalition forces and the former regime. "In the Coalition forces, these cruel acts represented the prejudice and indiscipline of a tiny, exceptional minority, and they will be punished. In Saddam's army, it was required of them and they were rewarded for it."
Jafri said Iraqi Shias are "terrified that if the U.S. in Iraq leaves, the Wahhabis concentrated in Falluja and Tikrit will begin a wholesale genocide of Shias, repeating the earlier actions of the Saddam regime."
Iraqi Shia sources claim that Moktada al-Sadr has sought an alliance with the Wahhabi sect, even though they express murderous hatred of Shias, whom they consider a non-Muslim product of a Jewish conspiracy, incredibly enough. Some Iraqis say al-Sadr recently visited Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the official religion, for talks with Princes Sultan and Nayef, the main holders of power in the kingdom--notwithstanding the figurehead role played by Crown Prince Abdullah, who is said to oppose Wahhabism. Sultan is the father of Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to Washington. Nayef is best known for his remarks soon after September 11, 2001, blaming the horrors of that day on "Zionists."
Jafri said his colleagues believe Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi, a Shia, has been "the victim of a smear campaign." He also underscored the great esteem Iraqi Shias express for Ayatollah Ali Sistani. "Sistani is a very great religious leader," he said. "We are very happy that the U.S. administration has shown so much support for Sistani."
He also said Iraqi Shias favored the possibility that Dr. Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist, would become Iraq's new prime minister, but are wary of the role of Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations potentate in charge of the Iraqi transition.
"Sharistani appears to be a level-headed individual who can help stabilize the country as it establishes new institutions," Jafri said.
In an important and rare display of intra-Muslim ecumenism, the convention's list of speakers will also include Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, a Sunni religious teacher and leader of the Naqshandi-Haqqani Sufi order.
The convention program is available online.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard on Islamic issues.