Twin specters hang over the Middle East of the American imagination — the perceived rise in the geopolitical power of the region’s Shi‘i Muslims and the dark shadow cast by the sectarian reprisals that increasingly propel the Iraqi civil war. In the United States, pundits and Democratic presidential candidates point to the first specter as the ominous unintended consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, according to what is now conventional wisdom, strengthened majority-Shi‘i Iran at the expense of the US-sponsored order in the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi civil war, meanwhile, is the newest evidence for Americans that conflicts in the Middle East are intractable because they are, at root, religious. Many Americans have turned against the Iraq war not because the invasion was launched on false pretenses or lacked UN approval, but because they now see the well-intentioned US military trapped amidst what Newsweek called “violent sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the two main branches of Islam that have been at odds for centuries.” In Washington, former war supporters like Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) have taken to calling for “passing the torch to the Iraqis, who are the only ones who can handle this ancient — I’d say primitive — sectarian dispute.”

If nothing else, the notion that a primordial Middle Eastern hatred explains the Iraqi civil war is distressing for its resonance with the canard that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been fighting over the Holy Land since time immemorial. Regular consumers of American news coverage believe that because upon each flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, historical primers inevitably appear in the newspapers to show that the confrontation is infused with religious attachments anchored deep in the past. Such primers are an abuse of history, because they substitute detours through antiquity for excursus of far more relevant contemporary events. Politically, they are pernicious, for they encourage passive public reactions — shrugs at hopeless tribalism or the stunned silence one would evince at a natural disaster. “They will never make peace,” many readers understandably conclude, before flipping to the sports page.

As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem with the religious-sectarian narrative of the Iraqi conflagration is not factual inaccuracy per se. Violence has indeed plagued Sunni-Shi‘i relations from time to time, and several wars have been fought in the name of establishing one sect’s power or another, or at least been so justified by the aggressor. It is sadly true that the Iraqi civil war has a distinctly sectarian cast, and many Iraqis have certainly died or fled their homes simply because they are Sunnis or Shi‘a.

The problem is lack of historical context. Timelines do not tell us what caused outbreaks of “sectarian violence,” and they are especially poor at conveying multiple causes. Nor, crucially, does the existence of doctrinal differences between Sunnism and Shi‘ism teach us anything about the relationship between sect and politics — why and how communal aspects of identity take precedence over others, why and how religious identity becomes “sectarian” or chauvinist, why and how rulers mobilize feelings of communal belonging for political ends. This last point suggests that we search, in contemporary rather than ancient history, for the political moorings of the tenet that sectarian affiliation determines political motivation, and so explains current events.

American fear of Shi‘ism stems partly from the unresolved angst caused by the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 444-day hostage crisis in Tehran. Footage of shouting Iranian revolutionaries burning US flags — the archetypal “Death to America” images for Americans over 35 — and the 1982 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, attributed to Hizballah, imprinted lasting mental equations of Shi‘ism with political extremism and Shi‘i religiosity with irrationality. These prejudices surfaced immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in April 2003, as commentators gazed aghast upon the pilgrimage of Iraqi Shi‘a to Karbala’ to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a practice long banned under the old regime. “That is religious fanaticism as demented as you will ever see it,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on the Sunday talk show “The McLaughlin Group,” as pictures of chest-beating Shi‘a flashed on the screen.

But the US foreign policy establishment has been equally disquieted by a series of admonishments from Sunni elites, phrased in explicit sectarian terms, that the post-Saddam political transition in Iraq is upsetting the strategic applecart. As votes were being counted after the January 2005 elections for a transitional government, Sharif ‘Ali bin Hussein, nephew of the Hashemite king of Iraq deposed in 1958, warned Americans to steel themselves for a “Sistani tsunami” sweeping the Najaf ayatollah’s fellow Shi‘a into power. Before long, he said, they would find US soldiers “protecting a country that’s extremely friendly to Iran, and training [that country’s] troops.” Jordan’s King ‘Abdallah II went further in a subsequent, widely quoted speech, claiming to espy a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through the Arab oil producers into Lebanon. In case this formulation was overly subtle, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak sledge-hammered the point home in later televised comments: “Most of the Shi‘a are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in.”

