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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"Divine victory." That's how Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah portrayed the 34-day war last summer when a few thousand Hizbullah soldiers fought Israel's vaunted military to a standstill.

Lebanon's most renowned Shiite cleric stood before a sea of yellow Hizbullah flags on Sept. 22, 2006, in a rare moment of triumph for a Shiite leader; and it reverberated throughout the Middle East.

For more than 1,300 years, Shiites have been an oppressed Islamic minority. Even today they represent just 10 to 15 percent of the world's Muslims. But Sheikh Nasrallah's clout is part of a broader rise of Shiite power. Iraq and Iran (Shiite-led states) control the world's second- and third-largest oil reserves, respectively. And Shiite leaders - Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Nasrallah - are household names with support that crosses national and sectarian lines.

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US policies, experts agree, have played a key role in this elevation. Arab Sunni leaders warn of an emerging "Shiite Crescent." But more than political and economic power, they worry about the Shiite world view.

Shiism is suffused with a culture of resistance, an identity that finds spiritual meaning in fighting injustice and through martyrdom. The result is a Shiite-led "axis of resistance" with Iran and Hizbullah at its core, versus a US-led Western alliance that includes Israel.

Is a battle for a "new" Middle East under way? Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to think so. Last month, he declared that "great war of wills" is taking place. Iran standing up tothe US and the West has "exploded a bomb in world politics that is a hundred times more powerful than the [atomic] bomb ... exploded in Hiroshima."

Today the Monitor begins a two-part special report on the Shiite ascension - in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon - and its future.

***

Nine hundred miles separate the front line of last summer's war in Lebanon from a vast Tehran cemetery where Iran has buried thousands of its martyrs. Relatives come regularly to reverently lay flowers and press their lips to faded portraits of soldiers who perished in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. But today, the graveyard also honors another war hero.

Countless stickers, depicting the face of Lebanon's Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, now adorn one memorial after another.

That admiration is part of the strong and growing connection between Shiite Muslims – a bond that crosses borders and unites the fraction of Muslims who are its adherents.

Months after Israeli and Hizbullah forces fought in Lebanon, would-be Iranian martyrs still dream of taking up arms alongside their distant Shiite brethren.

"We were waiting. If we were needed, we would have gone to Lebanon to defend Shiites," says Manoucher Rasoulzadeh, an Iranian car salesman, during his weekly visit to the grave of his brother-in-law, a 1987 "martyr" of the war.

While Sheikh Nasrallah's visage evokes pride among Shiites in Iran, it's another figure whose sacrifice defines and unifies this minority Islamic sect.

Mr. Rasoulzadeh reaches for his cellphone to show off an image of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the revered cleric who was martyred in AD 680, with his hopelessly outnumbered band of followers in battle in Karbala, Iraq. It shows a thickly bearded man with rays of light coming from his green-turbaned head.

In the pantheon of Shiite holy men, none towers higher than Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The biggest Shiite holiday of the year, Ashura, honors that legend with reenactments, poetry, parades, and bloody self-flagellation.

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

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.

"When you look at powerful actors in the region today, who is rejecting American hegemony?" asks Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb. "It's this new strategic axis: Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas – and two of them are non-Shiite."

Hizbullah is "fully immersed in this religious ideology," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "There are people who have been raised by mothers who want them, encourage them, to sacrifice themselves. The medium is Shiite Islam – it's a very valuable mobilizing tool."

Alireza Taraghi, a conservative politician and editor in Tehran, agrees. "When Imam Khomeini said 'export the revolution,' he didn't mean sending people to that country and by war converting people by force to their beliefs. He meant this idea [of resistance] should be expressed in the world."

Indeed, that is how Iranian leaders cast current events. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has framed a more assertive anti-Western foreign policy, from Iran's controversial nuclear program to the capture of 14 British sailors patrolling Iraqi waters in April.

Today, he echoes Khomeini, who said years ago that "the issues of Palestine and Lebanon [are among] our main goals," and "we consider Lebanon ours."

Iran and Lebanon are "limbs of the same body," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in February, praising Hizbullah's fight last summer. "The spectacular resistance of your nation against military aggression of the Zionist regime was unique and totally unmatched," he crowed. "With its resistance, the Lebanese nation became the flag of resistance, piety, and pride for all nations."

Shiite resistance in Iraq

And where Iran and Lebanon lead, Shiites in Iraq – at least some of them – follow. Since modern Iraq was created in 1921, Sunnis have ruled. But the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of an imperfect democracy has put the 60-percent Shiite majority in control for the first time.

Mr. Hussein outlawed Shiite rites and forced thousands of Iraqis with Persian roots to leave. In 1991, his security forces slaughtered tens of thousands of Shiites after an uprising. Ayatollahs who resisted the dictator's rule were assassinated along with their families.

But even as Shiite rituals today are freely practiced, the country is being torn by severe sectarian violence that takes up to 3,700 lives in a single month. Shiites are divided, too. The largest faction takes part in the US-backed government. But the most popular faction, led by the nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, continues its calls for the US military to leave Iraq.

