The Language of Anti Shi’ism

Actual Published article can be accessed here.  

by Fanar Haddad

The recent wave of anti-Shiite rhetoric and sectarian polarization has caused profound concerns across the Middle East. Sectarian tensions are not new, of course, but the vocabulary of anti-Shiism in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Shiites who used to be accused of ethnic otherness are now being cast as outside the Muslim community itself. Exclusion on doctrinal grounds was a mostly Saudi exception in the framing of Shiism. It is now increasingly becoming the regional rule.

Prior to 2003, anti-Shiism in Iraq was perhaps best encapsulated in the term ajamAjam (singular ajmi) is an Arabic phrase meaning non-Arab; however, in the modern Middle Eastern vernacular, particularly in Iraq, “the ajam” is usually understood as “the Iranians.” Throughout the 20th century this term was used to discredit Shiite activists and political opponents by casting doubt on their national loyalty and Arab pedigree. Sectarian otherness was framed in distinctly national and ethnic terms with scant, if any, reference to sectarian dogma, doctrine, or beliefs. In other words, prior to 2003, Middle Eastern Sunni-Shiite dynamics were more often manifestations of nationalistic and ethnic rather than religious expression. Continue reading


Lashkar e Jhangvi’s Parasitic Sectarian Politics in Pakistan

In the light of the increasing onslaught of violence by LeJ it seems pertinent to question the raison d’etre behind it’s existence in Pakistan and ask why an organization, which has no meaningful popular support and upholds an overtly militant sectarian agenda, is allowed to publicly sustain itself in conventional politics through it’s parasitical relationship with mainstream political parties, the  military and Saudi  financing networks. Continue reading

Motherhood and a celebration of the ‘Lady of Light’

Two days ago, many in the Shi’i communities celebrated the birthday of Hazrat Fatima (S.A), daughter of the Holy Prophet who is also know as Zahra (Lady of Light) and Syedatun Nisa al Alamin (Leader of the Women of the Worlds). Many scholars have highlighted the ‘deep and revolutionary influence Fatima’s memory evokes in breadth of transformation in the Muslim societies’ .In this context one came across a vast array of conversations and narratives celebrating her life which invite introspection onto our own lives. But this year such an auspicious occasion has a special significance for me personally because it has coincided with my own mother’s birthday, unwittingly allowing me to celebrate the lives of two very special mothers.

Among one of the salient aspects of Hazrat Fatima’s life is the fact that she selflessly lived her life for others. All historical narratives of her life, which are few and far between, are agreed on the fact that inspite of her austere existence  no one was ever turned away from her door. A common lament that one thus keeps coming across is that we need Fatima as a role model today because such generosity and selflessness is rarely found in these times. Indeed this fact is largely true in today’s materialistic and greed driven world,  but I could not help but feel lucky to think that I had such a role model in the form of my other mother who similarly devoted her entire life to helping others. Living an almost nomadic existence in Pakistan, moving incessantly from one city to another and often living in far flung areas where qualified teachers were hard to come by, my mother volunteered to teach at every opportunity she had.   Helping teach at the government colleges and schools which were run by the Pakistan Air Force was her way of giving back to her country. She did all this probably at the cost of a bright academic career elsewhere, being an outstanding student, skilled debater  an ambitious science student (who by the age of sixteen had even exchanged letters with the likes of Neil Armstrong) and one of the handful of women who did their Masters in a hard science subject like Physics in the early 70’s. Inspite of her own academic success and potential future opportunities she never professed any sense of  entitlement or superiority over others and willingly gave it all up for her family and others.  I am sure others have similar stories to share and such stories about our mothers who are indeed the proverbial unsung heros, need to be shared and celebrated.   Continue reading

Shia as the ‘Other’ in Pakistan

‘Hazara Shia’s refuse to Bury their Dead’. This was a morbid headline, one would have hoped to hear only once in a lifetime.  Coming to terms with such horrific tragedies is a near impossible task but having to reconcile with the same grotesque violence within less than a month of  is surely a travesty.  One  witnessed with silent tears and an aching numbness the painfully tragic  sight of another hundred Hazara families sitting on Alamdar road for days in February 2013.  Earlier on January 10th, 2013 two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara Shia community killed almost 120 people in a busy marketplace in Quetta.

While such violent incidents are not a novelty for Shias in Pakistan, what was novel was the way in which the protest against these incidents was registered. The Hazara Shias of Quetta who have been systematically and ruthlessly killed for almost a decade, refused to bury their dead and sat alongside with 86 bodies on the streets for three days and nights, through torrential rain and cold weather. Such a heart-wrenching protest, which drew an overwhelming  nationwide response of sympathy from not just from Shia communities but from mainstream civil society, sought to highlight the injustices faced by the community and the lack of state response which can be judged from the fact that none of the perpetrators have ever been arrested or prosecuted or even punished for the incendiary vitriol spewed by such militant groups.


