Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Shiaa Fundamentalism is Not a Substitute - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

Last year I asked an American politician: “Do you not see that your project in the end failed and did not achieve the desired goals now that the country has transformed into a state of devastation and mass destruction?”

He answered, “This is the common perception among Arabs, but the truth is different. What we are seeing now in Iraq is a conflict between our two basic fundamentalist enemies: Sunni fundamentalism and Shiaa fundamentalism. Such a conflict does not bother us or inflict damage upon our interests in Iraq.”

There is no need to comment on his answer and it is enough to note that it is a mere indication of the failure of the American project in Iraq. The civil discord that was generated by the American occupation had not benefited the Americans since its invasion of Iraq under the pretext of war against terror. The Iraqi arena had turned into a focal point that attracts and exports all forms of regional terrorism.

I have read a lot in the literature of neo-conservative Americans on their perception of American intervention in Iraq and their defense of it. In their writings, they stated that Iraq arena is the best way to change the current situations in the region and exporting democratic freedom to it. This is because Iraq combined three critical characteristics; the existence of a literate elite that enjoys modern cultural orientation, high economic potentials, and a religious institution that is harmonized with values of liberalism and secularism.

From this perspective lies the distinction between the Sunni orientation which is described as rigid and introverted, and stresses a traditional interpretation of the holy text on one hand, and the Shiaa orientation, which is described as open and able to regenerate in view of the vast space for discretion by jurisprudent guides in interpreting the text and applying it in reality.

These perceptions were based upon some shallow Orientalist works, which were further enhanced by Bernard Lewis, the Orientalist known for his affiliation to American neo-conservatives.

The same perception had begun within the ranks of leftist western culture, during the outbreak of the Iranian revolution, which at that point seemed to be the “first religious democratic revolution” in the words of French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who deemed it the most important revolution of modern time as it established the basis for abandoning the “political authority” itself.

Foucault – whose Islamic culture was superficial – tried to justify his infatuation with the Iranian revolution through a naive comparison between “dogmatic Sunni Islam” and “revolutionary Shiaa Islam”.

However, the same orientation had overwhelmed the Sunni Islamic arena to the extent that tens of Islamic youth movements (especially in the Maghreb region) turned towards Shiism. However in such cases, Shiism was more of a revolutionary political trend that was infatuated by literature of martyrdom and rebellion. This trend was crystallized by Iranian thinker Ali Shariati, his fascinating texts on the Hosseiniye experience and his skillful use of symbols of Shiaa heritage towards a leftist reading of what he called Allawi Shiism (the Shiism of the poor and of the revolutionaries) vis-à-vis Safavid Shiism (the Shiism of conceited and of the dictators).

It is well known that the ideas of Shariati (who died before the victorious revolution took place) had inspired a large part of leftist Arabs just as it inspired Iranian leftists (such as the Mujahideen-E-Khalq movement). However, the magic of the Iranian revolution had soon faded after the launch of the Islamic republic. Thus in the western mind, Iran transformed to become a model of an oppressive state despite the relative sympathy towards President Khatami, who won people over with his polite, philosophical language that called for dialogue between civilizations.

The raging battle within Iranian intellect itself between the conservative and reformist trends (which is represented by new and adept intellectuals such as Abdol Karim Soroush, Mostafa Malekian…) had drawn attention to cracks and points of weakness of the dominant traditional Shiism. Thus to wage upon the democratic persistence of guides from honorable Najaf was a losing bet, since it represented a traditional hard-line trend that is totally detached from modernization and that forms a separation from the progress of modernization that started in the hawza itself in the 1960s and 1970s by scholar Mohammed Baqir Al Sadr.

In fact, this naïve perception of comparison between the Sunni and Shiaa orientations does not withstand scientific scrutiny. Both orientations belong to the same system of [authoritative] reference and differ only on a few minor issues when we overlook the historical and ideological backgrounds of their emergence and development.

The current problem in Iraq (at least in some respects), is nothing but a manifestation of this deep-rooted disregard that was inherited by past conflicts which tore the nation apart. This fact remains even if this time the stakes are different and the major responsibility is borne by American occupation authorities.