The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged shia
An odd cable from Iraq

I liked this passage in a US Embassy Baghdad cable about a meeting with Emad Klanter, an Iraqi Shia close to Sistani:

Son of a respected Najafi Ayatollah, nephew to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, related by marriage to Muqtada al-Sadr, and bearing a faint resemblance to the actor Robert De Niro, Klanter is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but was not wearing the traditional Shia Sayyid's garb of black turban and cloak during our meeting at the IZ villa of Saad Jabr, a Saddam-era exile opposition financier and son of Iraq's first Shia Prime Minister.

The guy goes on to trash all Iraqi politicians for referring to the Americans as "occupiers," calls Sadrists "backwards" and tries to peddle influence over Sistani. I'm sure he won't like this cable coming out. Another passage is also interesting:

When we informed him that USG patience is wearing thin with the pace of Iraqi political process, Klanter appeared incredulous that the U.S. would even consider scaling-down in Iraq "because you destroyed a regime and now you bear the responsibility to build up a replacement. If you leave there is a 100 percent certainty of civil war, which might happen anyway even if you don't leave." Swinging his arms into an abbreviated "Gator Chomp" type of gesture, he said that if the U.S, leaves "Iran will swallow us whole."

Incidentally, one of the things I'm enjoying about these cables is that the people who write them often write quite well and can be pretty funny. Kudos to American diplomats!

PostsIssandr El AmraniIraq, shia
On Fadlallah

I happened to be in Beirut when the news of Sheikh Fadlallah's death hit the news a few days ago, although since I was there for a wedding, I did not don my reporter hat or stay for the funeral yesterday, as I had a plane to catch back to Cairo and then another for Casablanca. I won't comment on the man — take a look at what Asa'ad AbuKhalil said, or Rami Khouri — but do want to touch on the American perception of him.

In Fadlallah, one had a spiritual leader for millions of Shias who was neither an ultra-conservative nor an apologist for autocracy. He was the only Shia figure with the authority not only to counter the Vilayet al-Faqih doctrine now dominant (and state-endorsed) in Iran, but also the political quietism and all-out conservatism of Iraq's Sistani. Yes, he was a political radical by the standards of of American hegemony in the region — he opposed occupations, backed armed action against occupiers include suicide bombings — but in some respects at least preferable to the alternative religious leaders in the region. He was not simply "Hizbullah's spirtual leader" as so many American journalists, and the American government, apparently continue to consider him as, despite the obvious fact that Hizbullah's leadership looks to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Khameini.

To be fair, the story is not so simple as Hizbullah having as marja Ayatollah Khamenei — it's more complicated than that, as many of Hizbullah's rank and file surely thought highly of Fadlallah no matter what the party line was, and Hizbullah grandee Naim Qassem was receiving condolences in Beirut last Sunday.

Do read David Kenner's piece at Foreign Policy, which touches on this ambiguity:

 

In 1995, Fadlallah declared himself a marja, the highest religious authority within Shiism -- a step that was opposed by the Iranian religious establishment, which saw Khamenei as the proper source of emulation for the Shiite world. Although both Iran and Hezbollah issued statements praising Fadlallah upon his death, they studiously avoided referring to him as a marja.
For this reason, Western claims that Fadlallah was "the spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah were particularly ironic: Although he was clearly influential, it was on precisely the issue of Fadlallah's ultimate religious authority that he and the Party of God parted ways.
Starting in the 1990s, Fadlallah began to preach a more self-consciously modern version of Shiism, placing particular emphasis on scientific and rational methods. He opposed the practice of self-flagellation on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, arguing that it accentuated sectarian differences in Lebanon rather than promoting coexistence. His rulings in the field of gender relations have also been important: He asserted that women were qualified to lead men in prayer and were fully capable of moving up the ranks of the Shiite clergy, up to the post of ayatollah. In 2007, he issued a fatwa saying that a woman could fight back in self-defense if she were beaten by her husband.
This debate was more than an internecine feud over religious principles -- it had important repercussions for the political balance of power within Lebanon's Shiite community. Fadlallah criticized Hezbollah openly at times, notably picking a fight with the group after it declared to its supporters that voting for the party in the 2005 parliamentary election was a religious obligation. He argued that such "perverted practices" would eventually delegitimize religious authority. His extensive network of schools throughout Lebanon, which enrolled 14,300 students in 2000, produces its own religious textbooks rather than use those approved by Iran's religious leadership.