(Translation: ‘I will strengthen all hearts against the Shias to the extent that no Sunni will ever agree to even shake hands with them. They will die their own death, we will not need to kill them anymore.  We will make it difficult for the Shia to even breathe and they will think how can I stay in this city any longer’ Aurangzeb Farooqi, Leader Sipah-Sahaba Pakistan January 13, 2013). Continue reading

Contemporary Karbala Narratives and the Changing Gender Dynamics within Shi’i Communities

The commemoration of the ‘Battle of Karbala’, which took place in 680 A.D, is the locus or the ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’i rituals and devotional practices are located. The Karbala narratives that are derivative from this historic event, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn being seen as a key moment in Shi’i history, form the basis of the Ashura commemorations and are therefore a defining paradigm in Shi’ism. In the earlier Karbala narratives, women were largely seen as passive victims of the Karbala tragedy and known largely through the trials and tribulations they faced. In the past few decades however a gender-dynamic transformation has taken place with regards to the transmission of the Karbala narrative which has consequently bought about renewed attention to and a re-evaluation of the role of women in the aftermath of the Karbala battle. Continue reading

Sistani and Sectarianism in Iraq

This was an interesting article recently on the growing Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism in Iraq.

If the details in this article are true than it seems really unfortunate to hear that the Shi’a are treating their Sunni countrymen with the same amount of discrimination and harassment that the Shi’a faced under the Sunni majority. It seems almost ironic to hear a description of the current Sunni viewpoint about the ‘territorial, institutionalized and psychological segregation’ being enforced on them because it is eerily reminiscint of the complaints that the Shi’a made during Saddam’s rule. Given the extent of persecution that the Shi’a population faced it is understandable that the continue to hold grudges against the Sunnis but flaunting their demographic power on the streets and harassing ordinary people is something that deserves to be condemned.

Another aspect of the article that I found interesting is the perspective they have presented from Ayatollah Sistani, which sounds really uncharacteristically aggressive and provocative coming from him. Sistani has been known to be a pacifist without any overt socio-political agenda and a big proponent of peace between the Shi’a and Sunnis, so it comes as a great surprise to come across quotes attributed to him such as him telling his visitors that, ‘You are the majority and your enemies are trying to reduce your numbers” etc.  It also seems remarkable to hear that a reclusive person like Sistani, who hardly ever appears in public and refuses to be photographed, would commend or even allow his followers to display lifesized displays of him at every street corner. This was certainly not the case until last year. So in this regard the information in the article seems a little exaggerated or hyped.

This is a picture of Sistani’s humble residence outside the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, which I thought  would be interesting to share  regarding the kind of power that Sistani yields in the Shi’a world. The following links present different viewpoints on Sistani and other  aspects of the sectarian conflict in Iraq.,9171,993974,00.html

Religious Tourism and Shi’a Pilgrimage Culture

Last week I was discussing  the potential role of economics being unwittingly  intertwined with the Shi’a pilgrimage ritual to the sacred cities in Iraq so this was an unusual but interesting story that I thought would be relevant to share this week.

Many assumptions in this article are debatable such the fact that the Karbala pilgrimage culture has remained ‘untouched by wars’ or that Iraq is ‘quickly returning to normalcy’ after the withdrawal of US forces   But it does present an interesting insight into the ways in which religious tourism is shaping  up in the present day Iraq. The fact that these sites have become a hotbed of economic investment and development is not contested as can be assessed from these sources.

But such information has a specific economic investment angle and it does not really talk about the impact such development is having on the local culture and also consequently in many ways the Shi’a pilgrimage ethos. Sadly this seems to be a very understudied subject in current research on the area which certainly requires more meaningful critique and analysis. Throughout the Saddam era the Shi’a population were ruthlessly socially and economically persecuted and repressed, a fact that reflected on the conditions of the Shia holy cities. People who visited these cities in the 1990s recall how the Shi’a people in the Southern cities ofIraqwere living in horrendous socio-economic conditions with strict restrictions on their religious observances and pilgrimages. Consequently in the post-Saddam Iraq, with the lifting of such constraints the ethos of the Shi’a cities of Karbala and Najaf are changing phenomenally.

Compared to other parts ofIraqthere is a visibly significant amount of development happening in these cities, which has also brought about some sort of a spirit of materialism which can be contrasted with the somewhat spiritual outlook of the pilgrims. In this sense there seem to be two different emotional registers informing the visitors and the locals it seems. The materialism of the street vendors who adamantly refused to be paid in any other currency than dollars or  the enterprising hotel managers who try to haggle money out of you by offering lavish edible arrangements and facilities like rooms with jacuzzi’s etc can be disorienting for  pilgrims but are all understandable from the context of the local socio-political conditions.

Sectarianism in the Diaspora

An attack on a Shi’ite mosque by a Sunni radical in Brussels last week has brought the issue of sectarianism in the diaspora to the forefront. Although act this seems to have been a one of its kind, it is too soon yet to say whether it is clearly indicative of the presence of a violent form of sectarianism in Europe or not.

