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Ashura, 1429/2008: Iraq’s Shiites between Sectarianism, Iraqi Nationalism, and Mahdism

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

18 January 2008

Muharram in Basra, circa 1920

Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram which is the first month of the Islamic calendar, is commemorated by Shiites as the day of the martyrdom of their Imam Hussein in the battle of Karbala in AD 680. In 2008, Ashura falls on 19 January, and, as usual, it will prompt many Shiite individuals to reflect on their relationship to wider communities – the sectarian Shiite one, as well as the national Iraqi one.

Historically, in Iraq, Ashura has been a special occasion for Shiites to assert their religious identity, but mostly without challenging the basic ideal of inter-sectarian Muslim coexistence within a unified administrative framework. In late Ottoman times, for example, Ashura would occasionally be restricted by the Sunni rulers rather than outlawed outright: there were sometimes bans on loud celebrations prior to the day of Ashura itself, at least in certain areas. After 1921, during the monarchy, a similar tendency of pragmatism on both sides of the sectarian divide prevailed. It is true that there were isolated instances of anti-Sunni agitation during the Muharram celebrations – the years of 1927 and, at least in the Basra area, 1928, belonged to these exceptions – but more often, Ashura was celebrated without incidents or sectarian tension.

In fact, there are frequent reports from the monarchy era about Sunnis and Shiites celebrating Ashura together. In 1932, Iraqi nationalist Shiites in Basra invited Sunnis, Christians and Jews to their nightly commemorative gatherings. Sunni newspaper editors in the 1920s often used the Muharram season to publish complimentary articles on “Shiite” subjects such as the life of Imam Hussein. And a 1950s lexicon of Basra’s Shiite husayniyyas (religious places of congregation that play an important role during the Muharram celebrations) by Muhammad Rida al-Kutubi emphasised the benevolent role played by Sunni, Christian and Jewish merchants who supported the Shiite Muharram and Ashura celebrations financially. It also showed that Ashura celebrations were frequently organised on the basis of membership in a particular occupational group or town quarter, so that the typically Iraqi multiplicity of identities came into expression also during this supposedly very sectarian festival.

In 2008, both these two themes – Iraqi nationalism and Shiite sectarianism – are in evidence among the Shiites of Iraq. On the one hand, projects that clearly have a sectarian edge to them are still favoured by some – such as the idea of a single Shiite federal region, as sponsored by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). It is deeply ironic that its leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim should use the occasion to claim that the process of national reconciliation in Iraq has been “delayed” by the pet projects of individual politicians: ISCI’s own ideas about a single Shiite federal entity is arguably the clearest possible example of such projects, and Iraqi national reconciliation could have made great strides if this divisive scheme had simply been taken off the table. Similarly, there is unwillingness by some (but not all) Sadrists to accept concessions associated with the Sunnis like the new de-Baathification law. Its recent adoption in the Iraqi parliament was hailed by a few vocal Sadrist MPs, but thoroughly condemned on websites that express a more sectarian Sadrist view such as Nahrainnet, which has highlighted negative reactions to the bill among some of the lower-ranking clergy of the Shiite holy cities.

But on the other hand, important non-sectarian trends are also blooming. The recent agreement by a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians (the coalition is said to number around 150 MPs) to work against radical decentralisation of the Iraqi oil sector and for a negotiated approach (rather than a referendum) to the Kirkuk question represents this kind of important inter-sectarian effort that brings Iraqi nationalists of all shades together, whether they be (Shiite) Sadrists, Sunni Islamists, or secularists. It may even be possible that this kind of nationalist alliance – which is the fruit of a process that started almost as soon as the Maliki government was formed in 2006 – will have better prospects now that a de-Baathification law has been agreed on and no longer automatically will torpedo rapprochement along such lines in the way it has done so often in the past.

