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Distributed December 23, 2004
Contact Mark Nickel

About 800 Words

William O. Beeman

Widespread fears of gathering Shi’a political strength in Iraq may be unwarranted. Success for the Iraqi Shi’a could help moderate the more extreme political philosophies of the fundamentalist Iranian regime, contributing to the stability of the region.

As the Iraqi election begins to loom on the horizon, the world is witnessing a growing epidemic of Shi’aphobia – fear of the Iraqi majority Shi’a community and the role it might play in a future Iraqi state. These fears are overwrought.

The Sunni community is fearful because it realizes that it cannot have a significant role in a future Iraq if the Shi’a population dominates by voting in a bloc, as seems almost inevitable.

The Kurds are afraid that a Shi’a-dominated government will be unsympathetic to the continuation of their semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq.

The Bush administration and its neoconservative surrogates are the most frightened of all. They have convinced themselves that Shi’a victory in the election will result in the unambiguous failure of their Iraqi adventure. This will supposedly come about as the victorious Shi’a ally themselves with Iran and start taking orders from Tehran. They will supposedly then establish a religious dictatorship, persecute the Sunnis, overrun the Kurds, and kick the American military out of their land.

All of these scenarios are unwarranted – unless the attacks against the Shi’a become so acute that they touch off a cycle of revenge and an eventual civil war.

The Sunnis are making the most dramatic physical attacks on the Shi’a. They started a year and a half ago on Aug. 29, 2003, by assassinating Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim – significantly, at the shrine of Imam Ali, who was cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and the only Caliph of Islam to rule unambiguously over Shi’a and Sunni believers.

Recently, the attacks have continued to target Shi’a believers in Shi’a shrines in Karbala and Najaf, the holiest of Shi’a cities. The aim is clearly to provoke a reaction. Religious leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have urged their followers not to react, knowing that the slightest show of violence on the part of the Shi’a community will endanger their participation in the January elections.

All of these premises are unwarranted. The spiritual leaders of the Iraqi Shi’a are significantly different from the leaders of the Islamic Republic in Iran in their philosophy of government and their conduct in the workings of politics.

Shi’a religious authority resides in the reputation of a Grand Ayatollah, whose wisdom, moderate behavior, and leadership qualities attract a large number of followers. These followers direct their obligatory religious tithe to their chosen Ayatollah, who uses the funds to support charitable works such as orphanages, hospitals and mosques. As a jurisprudent, these Ayatollahs also serve as opinion leaders for their followers, issuing their views on all aspects of life, including political affairs.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as author of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, made a significant departure from the normal pattern of Shi’a leadership. He forcefully stated that religious leaders should hold temporal power in the absence of the twelfth Shi’a Imam, Mohammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared more than a thousand years ago, but who will one day return.

Every other Grand Ayatollah in the Shi’a world disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini at the time of the revolution. Some of these religious leaders living in Iran paid for their opposition with house arrest and execution. Although Ayatollah al-Sistani would be foolish to voice direct opposition to the fundamental philosophy of the government of Iran at this sensitive time, it is clear that he is not interested in holding state power himself. The Hawza, the influential colloquy of religious scholars in Najaf, is of a similar bent.

These leaders embrace a philosophy of inclusiveness. Despite the fears of Sunnis and Kurds, Shi’a leaders have given no indication that they have hostile intentions toward those minority communities.

Still the United States cannot give up its obsession over Iran. Rather than attack the Iraqi Shi’a, they have been trying to attack Iran on the false assumption that the Iraqi Shi’a are being supported by the Iranian state and derive all their power from Tehran. The accepted theory seems to be that if Iran is destroyed, the power of the Iraqi Shi’a will atrophy.

The American theory is something the Iraqi Shi’a view with wry amusement. They know with absolute certainty that the center of religious authority in the Shi’a world is gradually migrating to Iraq – most particularly to the long-established center of Shi’a scholarship, the shrine city of Najaf. If the Iraqi Shi’a come to power, it is they who will eventually be influencing the Iranians, not the other way around.

The United States should welcome this development and eschew Shi’aphobia. As the theology of Najaf grows in stature in the Shi’a world, the political philosophy of the Iranian revolution will of necessity moderate, ushering in the long-desired changes in fundamentalist rule that the Iranian population hopes for. This is ultimately the key to stabilization of power in the Middle East.

William O. Beeman is professor of anthropology and director of Middle East Studies at Brown University and visiting professor of cultural and social anthropology at Princeton University. His forthcoming book is The Great Statan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

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