Commentary Magazine


Topic: Karbala

Forfeiting Hearts and Minds in Southern Iraq

I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

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I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

Needless to say, after Mecca, there is no place as important for Shi‘ite Muslims than Najaf and Karbala. It is a major center of pilgrimage. During the day and a half I spent in the Shrine of Imam Hussein itself, I saw delegations of pilgrims from Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Lebanon, and Syria. Many had saved up for years to visit the shrine, just as Christians might make a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Diaspora Jews a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Beyond the casket itself, inside the shrine is a small but very rich museum dedicated to the shrine and to Imam Hussein. It is accessible to all, unlike the trend begun by Salafis to deny access to holy sites, an unfortunate phenomenon that has spread outward from Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and increasingly across the Sunni world. People can say what they will about Shi‘ites, but I have never been denied access to a Shi‘ite mosque, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The museum was excellent: it had Islamic and cultural artifacts dating back centuries, as well as photos of Saddam’s 1991 looting of the shrine, and material recovered in its aftermath. One recent display listed all the invading armies that pillaged and looted Karbala: Ottomans, Saudis, Saddam. Importantly, the United States was not listed. Some American policymakers may believe that Iraqi Shi‘ites are fools for Iran’s anti-American vitriol, but they readily see through the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and recognize the 2003 invasion for what it was: liberation.

I spoke with the museum director. He mentioned that the British ambassador had visited—“the British understand such things”—but the Americans ambassador and, indeed, the embassy has been absent. Karbala is a safe, secure city. Politicians wring their hands that the United States spent blood and treasure in Iraq, and the Iraqis don’t fully appreciate it. But, when American diplomats remain too often behind the blast walls of the American embassy, when the Islamic Republic opens a consulate in Karbala but the United States avoids the symbolic center of the Shi‘ite world, then the United States doesn’t lose hearts and minds, it forfeits them.

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The Iranian Regime’s Battle of Karbala

The Iranian citizens’ uprising against their government has been sustained for six months now, and it took an interesting turn over the weekend. Security forces reportedly opened fire against demonstrators and even killed the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi – and they did it during Ashura. There are few things “supreme guide” Ali Khamenei could have done to enrage religious conservatives and harden them against his regime more than this. As one demonstrator put it, “killing Muslims on Ashura is like crucifying Christians on Christmas.”

“The clock began to tick for Ayatollah Khamenei’s fall from today,” said one of Iran’s few former female members of parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjou. “Killing people on Ashura shows how far Mr. Khamenei is willing to go to suppress the protests. People are comparing him more with Yazid because they consider him responsible for the order to use violence against people.”

Ashura is a Shia religious holiday, and it is not joyous. It is a day of lamentation that marks the date when the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid killed Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, during the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. It’s one of the most infamous episodes in the struggle for power that permanently ruptured the house of Islam into its warring Sunni and Shia halves. The Shia – the partisans of Ali and his lineage – have been at war with the Sunnis – those who took the side of Yazid – for thirteen centuries. That Khamenei’s security people would murder unarmed demonstrators on this day of all days, and that his opponents now denounce him as the Yazid of Iran, may very well set most of the religious conservatives against him for as long as he and his government live.

Haghighatjou isn’t the only one using this kind of language. You’ll find regular citizens comparing Khamenei to Yazid and Tehran to Karbala with even a cursory scan of Iranian Internet commentary during the last couple of days.

The Iranian government knows very well what a devastating accusation this is. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini compared the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi to Yazid during the revolution he led in 1979, and his successor Khamenei tries to pass himself off as a modern Ali even now. More recently, the regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders used this charge against Israel in 1982 to ignite a decades-long insurgency in South Lebanon.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to demolish the Palestinian state-within-a-state that Yasser Arafat had built there, the Shia of the south hailed the Israeli soldiers as liberators. Hezbollah may wish this inconvenient fact was forgotten, but it’s true. That’s what happened. That’s how the Shia of Lebanon felt. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was a foreign Sunni militia that pushed the Shia around at gunpoint and turned their previously quiet part of the world into a war zone.

