My friend Anwar Khan has recently written an interesting column in which he expressed his disagreement with what he perceived as my pro-Shia bias and in which he set the record straight on some of the atrocities committed by Shias. It is not my intention to write a full rebuttal today, nor do I think that it is appropriate for me, as an Orthodox Christian, to take sides in a dispute between Muslims. However, I do feel that I can offer a few basic considerations to explain my own perspective on this issue as an outsider. So, here we go.
My pro-Shia bias: guilty as charged! However, let me immediately say that my admiration for the Shia does not imply any form of hostility towards the Sunni. I am on record as praising such well known Sunni figures as Ramzan Kadyrov or Sheikh Imran Hosein both of which are Sunni. So praising one sides does in no way imply that I don’t admire that which is admirable in the other side (or that I endorse everything Shia, for that matter!). And yet, there is no doubt that the Shia elicit a strong sense of admiration in me. Why? Here are a few reasons:
- Though my friend Anwar is critical of my reference to the words “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala” I still believe that they powerfully express a core element of the Shia ethos. When I see the absolutely extraordinary courage that this ethos elicits in Hezbollah fighters or Iranian Pasdaran I can only express a sense of awe and admiration.
- I also cannot fail to notice that while the Takfiri ideology does have, at least potentially, an undeniable attraction amongst maybe not all, but still a seizable percentage of Sunni, this ideology has no traction at all with the Shia. There are no Shia joining Daesh. And there is no Shia equivalent of Daesh either.
- I am also sympathetic to the socially progressive nature of Shia Islam, especially when compared to the outright reactionary nature of the, shall we say, “para-Wahabi” social practices of not all, but still many Sunni societies.
- Finally, I have the utmost admiration for Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who himself a spiritual follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whom I also consider as an very wise ruler.
None of the above, however, makes me blind to the atrocities committed by, for example, the Badr Brigade in Iraq. And I will readily admit that the Iranian society is imperfect and also has some very ugly aspects. But I also sense a logical fallacy at work here. Anwar Khan asks:
One cannot simply deny that this is happening. You can rationalize it one way or another, like, what I often hear, “yes, this is horrible but they are mainly reacting to what was done to them by ISIS and co”, or “Sunnis brought it upon themselves for siding with ISIS”, etc etc. Other than the inaccuracy of such statements, and the obvious lack of humanity in them, even if this was true, is this the best we have to say? Would Imam Hussein ever consent to such horrors perpetrated on his name, when he gave away his very life for raising the human condition from this depravity? Has the meaning of Imam Hussein’s sacrifice in Karbala parturitate barbarity as a response to barbarity? Is this Everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala? This is assuming that the victims have any connection with ISIS. Most are simply innocent victims of sectarian hatred.
My reply is simple: no, of course these atrocities are not “everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala“. But neither are these atrocities caused by “everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala“! In fact, I don’t believe that any of the bad actions we could blame the Shia in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon are in any way traceable back to the Shia theology or ethos. And that is crucial. Unlike the Takfiris who justify their horrors in the name of their interpretation of Islam, those Shia who commit atrocities do not, as far as I know and as a rule, publicly justify them by reference to any aspect of Shia spirituality.
[Sidebar: there is an obvious parallel in the Christian world: Orthodox Christians have also committed atrocities in the 2000 years of the existence of the Orthodox Church, they have even committed some in the name of Orthodoxy, but their actions were always in direct contradiction with teachings of Orthodoxy and they could not be justified by references to the Church Fathers. In contrast, all the worst atrocities committed by the Papacy were always justified by various Papal rulings, Thomist scholastic logic and Jesuit casuistry. When the Orthodox commits an atrocity they betrays everything they are supposed to uphold; then the Papist commits an atrocity it is always justified and presented as ad majorem Dei gloriam. That is a huge difference: in one case the evil is done in direct disregard of, while in the other case the evil is done explicitly in the name of.]
Anwar Khan then addresses the issue of Iranian foreign policy. He writes:
If this is not enough to dispel the “the willingness to die for the truth at any time and in any place” myth, think of other betrayals of those raising the banner of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom, for example the Iranian cooperation with the Americans in overthrowing the Taliban, based on a totally fabricated pretext—which Iranian intelligence was fully aware of. I will shed no tears for the Taliban, an entity I detest intensely. But a war on a lie can never be justified, even if it is against the Taliban. There is a BBC interview of the then Iranian President Khatami boasting about this cooperation with the Americans, and how useful the toppling of Taliban was for Iran.Yes, Iranian cooperation—such as allowing the American’s to use their airspace— was a brilliant politically expedient act, but please let us not call it Everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala. It was hardly standing tall to the wrongdoers. It was Machiavillian machination of highest order. How about the Iranian performance in Iraq with the 2003 American invasion? Do we need to be reminded of the complete submission and then cooperation of Shia institutions with the occupiers? Iran instructed all Shia religious leaders, the most influential among them Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to give fatwas or verdicts that resistance to the American invasion was prohibited. This was a calculated political move ensuring that the Baath party and Sunni institutions are given a resounding boot by the Americans, creating the space for the Shia outfits to grab power. Again, a brilliant political move, but hardly a Everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala.