History does not support Mubarak’s assertion. As it so happens, the specter of a “Shiite crescent” has arisen before, not even 30 years ago, and the man who thought he spotted it was Saddam Hussein.

The fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and the subsequent Islamic Revolution in that country, ushered Shi‘i clergy into political power for the first time. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) represented an epochal break with the traditional quietism of the Shi‘i clerical hierarchy. In practice, quietism had rarely meant that the clergy absented itself entirely from the political realm. It had encompassed a range of positions on the part of senior ayatollahs, from subservience to regimes to the occasional honoring of requests for fatwas blessing state policies to utter disdain for politics. But Khomeinism — asserting that clerics should seize the state — was quite different from the ideas of even the most politically active among Khomeini’s peers. It remains a minority doctrine among Shi‘i ‘ulama worldwide.

Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein later confided in his Egyptian counterpart Mubarak that the Islamic Republic of Iran posed a greater threat to Iraq than Israel, because Khomeinism could inspire insurrection and secessionism among the Iraqi Shi‘a, forcing the breakup of the nation-state. The Gulf monarchies shared Saddam’s fear of revolutionary Iran, which called upon Muslims everywhere (not just the Shi‘a) to emulate its example, and so they extended enormous loans to the Iraqi dictator during the devastating eight-year war following his invasion of Iran in 1980. Washington was also spooked by the shade of Iranian expansionism, and so it “tilted” toward Iraq in the conflict, supplying Baghdad with satellite imagery of Iranian troop movements and falsely accusing Iran of perpetrating chemical weapons attacks launched by Iraq. But Saddam’s trepidation about the Islamic Revolution was emphatically not shared by Muslim populations, who saw a successful uprising against a Western-backed tyrant, or by most Sunni Islamist movements, who saw an Islamic revolution, not a Shi‘i one. Most importantly, despite Saddam’s presumption of their disloyalty, and despite Khomeini’s bid to win their defection by labeling Saddam as Yazid (the Umayyad “pretender” said to have killed the revered Imam Hussein in battle), the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Shi‘i soldiers fought against Iran during the war. Part of the reason why lies in the differences in the Iranian and Iraqi confrontations between Shi‘i mosque and state, and the relation of these confrontations to nationalism.

Khomeini first came to prominence in the early 1960s as a vocal opponent of the Shah’s “modernizing” White Revolution, particularly its measures enfranchising women and breaking up large agrarian estates for redistribution to peasant smallholders. The latter measure eroded the wealth of old elites, including the landlords among the Shi‘i clergy, who labeled land reform contrary to Islamic law. Khomeini’s spirited attacks on the White Revolution, while contributing to unrest that was violently suppressed, did not rouse the mass of the population against the regime. The Shah’s adoption of a bill granting blanket immunity from local laws to the numerous military and civilian American personnel then working in Iran was a different story, as the memory of the 1953 CIA coup that reinstalled the Shah was still fresh. Khomeini thundered: “If some American’s servant, some American’s cook, assassinates your marja‘ al-taqlid [the “source of emulation,” or respected elder cleric whose guidance is sought by pious Shi‘a], in the middle of the bazaar, or runs over him, you do not have the right to apprehend him!” It was this simple appeal to Iranians’ national dignity and resentment of the West that led the Shah to banish Khomeini in 1964. He fled to Najaf, Iraq, where he continued to inveigh against the Shah’s close ties to the US, and developed the tenets of velayat-e faqih.

As in Iran, disputes between successive post-colonial Iraqi regimes and the Shi‘i clergy stemmed from worldly roots. The senior jurisprudents resident in the shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala’, al-Kadhimiyya and Samarra’ rejected the land reform measures and secular family law of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, the colonel who led the revolt against the last Hashemite king, and the “socialist decrees” of the Arab nationalist government of President ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif in 1964. The Iraqi state enforced its policies of nationalization and wealth redistribution at the expense of private capital, and as in Iran, the poorer Shi‘i classes backed the reforms regardless of clerical opposition. In Iraq, however, the state had been dominated by Sunni Arabs since its creation under British auspices, and the urban merchant class was heavily Shi‘i. The Shi‘i establishment saw a sectarian edge on the “socialist decrees,” perhaps because they came amidst an effluvium of anti-Shi‘i innuendo from the mouths of state-affiliated intellectuals and ‘Arif himself. The primary insinuation was that the Shi‘a were too close to “Persian” Iran.

