Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Shiites Rising: Islam's minority reaches new prominence

Shiite Muslims are leading an 'axis of resistance' that unnerves Sunnis and challenges the US and Israel. Part 1 of two

(Page 2 of 6)

"There is a saying," says Rasoulzadeh. "It is the blood of Hussein that kept Islam alive."

Skip to next paragraph

This year, Ashura took on new meaning when it was celebrated in January. In Lebanon, it came after the country lost more than 1,200 people to the war with Israel. In Iraq, it became a show of defiance to the Sunni suicide bombers who continually attack Shiites' newfound power by blowing up their markets and mosques.

And in Saudi Arabia, where Shiites are a 15 percent minority, the largest public commemoration in recent memory took place. Saudi security forces once cracked down on celebrants, but this year, Saudis mourned Hussein's demise openly and praised Nasrallah in public – a sign of how the Shiite leader's popular face-off against Israel resonates even in Sunni Gulf states.

Indeed, recent events have only propelled the Shiite rise, says one woman in Beirut caught in the crush of an Ashura rally: "Every time you see the blood of a Shiite, it makes him stronger."

A common fight against the West

Last summer's war in Lebanon was cast by both sides as part of a wider struggle. On one side: Israel with the strategic support of the US. On the other: Hizbullah, backed by Iran and Syria, which along with Palestinian militants such as Hamas, form part of an increasingly cohesive "axis of resistance."

"What you gave as a gift from your resistance and jihad to the Islamic nation is beyond my capability to describe," said Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hailing a "victory of Islam."

"You showed that through the help of God military superiority is not based on arms, weapons, fighter planes, tanks, or the Navy," Khamenei said, "but on the power of beliefs, jihad, and sacrifice."

Shiite in character, but pan-Islamic, the axis stretches from Tehran, through Syria, to Lebanon, and into the Palestinian territories. It sees the flow of money and arms – and ideological inspiration – to fight Israel from Gaza and to counter Western influence in Lebanon. It also reaches from Iran and Hizbullah, with cash and training, to allies in Iraq.

The Pentagon accuses Tehran of providing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and training of militants of all stripes to fight against US forces in Iraq. On top of cash given for rebuilding projects, Iran spent $64 million upgrading Shiite shrines like those in Karbala, where Imam Hussein was killed

This new axis has partly grown from the seed of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, which Americans remember for a 444-day crisis when US diplomats were held hostage. Its paint fading, the old US Embassy wall in Tehran still carries these words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: "We will make America face a severe defeat."

Some see Iran's full spectrum of influence in Iraq and "soft" power in Lebanon and elsewhere as a belated realization of Ayatollah Khomeini's order to "export" that revolution.

"For Hizbullah, and even for Iran, [the] play for power in the region serves an ideological aim," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hizbullah expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Their influence over the Palestinians does not mean they want to spread Shiite Islam in Palestine. It's to confront Israel and the US. It's to spread resistance; that is the religion they want to spread."

She notes that most Sunnis instead often follow an "accommodationist model" in dealing with authority, though indeed many hundreds of extremist jihadis have blown themselves up in attacks against both Shiite and Western targets. By contrast, there have been very few Shiite suicide attacks in recent years. But it's Shiite theology, based on sacrifice and honed by centuries as an embattled minority and cradle-to-grave indoctrination, that makes Shiites natural leaders of this axis.