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The Shi'a crescent: myth or reality?

About the author
Abigail Fielding-Smith is Middle East Editor at IB Tauris Publishers and a freelance writer on Middle East issues. She worked as the researcher on John Kampfner's best-selling book Blair's Wars.

The Shi'a of the middle east are on the rise, we are told. This historically marginalised sect, guided by religious leaders with close links to non-Arab Iran, has been regarded with suspicion by Sunni Arab leaders since the Iranian revolution of 1979 exhorted them to seize power. But the momentum of the Iranian revolution didn't last, fortunately for the Arab political class. Now, a resurgent Iran, newly emboldened by high energy prices and the replacement of Saddam Hussein with a Shi'a-dominated government in neighbouring Iraq, is drawing attention back to the Shi'a question.

From the Levant to the Gulf, Shi'a communities appear to be riding Iran's wave. The Lebanese Shi'a militia Hizbollah has shown a surprising level of military capability in its current conflict with Israel, thanks in no small part to Iranian-supplied weaponry. The most influential single figure in Iraq is an Iranian-born cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Iraqi Shi'a party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), formed by exiles in Tehran in 1982, has gained control of Iraq's Interior Ministry, and appears to be using it to wage a defensive sectarian war against the Sunnis. Meanwhile the political empowerment of the Iraqi Shi'a has struck a chord with the chronically under-represented Shi'a of neighbouring Arab Gulf states, such as Bahrain, where they constitute around seventy percent of the population.

Opinion-formers such as America's leading expert on political Shi'ism, Vali Nasr, are talking of "a new paradigm in the region". When Abdullah of Jordan warned of a "Shi'a crescent" in 2004, his comments were dismissed as irresponsible scaremongering. Now the phrase is regularly used in newspaper headlines as if it were a matter of fact. In June 2006 the US Council on Foreign Relations arranged a symposium entitled "The Emerging Shi'a Crescent: Implications for US Policy". Commentators both in and outside the middle east are increasingly seeing the region's politics through the prism of Sunni/Shi'a relations. The inference is that the region contains distinct transnational identity blocs, and that the shift in their balance of power has locked them in to a collision course.

Abigail Fielding-Smith is Middle East Editor at IB Tauris Publishers, and a freelance writer on middle east issues.

Also by Abigail Fielding-Smith in openDemocracy:

"Between politics and war: Hizbollah in the spotlight"
(22 May 2006)

Behind the labels

How accurate is this characterisation? There are certainly powerful ideological, social and political links between elements of the Shi'a communities of different countries, exemplified by the posters of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini which bedeck South Lebanon. When Bahraini Shi'a protesting against Israel's activities in the occupied territories overran the US embassy in Manama in 2002, they planted a Hizbollah flag on its wall. The transnational nature of Shi'a religious authority has made them vulnerable to accusations, such as those recently leveled by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, of being fifth columnists, loyal not to the state but to their religious leaders in Iran.

In reality, however, the ideological orientation of Shi'a communities has reflected the conditions of the countries they find themselves in, and their negotiations to better their situation within those countries. Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, for example, the marja-e taghlid (source of emulation) of the majority of the Lebanese Shi'a, and spiritual guide to Hizbollah, moved away from Khomeini's doctrine of Islamic government (velayat-e faqih) during the 1990s because such a goal was not achievable in multi-confessional Lebanon. Though Iranian-born, Ayatollah Sistani has resisted political direction from Iran, and concentrated instead on achieving representation within the Iraqi state. As analyst Roger Hardy puts it, when it comes to doing Tehran's bidding "the Arab Shi'a have other fish to fry".

It is true that after Iran's 1979 revolution and the establishment of a Shi'a religious state, Shi'a communities from Pakistan to the Levant became radicalised. But inspiration, tactical alliances and the power of example do not equate to faith-based adherence. The leading Shi'a activist in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Hassan Al Saffar, read Sunni Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb for ideas during his exile. Conversely, today the Sunni Islamist group Hamas looks to Shi'a Hizbollah and Iran for support. If there is now a "new paradigm" in the region it is a geopolitical rather than a religious one.