In part because of the Shi‘i clergy’s conservatism, many Shi‘i Iraqis (like Iraqis of other sects) had long sought refuge in avowedly secular ideologies and identities such as liberalism, communism and Baathism. Communist and Baathist success in building strong cells that could rally mass support impelled a junior cleric named Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and a handful of others in Najaf to form al-Da‘wa (the Islamic Call) beginning in 1958. Al-Da‘wa aimed, in Leninist fashion, to wage a four-stage struggle for an Islamic polity: public education and party formation, party building, revolution and, finally, Islamic rule. The Islamic rule envisioned in al-Usus, the manifesto penned by Sadr, was not velayat-e faqih. Rather, al-Da‘wa thought the party leadership should exercise dual authority along with the marja‘ al-taqlid, a mechanism which effectively gutted the age-old role of the senior jurisprudent. In fact, in line with the internationalist spirit of communism and pan-Arabism, the ideologies it sought to combat, al-Da‘wa avoided conventional Shi‘i terminology and tried instead to craft a message for all Muslims. After the clerical hierarchy in Najaf and Karbala’ heaped scorn on these ideas, laymen in the party dropped pan-Islamism and focused on educating and mobilizing Iraqi Shi‘a, attracting increased regime surveillance from ‘Arif’s time onward.

Baathist rule after 1968 cemented the enmity between the Shi‘i currents and the regime. The clergy quietly appreciated the Baathists’ massacres of communists during their first tour in power in 1963, but were wary of the Baathists’ own plans for a “socialist” command economy as well as the mostly Sunni Arab makeup of the party’s upper echelons. The regime, for its part, demanded clerical obeisance to raison d’etat. In 1969, President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr asked Ayatollah al-Hakim to condemn the Shah’s stance in the Iranian-Iraqi dispute over division of the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf. The ayatollah said no, whereupon the regime expelled some 20,000 Iraqi Shi‘a from the country (because of their alleged Persian descent), the first of several such expulsions under Bakr and, later, Saddam Hussein. A cycle of Shi‘i protest and ever harsher repression ensued, including the exile of Hakim’s sons and the execution of several al-Da‘wa activists. At the onset of the Iranian revolution in 1978, al-Da‘wa circles became interested in the ideas of Khomeini, who was previously unimportant on the Iraqi Shi‘i scene, though resident in Najaf. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr had independently developed the concept of al-marja‘ al-salih — a cleric who was not necessarily accepted as supreme by the hierarchy, but who was deeply in touch with his flock and was politically active on their behalf. In its marriage of spiritual and political roles, this concept bore some resemblance to velayat-e faqih. In February 1979, the Iraqi ayatollah sent a telegram to Khomeini, saying, in part: “We put our whole being at the service of your great prominence.” Saddam’s regime murdered Sadr and his sister Bint al-Huda in May 1980.

It is unclear how many ordinary Iraqi Shi‘a shared Sadr’s admiration for the Islamic Revolution, and to what extent. What is clear is that Khomeini’s pan-Shi‘i appeals did not rally them to the Iranian flag, and that fear of regime retaliation was not the only reason why not. When Hakim’s son Muhammad Baqir returned to Iraq in 1991 as head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), then promoters of Khomeinist ideas, dramatic popular uprisings were sweeping the south of the country. The uprisings probably involved tens of thousands of Shi‘i (and non-Shi‘i) conscripts in the Iraqi army, streaming home from Kuwait, as well as local residents. Hakim issued a communiqué to the effect that “all Iraqi armed forces should submit to and obey” the orders of SCIRI. This “disastrous slogan,” argues the Iraqi scholar Faleh A. Jabar, both alienated the Kurds and communists engaged in simultaneous revolts and failed to mobilize the Shi‘i masses of Baghdad and al-Kadhimiyya. The uprisings were crushed.

