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
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.