In contrast to 1979, the mobilising force in political Shi'ism in the middle east today seems to originate in Iraq rather than Iran. Khomeini's Islamic revolution proved impossible to recreate outside Iran, and eventually the Shi'a of the Arab world distanced themselves from their earlier radicalism. More recently, the one-person one-vote policy of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq has had huge resonance in a region clamouring for political change. In Saudi Arabia, Shi'a activists have made common cause with Sunni reformers pressing for greater democracy and human rights. Representation, rather than revolution is the new buzzword.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the sense of belonging to a collective Umma, rather than a sect, remains the primary touchstone of religious identity for most Muslims, particularly in the face of western military involvement in the middle east. Iranian president Ahmadinejad has skilfully tapped in to this feeling. Shi'a Iranian pilgrims taking taxis in Mecca at this year's Hajj were reportedly subjected to rhapsodic encomia on their leader by their Sunni drivers.

Politicising difference

None of this is to say that there is no difference between being a Sunni Muslim and being a Shi'a Muslim. As Tariq Ramadan points out, the doctrinal element is significant - there are literalists who see the Shi'a as the enemy within Islam. Over the centuries, doctrinal difference has reinforced communal difference: the marja-e taghlid's role as the source of temporal authority, for example, excluded Shi'a from Sunni legal systems. In some places Sunni and Shi'a can be identified by their outer appearance, as the luckless inhabitants of Baghdad are reminded on a daily basis. A leaked memo from US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reveals that "Often, if [Iraqi staff members of the US embassy] must travel outside their own neighborhoods, they adopt the clothing, language and traits of the area … in Yusufiya, a strict Sunni conservative dress code has taken hold ... Moving inconspicuously in Sadr city requires Shi'ite conservative dress and a peculiar lingo." But as Iraq expert Charles Tripp observes, "the question is what makes these differences active? What turns them in to politicised difference?"

In the case of Iraq there were many factors, and few of them included the will of the people for a political identity based on sectarian belief. As Ghassan Atiyyah, a secular Shi'a from the Baghdad-based Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, explains: "Only the elites are benefiting from the situation in Iraq. The majority are not Shi'a in the sense of wanting religious government … they feel themselves to be Shi'a in the sense of being scared of Sunni insurgents." One of the more immediate causes of Iraq's current sectarian problems was the capture of ministries of the post-Saddam state by exile organisations, whose leaders had spent their time in exile strategically redefining themselves in sectarian terms in order to access funding and patronage.

The provision of patronage to sectarian organisations originates in geopolitical calculations made by the Gulf Arab states and Shi'ite Iran in the 1980s as they struggled for regional hegemony. In a proxy war with long-lasting consequences, each side funded schools, hospitals, militias and political organisations throughout the middle east as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Practioners of Realpolitk in the region today continue to use sectarianism as a tool. Sunni politicians have sought to deflect the resurgent power of Iran (and of domestic political opposition) by playing the anti-Shi'a card, and conversely Iran, seeking to look powerful in the eyes of America, has exaggerated its ability to influence the international Shi'a community.

Meanwhile Salafist radicals such as Al Qaeda have (until recently) tactically directed their followers towards acts of sectarian violence against the Shi'a on the basis that it is easier to mobilise against a proximate than against a distant enemy. The entire discourse of sectarianism itself, with its implications of inherent long-simmering tensions, has been useful for regimes wishing to impose a security-led state. As Charles Tripp points out, the last person to talk about the "axis of the Shi'a" was Saddam Hussein.

The problem is that the hyping up of sectarian difference for political purposes can have the self-fulfilling effect of making it a social reality, as the Iraqi tragedy demonstrates. Western opinion-formers would therefore do well not to take the proclaimed sectarian divides of the middle east at face value. According to Glen Rangwala, who analyses Iraq's descent in to sectarian chaos with forensic precision in a new book Iraq in Fragments (Cornell University Press, 2006), the Coalition Provisional Authority's decision to cede control of key ministries to sectarian parties reflected in part "a kind of low level orientalism: the easy characterisation which sees tribe and sect as the steering forces of the Middle East".

The desire for easy characterisations is not a uniquely contemporary failing. When Winston Churchill was Colonial Secretary in charge of administering Iraq in 1921, he asked an aide: "Let me have a note in about three lines as to (King) Feisal's religious character. Is he a Sunni with Shaih (sic) sympathies, or a Shaih with Sunni sympathies, or how does he square it?… Which is the aristocratic high church and which is the low church? What are the religious people at Kerbela? I always get mixed up between these two" (quoted in William Polk's Understanding Iraq, IB Tauris, 2006).

A more nuanced awareness and vocabulary are clearly needed to grasp the web of relationships both within and between the middle east's Sunni and Shi'a communities, if oversimplification is not to lead to errors of policy as well as understanding. However comfortably such templates might suit some observers, attending to the more complex picture is essential for good politics.


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