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

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

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

Shi’ism in Saudia Arabia

This was an interesting article in the Foreign Policy magazine this month.

There are estimated to be between 1.5 million and 2 million Shi’a in Saudi Arabia, mainly inhabiting the oil-producing east region. The Saudi Shi’as, who represent about 10 per cent of the population complain about socio-economic harrasment and discrimination, including exclusion from top political or military posts. They have been shown in the recent past to assert the Sunni majority questions their loyalty to the Saudi state and is suspicious of their religious affiliation with Shi’a-majority Iran. The Shi’a’s dismiss accusations from some Sunni sections that the Shia community’s loyalty lies east, to Iran, rather than Saudi Arabia, even if the Shia do look for religious guidance from ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran. However the Saudi-Iranian rivalry continues to manifest itself in one form or another in the socio-political and geopolitical terms, as it does in other Muslim countries in the region. In realistic terms this rivalry seems a bit far fetched and it difficult to understand what both sides are getting out of this friction , which has lasted over decades, other than hostility and violence in Muslim communities. It is also worthwhile to ask why are only Saudi Shia’s are being singled out for having suspect loyalties when Shia’s exist in virtually every Muslim community. Why and how does spiritual reverance for the ayatollah’s translate into political alliegance? The ayatollahs themselves do not pledge alliegance to the states that they live in and keep their distance from the political sphere (except a handful in Iran) then why are ordinary Shi’a muslims expected to the opposite and conflate religion with politics.

Some members of Saudi’s influential, ultraconservative Wahabi’s publicly deem other Muslim sects as infidels and view the Shi’a with open disdain. An affirmation of this comes with two leading Wahabi clerics recently issuing  statements accusing the Shi’a of being ‘heretics’. But, interestingly there has been instance in the news of Shi’a leaders playing down the notion of rising tensions by saying that the distrust between the two communities is centuries old. One wonders if such ‘leaders’ actually represent the opinion of the Shia population and if they make such statements to gain favor from or to appease the Saudi officials from further harrasing the community. Conversely there is always the possiblity that the hype of Shia persecution is incessantly sustained for geopolitical motives to create news and reflect badly on the Saudi government by external (read Iranian) regional rivals. The truth  probably stands between the two factors.

The few available voices of the Saudi Shias and even Saudi Sunnis speaking about their Shia countrymen such as mentioned below, reveal interesting insights into the actual dynamics of Shia existence in the Saudi kingdom

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.


Sectarianism in Syria

Syeda Zainab Mosque in DamascusSyria is somewhat an anomaly in the Shi’i context because it is a Sunni majority state that is being ruled over by an authoritarian Shi’i regime. It would be worthy to mention here a fact that is overlooked in much of the current discussion on Syria that the Syrian rulers belong to the Alawi sect of Shi’ism which is quite distinct from the  mainstream Twelver Shi’ism. Although the current uprising is predominantly seen as a Shia-Sunni sectarian issue, the truth is that the Assad regime does not even have manifest or widespread support from the Shi’i community either. This much I gathered during a visit to Syria recently, through my interaction with Shi’i people in Damascus and it’s vicinities.

The current regime is repressive and ruthless towards almost any dissent coming from any group. The Shi’i people have faced the wrath of the Assad regime because they face pretty much the same socio-economic constraints that the Sunni population faces, leading them to protest against the unfair policies of the dictatorship. As a result the Shi’i sections of the society are as deprived and backwards as their Sunni coutnerparts. However ironically there is a very strong anti-Shia sentiment within Syria at present which stems from the fact that it symbolizes the brutality of the Assad regime and also because the Sunni population is excessively ostracized because it constantly questions the legitimacy of the current dictatorship.

Academic Vali Nasr recently spoke about the sectarian tensions in the current violence in Syria.

Recently at one of my classes at SIPA, journalist Nir Rosen spoke about the current situation in Syria where he has been based over the last few years. He presented an interesting insiders’s perspective , one which does not necessarily correlate with th official Western narratives of the region. This is one of his latest interviews which cover most of the issues he spoke about at Columbia.

It will be interesting to see how the current situation resovlves itself ultimately. The Syrian government is trying its best to appease the discontent but its attempts are largely seen as being superficial, as a feature in the New York Times points out today.

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.

Ashura – A Unique face of Shi’ism

This is a very well put together visual documentary of Ashura celebrations around the world in 2011.

The Ashura is celebrated on the 10th of Muharram by Shi’i Muslims every year to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala. These Ashura celebrations are grounded in symbolism or ritual which is expressed in the  public sphere, and in many ways have become a distinct manifestation of the Shi’i identity. In this sense it is interesting to note the great extent to which the Ashura has come to represent the ‘face’ of the Shi’i faith. The theme of martyrdom and suffering is  predominant in the Shia narrative because it is seen as being embodied in the lives of the Shi’i Imams themselves and sums up what has been described unwittingly as the ‘Shia attitude’.  How this ‘attitude’ plays out in various different cultural and social setting can be assuaged from the diverse interpretations of the Ashura commemoration around the world, as the visuals presented in this photo-feature show.

It is also worth noting  the physical commemorations of the Ashura at times seems to overshadow the spiritual aspects of the message of the sacrifice of Karbala. Another thought provoking article written by Professor Hassan Abbas recently, juxtaposes the historical narrative of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom and the larger message of the Ashura in Shia Islam with the present context of the widespread persecution of Shia Muslims in the Muslim world such as the attack on Shi’a Muslims observing Ashura in Kabul on December 6, which killed 55 people.