Still, few issues are clear-cut in Iraqi politics, and some details regarding the recent manoeuvring in the Iraqi parliament as well as in Basra may suggest that the sectarianism/nationalism dichotomy itself could be quite fluid. The Fadila party, which since 2006 has been part and parcel of most initiatives to create a broadly based, non-sectarian alternative to the Maliki government, was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories to the recent anti-federal demands. Indeed, the party has officially issued a statement to the effect that it does not support the initiative, albeit without stating the reason for this opposition. Conceivably this may have to do with the federalism issue, where at least some forces in Fadila are quite pro-federal, but disagree with ISCI on the size of future federal entities. But it also comes on top of a rather sudden calming of the chaotic political scene in Basra. Here, ISCI and Fadila have been at each other’s throat for two years straight, but have recently both signed up to some kind of city-wide truce – although without revealing any details that can corroborate the idea of a real political compromise. Increasingly, there is a growing contrast between Fadila and ISCI who now both claim the situation in Basra is improving, and independent politicians like Wail Abd al-Latif and Khayrallah al-Basri, who assert that there has been no real change. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa party – the Daawa faction most frequently hit by accusations of Iranian connections (but, due to its name, frequently misrepresented by commentators outside Iraq as the “home-grown” Daawa) – for the first time since the adoption of the law for implementing federalism in October 2006 now appears to be in the nationalist, anti-ISCI camp.

This could all suggest that there may be certain changes in the way Iran is playing its hand in Iraq, perhaps with an attempt to win over its old arch-enemy, Fadila – whose long-standing Iraqi nationalist/non-sectarian federalist positions may have reached a level of frustration due to the lack of external support. In view of the collective ignorance by the international community of the Iraqi nationalist alternative, this is unsurprising, and the very persistence of Iraqi anti-federalism is in fact quite remarkable given all the material and moral support the rest of the world extends to its opponents in the Maliki government. The UN special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, recently avoided an opportunity to highlight the nationalist option when he instead chose to focus on the “lack of national reconciliation spirit” in Iraq, whereas President George W. Bush apparently intends to defer completely to General David Petraeus in all questions affecting US troop strength in Iraq and thereby seems to entirely overlook the potential of this kind of political bridge-building in terms of a different security climate.

Where in this landscape does the spiritual leader of most Iraqi Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stand? With a few exceptions, Sistani has been markedly silent since late 2004 – at which point he lent his support to the Shiite coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) but then gradually began distancing himself from it. A much-anticipated new book by one of his many representatives, Hamid al-Khaffaf, does not really shed much new light on this question. In addition to the pronouncements (bayans) that have been publicly available on the Sistani website, Khaffaf also adds some interesting correspondence between Sistani’s office and various international players; however there is not much new material from 2006 and later. On a contentious issue like federalism there are no statements later than 2004, before the question of Shiite federalism was on the agenda. All in all, there is nothing in the book to suggest that Sistani has abandoned his traditional position, which has always been to emphasise the idea of national Iraqi unity and the key role of the central government in preserving it. It is also noteworthy that the often-quoted “fatwa” supposedly in favour of the 2005 constitution (it was in fact quite grudging in its support and unlike official pronouncements was not published on the Sistani website) also does not appear in this encyclopaedic work by one of his own assistants.

Finally, Ashura is also about the diversity of the Iraqi Shiites in theological terms. Last year saw dramatic challenges to the idea of Shiite orthodoxy through the increased activities of millenarianist Mahdist movements in the Muharram season, some of them militant, and all determined to go beyond the re-enactment of the Karbala drama to create apocalyptic scenarios of their own. Increased tension related to this kind of intra-sectarian tension has been evident during the build-up to the 2008 Ashura celebrations as well – not least in Basra where followers of Ahmad al-Hasan (a Mahdist ideologue who shared many ideas with the “Soldiers of Heaven” cult implicated in the January 2007 conflict) were arrested in large numbers during the final days of 2007. Many newspapers misreported this as a case involving “Mahdi Army” (i.e. pro-Muqtada Sadrist) militants, but the followers of Ahmad al-Hasan (who always distanced themselves from the “Soldiers of Heaven” back in 2007) have angrily protested the arrests which allegedly also involved pro-Mahdist clerics who had travelled to Basra from Nasiriyya, Amara and Najaf. Recent clashes have been reported in Nasiriyya as well. Whilst the Shiite clergy historically have been quite successful in fending off this sort of internal challenge – from 2006 they have also enlisted the support of the central government in doing so – Mahdism remains an enduring force in Iraqi Shiite politics. It has changed the entire community more than once (as was the case with the Shaykhis, the Babis and the Baha’is in the nineteenth century), and it persists as an ideological current that is neither nationalist nor sectarian in the traditional sense.

See also article on Ashura 1428/2007 and the Mahdism challenge

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