Talk of a “Shiite crescent” today also evokes a pan-Shi‘i unity enforced by the malign grip of Persian Iran. For US-allied, Sunni-led Arab regimes, as for Saddam, dismissing modern Shi‘i movements as sectarian or Iranian-backed is a convenient way of marginalizing their mundane demands, whether for national belonging and enfranchisement or simply the protection of traditional communal prerogatives. Yet such concepts continue to erase the agency of Shi‘i parties and communities in the Arab world. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the large, oppressed Shi‘i communities have taken pains to distance themselves from Tehran, so as to avoid Sunni backlash. The Saudi Arabian Shi‘a seek full acceptance as citizens and members of society, despite the sectarian bile regularly spat in their direction by Sunni clerics close to the state. In Lebanon, Hizballah has long since realized it cannot impose an Islamic state. The “party of God” has entered the hurly-burly of Lebanese electoral politics, working closely with Christian allies, and advancing its own, very Arabic-inflected vision of Lebanese nationalism. It is not coincidental that even within Lebanon’s Shi‘i religious sphere, Hizballah must compete for the Arabist mantle with the respected Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who derides the Iranian tendency to consider Iran the center of Shi‘i Islam.

“Shiite crescent” discourse today is characterized by the same flawed assumptions of monolithic unity and solely religious or sectarian motivations among Shi‘i communities that were held in the 1980s. The source of much of the confusion is that there are indeed important linkages between Shi‘a across national boundaries and traversing great distances. One such linkage is the institution of the marja‘ al-taqlid. There are numerous Iranians, as well as Iraqis and others, who follow Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al‑Sistani in Najaf. Likewise, some Lebanese Shi‘a follow Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran, and some Iraqis follow Sayyid Fadlallah in Lebanon. (Fadlallah, once a student of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Najaf, believes in keeping a distance, however small, between clerical leadership and political leadership. Though Hizballah officially subscribes to velayat-e faqih, and considers Khamenei its marja‘, many party members follow Fadlallah personally.) These sources of emulation collect vast sums from faraway followers through a tithe called the khums, half of which is redistributed to the poor. Aspiring students of Islamic law and philosophy come from all over the Islamic world to study at the seminaries in Najaf and Qom in Iran. Finally, the Islamic Republic of Iran does cultivate close ties with Shi‘i Islamist groups abroad, most notably today with SCIRI and some branches of al-Da‘wa in Iraq and with Hizballah in Lebanon.

Yet the media frequently overstates or misunderstands the significance of transnational ties for explaining the actions of Shi‘i political actors. Not only is there no pan-Shi‘i unity in spiritual matters, as indicated by the profusion of sources of emulation, but the marja‘ is also not the combination of pope and generalissimo he is often imagined to be. Followers might take a momentous political step without clerical dispensation. There is no evidence, for example, that in July 2006 Hizballah crossed the Lebanese-Israeli border to capture Israeli soldiers on orders from Khamenei. Journalists can be misled in these matters by partisans of the marja‘ in question. Following the success of the main Shi‘i religious parties in the January 2005 Iraqi elections, Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, imam of an important mosque in Baghdad, explained that Sistani, whose visage had appeared on the parties’ posters, was “the spiritual leader of all the Shi‘a in the world.” Not even all the Shi‘a of Iraq recognize him as marja‘.

Clerical authority in Iraq is increasingly fragmented, in line with the political and social fragmentation of a country bound under US occupation and tortured by civil war. In 2004, Sistani famously rejected a provision in the US-sponsored Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that was to be Iraq’s “draft constitution.” The ayatollah feared that this provision, envisioning a collective presidency shared by a Sunni Arab, a Shi‘i Arab and a Kurd, would “enshrine sectarian and ethnic divisions” in the country, perhaps leading to “partition.” He dispatched a missive to the UN urging that body not to refer to the TAL in its resolutions. The UN heeded the letter of his advice, but the post-Saddam political transition in Iraq ignored its spirit. Today Iraq has a Kurdish president, a Sunni Arab vice president and a Shi‘i Arab vice president. The country’s pathway to formal electoral democracy, under the stewardship of the US-British occupation authority and then the US embassy in Baghdad, has enshrined sectarian and ethnic divisions at every step of the way, much as the Lebanese confessional system was forged under French mandatory rule. SCIRI, a Shi‘i party supported by Washington and nominally submissive to Sistani, openly pursues a sectarian goal: a nine-province “Shiastan” in central and southern Iraq.