I think that my friend Anwar Khan is confusing tactics with strategy. Let’s remember here that the Neocons always had Iran in their sights as the supreme target to be defeated. For example, Bush administration officials openly declared “Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran”. The Iranians perfectly understood that and what they did next is nothing short of pure genius: they used their secret agents from Iraq (such as Ahmed Chalabi) to feed the Americans false information about the Iraqi WMD program and get the Neocons all worked up about the possible threat to Israel. So instead of attacking Iran, the Neocons turned their sights in Iraq. The Iranians succeeded in a brilliant “political Aikido” move to turn their #1 enemy (the “Great Satan”) against their #2 enemy (Saddam and the Baathist Pary) against each other. The AngloZionists overthrew Saddan (good-bye enemy #1) and then got hopelessly bogged down thereby tremendously weakening the “Great Satan”. Let me repeat here: by re-directing the USA towards an attack on Iraq the Iranians tremendously weakened the USA. So is that a form of collaboration with the USA or is that a form of resistance? By ordering the Shia in Iraq not to resist the US invasion, did the Iranians betray what they stood for or did they make it far easier for the Americans to get bogged down in Iraq? Is handing over a rope to an idiot to hang himself a form of collaboration or a form of resistance? I think that the answer is obvious.
Do I feel sorry for the Iraqis? Yes, definitely. And I don’t believe in collective guilt or guilt by association. And yet, the fact remains that the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein did attack Iran at the moment of a deep crisis inside the Iranian society and at the moment when Iran was at the weakest. It is a fact that the Iraqis had the full support of the USA, the Soviet Union and France and that they unleashed a vicious campaign against Iranian soldiers (with poison gas) and cities. In this context, I sure cannot blame the Iranians for choosing to stay out of a fight between Americans and Iraqis as much as possible (because, of course, the Iraqi Shia led by did end up fighting the Americans as did a number of covertly deployed Pasdaran units sent by Iran to support the Sadr forces). Frankly, both the Americans and the Baahists had it coming and there is a karmic justice to see them at each other’s throats.
As for the Taliban, they had viciously persecuted the Shia in Afghanistan and they even murdered Iranian diplomats. Again, I cannot fault the Iranians for letting the Taliban and the American engage in a mutually detrimental struggle against each other.
However, it is one thing to let your two main enemies fight each other to death and quite another to engage in a campaign of atrocities against innocent civilians. I have seen enough evidence of widespread horrors committed by Shia militias in Iraq not to say a word in defense of these actions. However, I have seen no evidence of any Hezbollah atrocities in Syria, though I am sure that, as in any civil war, some might have occurred. But “some” is not the same as a systematic policy of terror and atrocities which, to my knowledge, all the anti-government forces in Syria did commit and which the Syrian forces themselves did also commit, especially in the early phases of the war. What I do know for a fact is that Hezbollah showed an absolutely unique and amazing restraint when they liberated southern Lebanon from the pro-Israeli militias of Saad Haddad’s SLA even though these were clearly traitors to the Lebanese nations who had committed an untold amount of atrocities against the Lebanese Resistance (especially in the notorious Khiam Detention Center).
But, of course, like all of us, including non-Muslims and agnostics, the Shia are human and they sin. I will never pretend that they are saints. But I do find the claim that the Shia are hypocrites because they proclaim “Everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala” and then engage in atrocities baseless and illogical. Unless, course, you make the same accusations against all of mankind, including the putatively peaceful Buddhists and Hindus (though I would claim that neither Buddhism nor Hindusim contains the seeds of the violence perpetrated by some Buddhists or Hindus).
Finally, Sheikh Subhi Tufayli is welcome to say anything he wants about Hezbollah and what Hezbollah is doing in Syria, but I find the notion that Hezbollah is acting in Israel’s interest (“their actions, at the end of the day, only benefits the Zionist Entity“) beyond preposterous. Is Tufayli a Saudi agent? I don’t know, but he sure sounds like one to me.
My conclusion from the above is simple: unless I can trace the cause of any evil deeds committed by the Shia to the Shia spirituality itself, I see no reasons to reconsider my pro-Shia bias on the grounds that the Shia, like all humans, are known to commit atrocities. It is that simple, really. Blaming Shia Islam for the misdeeds of Iraqi Shia would be as illogical as saying that Iraqis commit atrocities because they are Iraqis or because they are Arabs. Evidence of a correlation/coincidence is not an evidence of causality.
In contrast, Takfirism, like Talmudic Judaism and Latin Christianity, has its roots in the teachings of its spiritual founders. You can read the teachings Ibn Taymiyyah or Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and clearly see the roots of modern Takfirism. Here we are dealing with a real causality.
I want to repeat what I said at the beginning. None of the above is in any way a criticism of any other form of Islam. The only form of Islam which I am vehemently opposed to are 1) Takfirism/Wahabism 2) the kind of Islam embodied in the long and bloody history of the Ottoman Empire (another complex topic I don’t want to develop here). But do I have a special “soft spot” for the Shia. Yes I do. And I see no reason to change that.