It does not come as a surprise when experts attribute such friction to the increased proliferation of the Wahhabi/Salafi ideology and rhetoric within the Sunni segments of the Muslim population. The Wahhabi creed is regrettably characterized by a set of doctrinal beliefs and behavior prescriptions that are inimical to the values and interests of the vast majority of Muslims. And yet inspite this virulent ideology has found a place for itself as a dominant idiom in the international Islamic establishment, it is significant to note that leading Sunni scholars of their times have renounced Wahhabism because it rejected many of the traditional beliefs and practices of Sunni Islam. Noted scholar and academic Hamid Algar believes that Wahhabism is a specific phenomenon that calls for recognition as a separated school of thought or even as a sect of its own. Wahhabism ‘must be regarded within the specific context of its own time as an exception, an aberration, or at best an anomaly’, he says. Algar also argues that the Wahhabi movement, which he describes as a peculiar interpretation of Islamic doctrine’ was an ‘intellectually marginal’ one and might have passed into history as ‘a short lived sectarian movement’, had it not found a voice outside the limited confines of East Arabia after it got free access to Saudi oil money. Having said that however it is sad to see the extent of violence such rhetoric can incite as was witnessed in Brussels.

All this is ironic because the Muslims in Europe are already a minority group and further discord and divisions within the community certainly will not bear well for these Muslims. Also many Muslim groups belonging to minority sects live in the diaspora in order to flee persecution and hostility from the orthodox Sunni diktats within their home countries. The fact is that they continue to face such prejudice and violence in the Western world which is supposedly a ‘safe haven’ for them. It is noteworthy in this sense to see how the Shi’i-Sunni rivalry spills over into the diaspora. While it is natural for people to frequent congregations which are affiliated with their sects, it is another thing to revile the other sect and alienate its adherents by vicious hate mongering.

Shia Persecution: A Global Conspiracy?

This article was published in ‘The Economist’ recently which presented an overview of the acts of violence carried out against Shia Muslims in the month of Muharram.

Initially what piqued my interest in this article was the characterizations made at the very onset of the Shia muslims as becoming ‘ increasingly lonely and nervous’. Apart from this, the article is based on a usual Shia persecution narrative that one finds around the time of Ashura every year. The assertions about the perceived sense of growing isolation and unease among the Shia seem contestable as does the part about the Shia blaming their current condition on a ‘global conspiracy’.As we know Shi’ism has been facing a hostile environment pretty much ever since the time of its inception.

There seems to be nothing new then in the present day hostility to distinguish it from that of the past. Also while the conspiracy theories are rampant in the Shi’i narrative, the idea of a consolidated global threat seems a little far fetched because the Shia seem to percieve the Sunni’s as their immediate antagonists. This can be attested from the fact that all the incidents of violence that take place against the Shia happen in Muslim communities where the Sunni’s are more often than not the majority sect.

The following is an interesting post from a Jordanian blogger about attitudes towards the Shia Muslims in the Middle East.


Shi’i Iraq Asserts it’s Agency

The assertion of the identity of a predominantly Shi’i Iraq has a significant bearing on the way Shi’ism evolves in the recent times. This article aptly highlights some of the important aspects of the current dynamics in Iraq.

The controversey surrounding the current regime in Iraq is unwittingly intertwined with the narrative of Shi’i faith because ‘Baghdad is now officially Shiite’. According to the popular discourse on Iraq, after decades of persecution, ‘now it was the Shiites  turn to rule, and they didn’t want to share’. It has also been noted that the ‘Iraqi Shiites aren’t shy about showing off their newfound power’ by asserting their agency, a fact which is clearly not sitting well with the occupying powers which saw Iraq as a prize which was supposed to submissively fall into line with their goals for the region.It is significant to note  the underlying justification that is given for  the continued US or Western interference  and influence on the situation in Iraq. As outlined in this article, the United States needs to maintain its influence in Iraq because, ‘it is a major source of energy reserves, it’s critical to the security of the southern Gulf, and it has an actual impact on the U.S. economy’.  

Another article also notes how the assertion of Shi’i agency and the path of independence being followed by the current Prime Minister is ‘unacceptable’.

Given this context it becomes understandable when Senior members in the Obama administration, like Biden and Clinton, assert that Baghdad must be ‘forced into submission’. While the motivation for this line of action is professedly clear, what is extremely disturbing however are the strategies that Washington is using which  seek to weaken the Maliki government by ‘encouraging the division of Iraq along sectarian/ethnic lines’ and ‘exaggerating differences among Iraqis’ . Since the US is officially not deployed in Iraq other  forces  ‘aligned with Washington have campaigned fiercely to incite sectarian and ethnic conflict’. This approach is further advanced by pushing neighboring countries like Turkey to become actively involved in Iraq and to exercise pressure on the Iraqi government through political ‘intimidation’, a move that may well be underway.