Lastly, for tales of timeless Sunni-Shi‘i sectarian division to achieve the status of social-scientific theories, they must have predictive value. Here the evidentiary record is not very convincing. Several editorials during the summer 2006 Israeli bombardment and invasion of Lebanon pointed to the official Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian condemnations of Hizballah as proof of a growing Sunni-Shi‘i divide. Yet Sunnis across the Arab and Islamic world loudly cheered Hizballah on. In February 2007, Zogby International released a poll of Arab attitudes designed by political scientist Shibley Telhami that cast additional doubt on the sectarian thesis. Despite over a year of coded warnings of a Persian peril from their rulers, only 6 percent of Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, most of them heavily Sunni Muslim countries, considered majority-Shi‘i Iran the biggest threat to their security. Nearly 80 percent honored Israel or the United States with this dubious distinction. This result points to the long-standing divide between Sunni Arab populations and their rulers over what the people see as the rulers’ deference to Washington. It also reminds us that, contrary to another implication of the “Shiite crescent” thesis, the vast majority of Sunni Arabs in the modern era have been just as subject to autocratic nationalisms as the Shi‘a have been, whether in Saddam’s Iraq or Mubarak’s Egypt. It is authoritarian rule, not the relative regional clout of the Shi‘a, that has always muffled the political voice of the average Sunni.

So we return to Washington, to find a paradox at the heart of the “Shiite crescent” discourse: The alleged crescent has appeared as promise and threat. For the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, and their fellow travelers, it held the promise of a new, majority-ruled Iraq, a chastened “Wahhabi” Saudi Arabia and liberated, pro-American Muslims in the Gulf. Yet Shi‘i empowerment is also a threat to the US, because of the national traumas of the hostage crisis and the 1982 Marine barracks bombing, as well as rivalry with Iran; to key US ally Saudi Arabia, which fears its oppressed Shi‘i citizens and Iranian ambitions in the Gulf; and to Israel, which regards both Hizballah and Iran as existential foes. Bush administration interventions in the Middle East do not make sense as a grand scheme to boost the fortunes of the Shi‘a. In Iraq, despite much diplomacy aimed at “bringing the Sunnis back in,” the US is propping up two middle-class parties — SCIRI and the rump of al-Da‘wa — bent on establishing Shi‘i communal power. At the same time, the US wages on-again, off-again warfare against the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr (son of Muhammad Baqir’s cousin), the most prominent voice of Iraq’s downtrodden Shi‘i poor. As is obvious from its green light for Israel’s 34-day aerial assault upon Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Bush administration has not forgotten the “blood debt,” to quote former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, it believes Hizballah owes the US for the Marine barracks incident. And the Bush White House has escalated US-Iranian tensions to levels unseen since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Because of its alliance with the Shi‘i religious parties in Iraq, the Bush administration cannot simply adopt its Arab allies’ sectarian rhetoric wholesale. It prefers instead to place itself on the side of “moderates” against “extremists.”

Even so, the Bush administration is a prime beneficiary of the prevalence of religious-sectarian modes of interpreting the turmoil in the Middle East. Those who see an enduring, ineluctable Sunni-Shi‘i antipathy behind the Iraqi civil war absolve the US of its integral role in fanning the flames of the conflict. Sectarian tensions in Iraq were born of the depredations of Saddam Hussein’s regime and previous central governments in Baghdad, and not a contretemps that occurred 1,300 years ago. It was not inevitable, moreover, that those tensions would explode into the cataclysm of today. Only the US invasion, the failure to protect Iraqi state institutions from looting, the neglect of Iraqi public-sector factories and workshops, the vengeful, sectarian debaathification policy, the indiscriminate roundups of Sunni Arabs, the Abu Ghraib horror, the subsequent outsourcing of Iraqi prisons to SCIRI militiamen and other calamities of the occupation were able to achieve that. There is no “Shiite crescent.” But actual US policy in Iraq, coupled with the actions and rhetoric of Shi‘i US allies in Iraq and Sunni US allies elsewhere, has indisputably aroused sectarian passions across the region, keeping the concept artificially — and dangerously — alive.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editor (Spring 2007)," Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).

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