Tabler: Shiitization in Syria

My friend Andrew Tabler, the editor of Syria Today and a very knowledgeable guy on all things shami, has a thought-provoking piece in the NY Times Magazine about the "Shiitization"of Syria:

Over the last five years, however, Iranian donors have financed the restoration of half a dozen Shiite tombs and shrines in Syria and built at least one Shiite religious school near Damascus; the school is named after Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, Iran and the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq now sponsor a number of Arabic-language Internet portals as well as satellite TV stations broadcasting Shiite religious programming into Syria.

Direct inquiries into Shiite numbers in Syria raise more questions than answers, as the sensitive topic gives observers complex incentives to round up or down. When I asked Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, leader of Syria’s Shiite community, to estimate the size of his flock, he put it at less than 1 percent of the population of 19 million. Asked the same question, the leader of Syria’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, replied carefully; he said that 6 to 8 percent of Syrians now adhere to the “Jaafari school,” the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by mainstream Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.

It was only when I met an actual convert that the mufti’s words began to make sense. Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam. He changed the wording of his prayers and his posture while praying, holding his arms at his sides instead of before him, and during Ramadan he followed Shiite customs on breaking the fast. In many Middle Eastern countries, his conversion wouldn’t be possible — it would be considered apostasy. The Syrian regime restricts its people’s political liberties, but unlike most other ruling dynasties in the Arab world, it allows freedom of religion. “In Saudi Arabia, they ban books on other faiths,” Louay said. “In Syria, I can buy whatever book on religion I want, and no one can say a word.”

Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.

. . .

Even if Shiitization is at this point as much a rumor as a confirmed fact, the subject is highly charged. It is part of a much larger discussion among Washington’s Sunni allies about the rise of a “Shiite Crescent” — an Iranian-backed alliance stretching westward from Iran to Syria to Lebanon that could challenge the traditional power of Sunni elites. With its Sunni masses and minority Tehran-backed regime, Syria is the weak link in the chain. Many Syrians say they are worried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria; the execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, infuriated many. The conversion of Syrians to Shiism could create still more conflict.

Meanwhile, the regional politics are becoming ever more delicate. Damascus is reportedly unhappy about Iran’s recent dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the future of Lebanon; Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recent peace overtures toward Israel. Both sides denied a rift when Assad visited Tehran in February. But only days later, a group of Syrian intellectuals and parliamentarians loyal to Assad lambasted an Iranian deputy foreign minister in scripted fashion in a closed-door (but widely reported) session. The point of contention? Their unhappiness with what they saw as Iranian support for the Shiitization of Syria.
Sorry for quoting so much it, but I think the article raises a lot of important questions. Is Iran actively trying to convert Sunnis in Syria and other countries? Does it do so alongside its alliance with Syria, and what kind of tension exist between the two policies? What role, if any, does the regime's mixed Sunni-Alawi nature have in shaping that attitude -- in the Alawi community in particular? Is it an issue for other groups in Syria, notably the Muslim Brotherhood? Can we read too much into Iranian efforts to proselytize their faith -- after all the US, under domestic pressure from evangelicals, monitors the religious freedom of Christian minority groups across the world and there is a long history of close collaboration between missionaries and the State Department (or indeed missionaries and the European colonial powers).

I am tempted to see any claim that there is a pro-active, widespread Iranian Shiitization program in the region as highly dubious. However, I can certainly understand the appeal of certain forms of Shiism to Sunnis who are living in an increasingly charged religious atmosphere, with Salafist ideas of interpreting the Sunna gaining ever more dominance and extreme concepts such as hesba becoming commonplace in countries like Egypt. The only Sunni convert to Shiism I know "switched" because he was appalled by the growing influence of Wahhabism on mainstream Sunni thought and believed that strand of Islam was heading to the dustbin of history. Andrew's mention of "easier access" to ijtihad as a Shia is fascinating, and I can understand that might be so in a country where Shias are in a minority -- but is it really the case in Iran, where there might be a lot of social pressure to follow this or that mujtahid or marjaa?
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.