Iran’s Khomeinist regime redeployed Revolutionary Guard Corps units from battlefields in the Iran-Iraq war to Lebanon to foment a Shia insurgency there against the Israelis, but most people weren’t interested. Not at first, anyway. Everything changed the following year, in 1983, when IDF patrol trucks made a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of an Ashura procession in Nabatieh. The drivers tried to barge their way through a crowd. Some of the mourners threw rocks, and Israeli soldiers shot them.

Israel unwittingly cast itself in the role of a modern Yazid 26 years ago, and most of the Shia of Lebanon have been in a state of war with their former allies ever since. The Israeli soldiers in that fateful incident didn’t realize what they were doing, but Khamenei of all people should have known to back off during Ashura. The pious Shia who live in Iran won’t easily forget that he didn’t.

The Iranian citizens’ uprising against their government has been sustained for six months now, and it took an interesting turn over the weekend. Security forces reportedly opened fire against demonstrators and even killed the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi – and they did it during Ashura. There are few things “supreme guide” Ali Khamenei could have done to enrage religious conservatives and harden them against his regime more than this. As one demonstrator put it, “killing Muslims on Ashura is like crucifying Christians on Christmas.”

“The clock began to tick for Ayatollah Khamenei’s fall from today,” said one of Iran’s few former female members of parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjou. “Killing people on Ashura shows how far Mr. Khamenei is willing to go to suppress the protests. People are comparing him more with Yazid because they consider him responsible for the order to use violence against people.”

Ashura is a Shia religious holiday, and it is not joyous. It is a day of lamentation that marks the date when the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid killed Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, during the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. It’s one of the most infamous episodes in the struggle for power that permanently ruptured the house of Islam into its warring Sunni and Shia halves. The Shia – the partisans of Ali and his lineage – have been at war with the Sunnis – those who took the side of Yazid – for thirteen centuries. That Khamenei’s security people would murder unarmed demonstrators on this day of all days, and that his opponents now denounce him as the Yazid of Iran, may very well set most of the religious conservatives against him for as long as he and his government live.

Haghighatjou isn’t the only one using this kind of language. You’ll find regular citizens comparing Khamenei to Yazid and Tehran to Karbala with even a cursory scan of Iranian Internet commentary during the last couple of days.

The Iranian government knows very well what a devastating accusation this is. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini compared the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi to Yazid during the revolution he led in 1979, and his successor Khamenei tries to pass himself off as a modern Ali even now. More recently, the regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders used this charge against Israel in 1982 to ignite a decades-long insurgency in South Lebanon.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to demolish the Palestinian state-within-a-state that Yasser Arafat had built there, the Shia of the south hailed the Israeli soldiers as liberators. Hezbollah may wish this inconvenient fact was forgotten, but it’s true. That’s what happened. That’s how the Shia of Lebanon felt. Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was a foreign Sunni militia that pushed the Shia around at gunpoint and turned their previously quiet part of the world into a war zone.

Iran’s Khomeinist regime redeployed Revolutionary Guard Corps units from battlefields in the Iran-Iraq war to Lebanon to foment a Shia insurgency there against the Israelis, but most people weren’t interested. Not at first, anyway. Everything changed the following year, in 1983, when IDF patrol trucks made a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of an Ashura procession in Nabatieh. The drivers tried to barge their way through a crowd. Some of the mourners threw rocks, and Israeli soldiers shot them.

Israel unwittingly cast itself in the role of a modern Yazid 26 years ago, and most of the Shia of Lebanon have been in a state of war with their former allies ever since. The Israeli soldiers in that fateful incident didn’t realize what they were doing, but Khamenei of all people should have known to back off during Ashura. The pious Shia who live in Iran won’t easily forget that he didn’t.

Read Less




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