Politics & Policy

The Ungovernable Shiites

It's their tradition.

There is a story told among Shiites today that as the revered Imam Hussein lay dying on the fields of Karbala in 680 A.D., he cursed the people of what is now Iraq for having deserted him in his hour of need. “May you never satisfy a ruler,” he gasped. “And may you never be satisfied by a ruler.”

While I’m not sure how widespread that legend is among rank-and-file Shiites, it’s worth remembering as we watch radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr lead his nation off a cliff. As Hussein’s anathema implies, there is something unstable and ungovernable at the heart of Shiism–something that is not specific to Sadr’s intifada, but which in fact runs through the entire religious sect: a deep attachment to lost causes, alienation, failure, and death. And this, in turn, suggests that our struggle with radical Islam has only just begun.

As I’ve written here before, during my two trips to Iraq I’ve studied the Shia–praying in their mosques, attending their religious gatherings, interviewing their clerics and, most of all, examining their teachings and iconography. This last aspect particularly startled me: severed heads, amputated hands, Arabic letters dripping blood–and that’s what found in mosques. On the street, you can buy Iranian-made posters which depict Hussein, resembling a bearded 1970s rock star, in a number of pathetic scenes from the Battle of Karbala: Hussein holding his six month-old son Ali Ashgar, an arrow protruding from the baby’s throat; Hussein cradling, Pietá-style, the bloodstained body of his nephew Qasem; Hussein’s own decapitated head, rapt in orgasmic death-ecstasy. It’s as if the Shia conflated the myths of Mary and Christ into a single masculine image of martyrdom and sorrow. (So intent is Shiism on gender-cleansing its mythology that, as one story relates, it wasn’t Fatima who suckled her infant sons Hussein and Hasan, but Mohammad, using saliva from his tongue.)

The Shias’ most holy day is Ashura, which commemorates the Battle of Karbala–a military disaster in which Hussein, leading an entourage of family and supporters, was besieged and massacred by his Damascus-based rivals, the corrupt Umayyad clan. To explain their hero’s defeat, the Shia wove an elaborate web of fable and legend, complete with heroic last stands, valiant speeches, skies that wept blood and, above all, holy martyrdom. Hussein, we are told, knew he would die at Karbala, but went anyway, sacrificing himself–and, somewhat inexplicably, his family and friends–in order to discredit the Ummayads and keep the pure light of Islam alive. Echoes of Gethsemane and Golgotha are obvious, except there is no resurrection, no happy ending for the Shiites-only endless weeping for Hussein and guilt for those ancient Iraqis who failed to help him.

This year’s Ashura was the first that Shias could publicly observe in years, thanks to the Coalition’s overthrown of Shia-hating Saddam Hussein. Days beforehand, Baghdad and points south were festooned with religious banners, painted drops of blood frequently oozing from the beautiful Arabic script. Meanwhile, from seemingly every cab and kabob-stand boomed religious music–lugubrious lamentations for the death of the holy Imam. During this period, in fact, Shiites are not supposed to be happy. Weddings are banned, birthdays are not celebrated (although Muslims don’t go much for birthdays–only death days), while this year, religious extremists forced Christian liquor salesman in Baghdad to close on Fridays–even though it is still legal, for now, to sell booze on the Islamic sabbath.

Ashura itself is an orgy of death imagery. Giant bloody signs spelling out Hussein’s name draped down the facades of Karbala’s two main mosques, while a fountain sprayed geysers of blood-red liquid. Mirrored replicas of Hussein’s bier, decorated with ornate vases and artificial flowers, glittered everywhere, while winding through the crowd were men with blood-soaked bandages wrapped around their head and faces to stanch the bleeding from self-inflicted sword wounds. Meanwhile, cadres of male worshipers marched through the throng, chanting and beating their breasts or flogging themselves with metal chains.

Unless you have the instincts of a pre-Reformation Catholic peasant-or Mel Gibson–it is nearly impossible to grasp this appreciation of suffering and death. But here it is not death as a redemptive power, death as spectacle–a public expression that seeks the admiration of man as much as God. This is what, in my mind, separates Shia radicalism from its Sunni counterpart. Wahabbi and Palestinian suicide bombers seek honor and glorification by killing their enemies; the Shiites’ spiritual apotheosis, on the contrary, comes from having their enemies kill them–a kind of suicidal exhibitionism that fetishizes Hussein’s fate at Karbala. Early Christians felt that the blood of martyrs nourished the Church; Shiites believe that martyr blood will embellish their own holiness and that of their families for untold generations.

Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that the first eleven of Shia’s twelve sinless imams died by unnatural causes, their infallibility apparently unable to detect the poisons that dispatched each to Allah. (The 12th imam, Mohammad al-Mahdi, disappeared down a hole in Samarra and won’t be seen again until Judgment Day.) Contemporary imams have likewise met grisly fates. Last August, a car bomb killed Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim in Najaf. An interesting Shia poster depicts the slain cleric along with over 60 extended family members–all of whom were executed by Saddam Hussein–superimposed over a bleeding map of Iraq. More prevalent is a poster that shows a stunned Moqtada al-Sadr cradling his father, whom Saddam’s thugs murdered–along with Sadr’s two eldest brothers–in 1999. In 1980, Sadr’s uncle, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Sadr, and his aunt, Bint Hoda, also met death at Baathist hands–a legacy of martyrdom that gives the 31-year-old cleric a spiritual authority his youth would not otherwise warrant among the age-revering Shiites.

Not all Shia festivals are death-related, of course, nor are most Shiites radicals. But the religious sect is bound together in large part by a reverence for Hussein, who, in the Shia imagination, combines infallibility in the secular realm with absolute piety in the religious The problem is, of course, this creates an image of perfection that no human being–not even Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamofascist successors–can realize, leading to the Shiites’ perpetual disappointment, alienation and eventual violence against governing authorities. Like the man or woman searching for the perfect spouse, no one living person is ever quite “right” for the Shia. For them, the best is always enemy to the good.

Now we have Moqtada al-Sadr holed up in Najaf, threatening to cast the Coalition as modern-day Ummayads in his own version Karbala, with the entire world as his audience. Unfortunately, there seems little American authorities can do to prevent Sadr, or any other equally radicalized, theatrical cleric, from sucking them into this archetypical narrative. Shiites need martyrdom to define their piety, their identity, their very selves. But in order to be a martyr, they must have an enemy–preferably one that loves life and its pluralism, diversity and messy compromises; an enemy, in short, is “corrupt.” If America–or for that matter, Israel–didn’t exist, Shiites would have to create them. Meanwhile, Sadr is following his predecessors’ script to a T. That the drama may strike us more as Rebel without a Cause, than the holy Battle of Karbala doesn’t bother him a bit. “Martyrdom,” says the apocalyptic cleric, voicing the inner-most thoughts of his religious sect, “gives us dignity from God.” Imam Hussein’s curse, it seems, has come true.

Steven Vincent is a freelance journalist who recently returned from Iraq.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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