The junior cleric's militia has battled twice with US forces and still skirmishes. The Mahdi Army is accused of running death squads that target Sunnis in revenge attacks. But Mr. Sadr also has loyalists in the Iraqi parliament, whose support clinched Nouri al-Maliki's bid for prime minister, making Sadr a kingmaker.

Iranian influence on its Shiite-led neighbor is deep, both in formal contacts with Iraqi leaders once exiled in Iran and with networks of agents that can be activated at any time. Some argue that when US forces pull out of Iraq, Washington will effectively be ceding the country to Iran.

Marking that concern, Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf just 150 miles off Iran's coast last month, warned that the US could use military force "to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."

But there are softer signals as well. US and Iranian officials met publicly for the first time in 27 years on May 28, with ambassadors talking for four hours about how to calm violence in Iraq. Both sides spoke of progress, but the meeting is unlikely to be the last over competing interests in Iraq.

Layers of complexity make the future allegiance of Iraqi Shiites difficult to discern. But their more immediate challenge is the Sunni insurgency, which targets Shiites as "non-Muslims" more despicable than US forces in Iraq.

"This sectarian divide will lead to civil war, [and] if that happens, it will not just be within Iraqi borders, but across all the Middle East," says Ayad Jamaladin, a moderate Shiite parliamentarian and cleric in Baghdad. Mideast countries "are weak. If [they] fall down, you will witness huge destruction, and it's a golden opportunity for Al Qaeda."

Some Shiite death squads have tortured and killed up to 100 Sunnis a day in Baghdad alone. The current "surge" of US forces into the capital is meant to cut those numbers, and for a time, it did.

But the sectarian poison that courses between the two branches of Islam was on display as Hussein was taunted at the gallows by Shiite hangmen. "Hasten his return [of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah], curse his enemy, and grant victory to his son, Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!" rejoiced the Shiite government executioner as the noose tightened on Dec. 30, 2006.

Sunnis recoiled and demonstrated against the graphic display of Shiite triumphalism captured by a cellphone camera. Many Shiites turned away, too, unaccustomed to being seen as oppressors after centuries of being oppressed.

An American hand in the Shiite rise

Ironically, analysts say, it has been the way America has pursued the war on terror since 2001 that has facilitated the current rise of Shiites in Iran and Iraq – both charter members of President Bush's "axis of evil" – and boosted their prospects in Lebanon.

When the US toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then invaded Iraq to overthrow Hussein in 2003, it erased Iran's two most troublesome neighbors.

Tehran feared it was "next" in line for US-engineered regime change, prompting a secret offer to discuss all outstanding issues – from support for militants to nuclear issues – with Washington.

Buoyed by the swift fall of Baghdad, the White House refused. But as America became bogged down in Iraq, Iran's fear gave way to assertiveness. Its deep influence in Iraq has made Tehran the "winner" of the Iraq war.

"What we see as rising Shiite power is not because of anything the Shiites have done, but because of mistakes of the US," says Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Iran's parliament and presidential candidate. "These are because of the occupation of Iraq and US actions in Lebanon."

"Our power is becoming clearer to the world," agrees Abolhasan Navvab, a prominent cleric in Tehran close to Iran's supreme religious leader. "We don't want to make war or follow hard-liners like bin Laden or Al Qaeda. We are not into making problems for America," he says, adding that Iran's nuclear power project should be accepted. "But we will not give up."

Still, Iran's role as catalyst may be finite. "There is no strategy of empowering the Shiites ... but an attempt to stop US designs on Iran," says a Western-educated Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "Iran will try to influence where she is trusted, and that's with Shiite groups.

"When you talk of [Iran's] regional power, where is it? West Beirut, Baghdad, Basra, maybe the man on the street in Cairo," says the analyst. "But that soft power can disappear in days."

And it resonates, nonetheless. "When you say: 'Americans are in my home,' it means 'What are you doing there?' Everyone in the Middle East understands this," says Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric in Tehran. "We should thank Mr. Bush for giving us this gift of unity. If Bush makes another mistake and invades Persia, [unity] will be greater than now. This attack against Iran is what fundamentalists in Iran want."

Pentagon officials say that US forces are not preparing to strike Iran and instead have signaled a range of steps to engage Tehran. But the White House does not rule out military action.

"If they attack [Iran], they would unleash and awaken the deep, deep roots and causes of martyrdom," says Ibrahim Mussawi, a former Hizbullah spokesman and magazine editor in Beirut. "This would be the start of the end of US hegemony."

Already, some Shiites see divine intervention on Hizbullah's behalf during last summer's war – as well as in the broader Shiite rise. "There is no retreat ... this is a progressive march that is being overseen by God, maybe. We have this deep conviction," says Mr. Mussawi. "[Shiite influence] is not going to go back. It's going to thrive."