In 1995, Fadlallah declared himself a marja, the highest religious authority within Shiism -- a step that was opposed by the Iranian religious establishment, which saw Khamenei as the proper source of emulation for the Shiite world. Although both Iran and Hezbollah issued statements praising Fadlallah upon his death, they studiously avoided referring to him as a marja.
For this reason, Western claims that Fadlallah was "the spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah were particularly ironic: Although he was clearly influential, it was on precisely the issue of Fadlallah's ultimate religious authority that he and the Party of God parted ways.
Starting in the 1990s, Fadlallah began to preach a more self-consciously modern version of Shiism, placing particular emphasis on scientific and rational methods. He opposed the practice of self-flagellation on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, arguing that it accentuated sectarian differences in Lebanon rather than promoting coexistence. His rulings in the field of gender relations have also been important: He asserted that women were qualified to lead men in prayer and were fully capable of moving up the ranks of the Shiite clergy, up to the post of ayatollah. In 2007, he issued a fatwa saying that a woman could fight back in self-defense if she were beaten by her husband.
This debate was more than an internecine feud over religious principles -- it had important repercussions for the political balance of power within Lebanon's Shiite community. Fadlallah criticized Hezbollah openly at times, notably picking a fight with the group after it declared to its supporters that voting for the party in the 2005 parliamentary election was a religious obligation. He argued that such "perverted practices" would eventually delegitimize religious authority. His extensive network of schools throughout Lebanon, which enrolled 14,300 students in 2000, produces its own religious textbooks rather than use those approved by Iran's religious leadership.

It also provides some juicy details about the 1985 CIA-backed attempt on Fadlallah's life, which Bob Woodward revealed (but misinterpreted since he continued to describe Fadlallah as an "archterrorist".)

In other words, Fadlallah was not just an important person, but a complex player who tried to stand aloof from politicking, even if he still had a political role. The fact that he spent some thirty years as a "Specially Designated Terrorist" shows the American foreign policy establishment rather black-and-white, un-nimble approach to the Middle East: an approach that it is the very opposite of the way Middle Eastern politics work most of the time. 

And the American media follows: CNN's Octavia Nasr has now been forced to resign because she tweeted sadness at Fadlallah's passing. The irony is that although she understood that he had had a positive role on some religious issues, she still identified him with Hizbullah. Here's her tweet:

"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Do you think Deborah Solomon of the NYT will now resign because she finds the Irgun romantic? This resignation/firing is so stupid I'm tempted to think cash-strapped CNN wanted to let go a 20-year veteran and hire someone cheaper.

Links for Dec.24.09
LRB · Adam Shatz · Wanting to Be Something Else | Adam Shatz on Orhan Pamuk.
UN gives mud brick huts to Gaza war homeless | I'm not sure Hassan Fathi-style mud brick homes will work in Gaza - doesn't it rain a lot there? This story also does not say whether they are building with mud bricks because the blockade makes other materials unavailable.
Renewed Lebanese drug trade hikes Mideast tensions - Yahoo! News | Return of cannabis and poppy cultivation in the Bekaa (but had it really ever gone away?)
الآراء من الغرب Views from the Occident: 'Ashura Artwork: Part I | Graphic posters from Shia martyrology.
BBC News - Lockheed secures $842m Morocco contract | For a bunch of F-16s.
FT.com / UK - Moussavi sacked as pressure mounts for a trial | Challenger to Ahmedinejad targeted.
Cameron under pressure to explain £100,000 funding linked to Lebanese former arms dealer | Politics | guardian.co.uk | Those European politicians sure love Arab money.

Shias in Saudi
From Brian Whitaker's blog:

52694B83-AEDC-4947-8691-53C53A429748.jpg

Hot on the heels of the Human Rights Watch report about discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, I received this photo of a Shia Ismaili mosque in Khobar. Note the concrete blocks placed in front of the entrance.

According to my source, security forces stormed the building yesterday and welded its door shut. They arrested the caretaker and about a dozen worshippers who refused to leave.


The HRW report is here, it condemns the "systematic discrimination and hostility towards Shia citizens."

