Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

United we stand

The demonisation of Shia is on the rise, argues Abbas Kadhim*

The demonisation of the Arab Shia wherever they live in the Arab world is not new. In modern times, this practice began by the ideologues of Arab nationalism who revised history and created a scapegoat for the failing of their ideology, having been supported by intolerant religious leaders. The symptoms of this folly then moved fast to the mostly semi-illiterate part of the Arab masses and finally found its way to the corridors of politics. The Shia were said to be responsible for the killing of the third caliph, Othman, the wars against the fourth caliph, Ali, the killing of Imam Hussein, the fall of the Umayyad state and the fall of Baghdad in the hands of the Mongols. Hence, Shiism came to be considered, as Ahmed Amin put it in his book Fajr Al-Islam, "a refuge for anyone who wanted to destroy Islam".

In the current times, this practice is on the rise. The most recent accusation by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak that the Shia "are mostly always loyal to Iran and not to the countries where they live" were preceded by statement of King Abdullah of Jordan alleging the rise of a "Shia Crescent" threatening the region as he perceived it. While the allegation of the Jordanian king was a novelty so absurd that even he did not stand by it, President Mubarak's statement is more deep-rooted in the minds of many people who suffer from the Shia scare.

The corollary of this statement is that the Shia are traitors and potential domestic enemies to their own countries. It is highly disturbing that the president of a major Arab country would think in this manner about a population that, in his words, amounts to 65 per cent in a country such as Iraq. It is no wonder that the Shia of Iraq view the silence of Arab governments towards the atrocious crimes of Saddam Hussein as a sign of consent, if not encouragement. After all, for Arab governments and many in their intellectually sequestered populations, the Shia are nothing but "Iranian agents" who represent the worm in the otherwise very healthy Arab apple.

As an Iraqi Shia, I have seen during my entire time in the country discriminatory practice of the Baathist regime, which was a continuation of the past governments ever since the Ottoman times. There had been walls after walls between the Shia individual and any rights if this individual refused to sell his soul to the devil; the devil being the armies of regime security institutions whose only job was to hunt down "domestic enemies", the agents of Iran and America at the same time, mind you!

It is past due to set the record straight, at least by visiting a few facts as this limited space may allow. In spite of centuries of Ottoman abuse against the Shia of Iraq, they sided with the Ottomans against the British after World War I and fought the British in the 1920 Revolution, which forced the British to give up their plan to annex Iraq. For all of their sacrifices, they were not given even one ministry. And until 1936, the entire senior officer corps in the Iraqi army had one Shia officer only, a major named Hussein Alwan. Furthermore, of all the coups and conspiracies against the Iraqi government in 1936, 1941, 1958, 1963 and 1968, none was a Shia affair. It goes without saying that the war against Iran, financed and praised by Western and Arab countries was fought by the alleged "Iranian agents", the Shia, who paid the heaviest casualties.

There is no question that the Shia feel certain affinity to their coreligionists in Iran. But this is a far cry from the allegation that the Shia are traitors. Sectarian affinity, however, does not capture the whole story. Our Arab brothers have done nothing to embrace us, as they keep demanding proofs of "loyalty", whatever that means. From the organised atrocities in Iraq to the denial of our existence in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. This abominable hostility among the Muslim community has lasted for centuries because no sustained effort was ever made to end it. Indeed, it has always been more fashionable to compete in adding more fuel to the raging fire. It is worthy at this juncture to renew the call to the imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, and the imam of the Hawza in Najaf, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, to personally take the initiative to start a sustained, practical and well-crafted effort to bring together the two communities. The time is past due and the means are available; can we please have the will?

* The writer is an Iraqi academic based in the USA.

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