Sunni fears of the Shiite Rise

Alarmed Sunni leaders, the traditional holders of power in the Arab world, are warning of a "Shiite Crescent" forming across the region, and of sectarian conflict spreading with it.

Even while Saudi Arabia and Iran have held meetings to calm Sunni-Shiite tension, Saudi King Abdullah warned in January that, "We are aware of the dimensions of spreading Shiism and where it has reached."

The Shiite spread "will not achieve its goal," the monarch told a Kuwaiti newspaper, because Sunnis "seem immune to any attempts by other sects to penetrate or diminish its historical power."

Saudi Arabia is a US ally that follows the austere Wahhabi strain of Sunnism and produced 15 of the 19 attackers on 9/11. In December, Riyadh told Washington it would back Sunni insurgents in Iraq if Iran's influence there grew. Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barak, in a religious ruling, called Shiites "the worst of the Islamic nation's sects" and "infidels."

Al Qaeda, too, sees growing Shiite strength as a threat. In a video broadcast last month, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri lambasted Iraqi Shiites in the government as the "spearhead of the Americans and their claw with which they combat the Mujahideen and torture the Muslims."

Sunni Arab leaders worry that their people associate them with the Western camp, while Iran's Ahmadinejad and Lebanon's Nasrallah are seen as the defenders of Islam.

"There is a fearfulness, because Nasrallah ... has an incredible ability to reach out, to be believed, to be admired – indeed, to be feared – by other sects, especially Sunnis in the region," says Nicholas Noe, the Beirut-based editor of Mideastwire.com and an expert on Hizbullah speeches. There "is an attempt [by Sunnis] to shift the divide from Shiite-Sunni – because that is a dangerous divide for a lot of these regimes – to a Persian-Arab divide," he says.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been shouted down by his own Fatah supporters, angry about Hamas, their Iran-backed Palestinian rivals, saying, "Persians go home. Persians must die."

For many Arabs, the Persian racial slur harks back to pre-Islamic rivalry. "The Iranians know that the divide-and-conquer strategy that kills [their regional leadership] is Persians versus Arabs," says Mr. Noe.

And uncertainty about Iran's motives runs deep in the Arab world. Iran came under strong criticism at a high-level conference in Jordan in late May when Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said an Arab peace plan does not have "any chance" of success. The former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, retorted that Israeli-Palestinian peace is "an Arab issue and should be resolved within the Arab fold." And Bahraini Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said Iran should be transparent on the nuclear issue and "work in partnership with its neighbors and not at their expense."

Battle for a new Middle East

The practitioners of confrontation cast their aims in sweeping terms. "Victory of the resistance was not only a victory of arms [over Israel, but also] a victory for the ideology and culture of the resistance," Nasrallah said in an April speech, according to a translation from Mideastwire.com. "The resistance stood in the face of this project for which they are seeking a name, i.e., the New Middle East."

Such rhetoric strikes a chord far beyond Shiite power centers. Hizbullah's victory declaration "is very important for the Shia, but also for the Sunnis in Egypt, where Hizbullah is famous and Nasrallah has become a hero," says Sabrina Mervin, an expert on Shiism at the French Institute of the Near East in Beirut.

"Now Iran is the only country in the region to face the US and this plan of a New Middle East," says Ms. Mervin. "More and more it's growing, this feeling of injustice."

Analysts say there are limits to what this axis can achieve, since each case of Shiite "power" has different roots and aims.

They don't expect the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq to spill over into direct sectarian war elsewhere. Iraq's strong Arab nationalism is likely to check any Iranian effort to fully control the country.

The New Middle East, for this axis, is more about burnishing the ideal of confronting the West than pushing a strategic plan.

"What you have now is a franchising of that [resistance] ideology," says Daniel Brumberg, author of "Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran." While there is a short-term anti-US ideology taking root, competing agendas between Shiite leaders will prevent creation of a "greater Shiite, Iranian hegemony in any clear-cut sense."

Still, it does appeal. That's one reason Iran is unlikely to back down on its nuclear ambitions, say analysts, which bolsters Iran's status among allies, and unnerves enemies. "This model [of resistance] is finding its place.... When Ahmadinejad goes to any country and expresses this view to young generations, they are attentive to it," says Mr. Taraghi, the right-wing politician in Tehran. "It's like a flame that you light up in the darkness."

The original "war on terror" – against Al Qaeda alone – has now been allowed to dangerously expand, says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."

"We're at the point in this region [where] we can't militarily turn the dynamic," says Mr. Nasr, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Al Qaeda "is not going to go away," he says, so the effort should be to examine what drives the axis of resistance, address those issues, and "bring everybody to the table again."

That means talking to Hamas, to Sadr, to Syria, to Hizbullah, and even to Iran, he says, if only to return to a single-front battle against Al Qaeda.

"The more of these guys you bring in from the cold, the smaller the scope of resistance," says Nasr. "[But] if you operate on the assumption that you can crush the resistance, then you are committing yourself to perpetual war."

• Thursday: The populist Shiite leaders and the militants who follow them.

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