How the Houthis Became “Shi‘a”

It is wrong to code what is happening in Yemen as a Sunni-Shi‘i conflict. The Houthis are not an Iranian proxy but a predominantly local political movement founded in long-standing, Yemen-centric grievances and power struggles. The cynical use of sectarian language casts the conflict in Yemen as part of an epochal, region-wide struggle rather than a local civil war made more deadly for Yemeni civilians by Saudi and Emirati intervention.

Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game

Toby Jones 01.5.2016

When Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, the country’s leaders were aware that doing so would upset their long-time rivals in Iran. In fact, the royal court in Riyadh was probably counting on it. It got what it wanted. The deterioration of relations has been precipitous: Protesters in Tehran sacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy; in retaliation, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties. More severe fallout could follow—possibly even war.

Quetta’s Sectarian Violence and the Global Hazara Awakening

On a cold February day in London, over 40 Hazara men, women and children sat wrapped in blankets at the foot of the King George V monument opposite the Houses of Parliament. They were protesting the bombing of a vegetable market on February 16 in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed at least 91 of their brethren and wounded 190 more. It was the second day of their three-day sit-in and many had braved the freezing temperatures and the rain overnight. They had chosen to protest in this way as Hazaras — a predominantly Shi‘i Afghan ethnic group with a large, long-standing community in southwestern Pakistan — rather than joining the larger and more vocal crowd of diverse Shi‘i protesters outside the Pakistani High Commission two miles away.

The Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads

Toby Matthiesen 05.6.2009

Deep in the morass of YouTube lies a disturbing video clip recorded in late February at the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ and on surrounding streets in Medina, Saudi Arabia. An initial caption promises images of “desecration of graves.” Al-Baqi‘, located next to the mosque of the prophet Muhammad in the second holiest city of Islam, is believed to be the final resting place of four men revered by Shi‘i Muslims as imams or successors to the prophet: Hasan ibn ‘Ali, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali and Ja‘afar ibn Muhammad. The prophet’s wives, as well as many of his relatives and close associates, are also said to be buried here, making the ground hallowed for Sunni Muslims as well.

Debating Devolution in Iraq

Reidar Visser 03.10.2008

In early August 2007, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, made headlines with striking comments to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. The cleric revealed in an interview with Sam Dagher that “a massive operation” was underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be named the “South of Baghdad Region,” and projected to encompass all nine majority-Shi‘i governorates south of the Iraqi capital.

Sanctioned Pleasures

Beirut is known internationally for a youthful jet set that likes to be identified with the world clubbing circuit, including such stops as B018, an underground nocturnal haunt reminiscent of a coffin built by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury upon the remains of a war crime.

Basra, the Reluctant Seat of “Shiastan”

On December 24, 2005, an Iraqi writing under the signature “Hammad” published a remarkable message on a website devoted to southern Iraqi affairs:

The Muslim World Is Not Flat

This 1995 CIA map, often used in the media and in classrooms, reminds us that today Shi‘i Muslims are concentrated in only a few nation-states—Iran, Iraq, the Arab Gulf states, Azerbaijan and Lebanon in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in South Asia. There are also numerous ‘Alawis in Syria, Alevis in Turkey and Zaydi Shi‘a in Yemen. The vast majority of Muslims in the world, approximately 90 percent, are Sunni.

Israel’s War Against Lebanon’s Shi‘a

Jim Quilty 07.25.2006

When Israel undertook its aerial and naval bombardment of Lebanon on July 12, one announced goal was to recover two Israeli servicemen seized by Hizballah in a cross-border raid earlier that day. The attacks upon civilian infrastructure—beginning with Beirut International Airport and continuing with ancillary airstrips, bridges and roads, as well as port facilities in Beirut, Jounieh, Amshit and Tripoli—were necessary, Israeli officials claim, to prevent Hizballah from smuggling the prisoners out of Lebanon.

‘Ajamis in Lebanon

It is Muharram, the month of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and the female-run husseiniyya in West Beirut is packed with women dressed in black. As the sounds of Lebanese and Iraqi Arabic dialects, as well as Persian, fill the hallways of this Shi‘i community center, the female religious performer (qari’a) signals that the ritual program (majlis) will begin shortly. She is an Iraqi, and while she reads from her thick notebook, a woman standing next to her reads the same text in Persian for those in the audience who do not understand Arabic. Some of these women are Iranians who have married into Iraqi Shi‘i families of Persian descent who settled in Lebanon after being expelled from Iraq by the deposed Baathist regime.

The Iraq Effect in Saudi Arabia

Shi‘is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have watched Iraq’s political transformation with a combination of horror and optimism. Iraq’s slide toward civil war, the carnage wrought by militant violence and the targeted slaughter of thousands of Iraqi Shi‘is by Sunni insurgents have sown fears among Shi‘a in the kingdom that they might be the next to suffer bloodshed. Their worries are not unwarranted. They live in a sea of sectarian hostility, where the Sunni government and its clerical backers have long made clear their antipathy for the Muslim minority sect.

Iran, the Vatican of Shi’ism?

The Iranian state, controlled de facto by the conservatives in the government, promotes the idea that Iran is the center of Shi‘ism. It bases its argument on the fact that Iran is a Shi‘i-run state, whereas Shi‘i Muslims in other parts of the world live in states that are dominated by Sunnis, and so Iran is free to pay near exclusive attention to Shi‘i concerns.

The Islamization of Law in Iran

The re-Islamization of law by the leadership of the Islamic Republic following the 1979 revolution immediately clashed with the realities of contemporary Iranian society. [1] This clash engendered divisions between the parliament and the Guardian Council (a body of faqihs [2]] tasked with safeguarding laws’ conformity to Islam and the constitution). [3] Numerous government projects and decisions adopted by the parliament were rejected by the Guardian Council on the grounds that they did not conform to shari‘a (Islamic law). The Council’s hard-line policy generated continuous conflicts, necessitating the intervention of Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic.

A Clash of Fundamentalisms

During the past two decades, a proselytizing, reformist, “Islamist” movement — mainly characterized as “Wahhabi” — has gained increasing popularity throughout Yemen. Wahhabism actively opposes both the main Yemeni schools — Zaydi Shi‘ism in the north and Shafi‘i Sunnism in the south and in the Tihama. It is closely connected with the political party Islah, a coalition of tribal, mercantile and religious interests that pursues a mixed social and political agenda. [1]

The Iraqi Question from the Inside

To affirm the existence of an “Iraqi question” has certain implications. People usually speak, referring to the Shi‘a and the Kurds, of minorities and of the necessity of protecting them as such. But this misses the point concerning what is unique about Iraq.

Ajami, The Vanished Imam

Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).


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