Meanwhile, in Egypt, officials are leveling accusations against Iran for spreading Shiism in the country. No doubt this is true -- Iran after all wants to spread its "revolution" and with it Shia ideas, just as Saudis and Egyptians have tried to spread Wahhabi or Azharite influence. But of course it also means increased discrimination against Shia Egyptians.
Links for 07.25.09 to 07.26.09
تي بي يي للترجمات : We’re Going to Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse « THE BOURSA EXCHANGE | The Boursa Exchange translates al-Shorouk's article on the "deal" between the MB and the Egyptian regime.
France 24 | Ali Ben Bongo denies he is heir apparent | A preview of what's to come in Egypt? [Thanks, JS]
Economist Debates: Honest Broker | Economist debate feat. Daniel Levy vs. David Frum + guests: "This house believes that Barack Obama's America is now an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs."
Arrests raise concerns over Egypt’s tolerance - The National Newspaper | Forgot to link to this story on the crackdown on Shias in Egypt from last week.
Arabic expert off to Equatorial Guinea | Well they still have Dennis Ross around though:
Alberto Fernandez, one of the few high-level US Foreign Service Officers who knows Arabic well enough to speak it on TV is being assigned to Equatorial Guinea.


Egypt: 306 Shias arrested
Unverified - al-Mesryoon and translation via Mideastwire:

- “Arrest of 306 Shi’is on charges of undermining Egypt security”
On June 30, the independent Al-Mesryoon daily carried the following report by Fathi Magdi: “Al-Mesryoon learned from prominent sources that Shi’i cleric Hassan Shehata, the former speaker of the Kobri el-Gam'a mosque, was arrested earlier this month along with dozens of young men among his followers to be interrogated in the utmost secrecy. The sources who requested anonymity told Al-Mesryoon that Shehata who had been laying low for the last 14 years, was arrested in his house in the Center of Cairo on June 22, and was accused along with his group which includes 306 elements of undermining Egyptian national security and of showing contempt to one of the heavenly religions.

“The investigations with Shehata emerged against the backdrop of two visits which he conducted to Iran in parallel to the uncovering by the Egyptian authorities of the Hezbollah cell led by Lebanese citizen Sami Chehab and accused of planning to carry out operations inside the Egyptian territories and target foreign ships crossing the Suez Canal. According to the sources, Shehata went to Iran via Lebanon in September of 2008, then conducted another visit whose date was not specified via Syria. It is probable that these two visits were the reason behind the launching of the campaign of arrests which affected Shehata and his followers, and it is likely they will be facing charges of affiliation with Hezbollah on the organizational level as a result to the ongoing investigations.

“In this context, many online forums have been circulating news related to the arrest of Hassan Shehata who is a famous Shi’i cleric and is known for his speeches in which he insults the Companions of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him, and Sayeda Aisha the Mother of Believers, without this arrest being officially confirmed by the Egyptian authorities... Shehata was previously arrested in 1995 for having offended Sayeda Aisha whom he described as being “the little donkey” as well as the Companions of the Prophet, Peace and Blessings be Upon Him, whom he described as being “ignorant who resorted to the Prince of Believers (Ali Ibn Abi Taleb) whenever they faced a problem.” - Al-Mesryoon, Egypt


This would suggest quite an increased crackdown on Shias, possibly merely as a result of the "Hizbullah in Egypt" affair or wider worries about Iranian influence. But it could also simply be prejudice - either the Shia preacher described in the article really did incite against Sunnis, as mentioned, or the bigotry is on the government's side. Or both.
Morocco's Le Journal: "We are all Shia"
My friend Abou Bakr Jamai, publisher of Morocco's Le Journal weekly now in forced into exile because of bogus lawsuits against his magazine, sent me this week's cover highlighting Morocco's new religious crusade for "the right Islam" that must be followed.

This campaign is aimed at asserting the "Sunni malekite nature" of "Moroccan Islam"; its aim is to buttress the pro-monarchy traditionalism of very Morocco-specific institutions such as the "Commandership of the Faithful" (specific in that it argues that the king has the same role as a Caliph, but only for Moroccans), Sherifism (high respect for descendants of the prophet, a very Shia tradition that has since Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century been a key part of governance through a ethno-religious aristocracy) and the prominence of apolitical Sufi tariqat. The campaign to reimpose these traditionalist values is partly a not-so-badly thought out attempt to limit the spread of salafism (I applaud that) but has also spread into paranoia about Iran-funded Shia conversion and as a way to put pressure on Islamic parties, legal and unrecognized. But it's the kind of thing that the Moroccan regime has long done - asserting a Moroccan Islam that is nice and fluffy vs. the Islam of its opponents - and, moreover, the foreigners usually lap it up.


[caption id="attachment_3928" align="aligncenter" width="450" caption=""We are all Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic..." "]"We are all Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic..." [/caption]
Links for 2 December
Automatically posted links for November 30th through December 2nd: