We Need to Understand Minority Shias’ History

August 8, 2006 |
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Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been curious about the Shiite Muslims. But I figured, why go to Lebanon, Iraq or Iran to find them -- when I can go to Queens?

There are plenty of Shiites -- more properly, Shia -- right here; they have a history and politics that we need to know.

In the minds of most Americans, the Shia came on the world stage the hard way. The Iranians are mostly Shia; in the late ‘70s, their Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the pro-U.S. shah, beginning three decades of nonstop hostility. In 1983 the Shia group Hezbollah blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, thus schooling the world in a startling military invention: the suicide bomber.

Yet, according to The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, a new book by American diplomat Peter Galbraith, as late as 2003 President George W. Bush did not know the distinction between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. Of course, in the three years since, as violence erupted in Iraq and now again in Lebanon, most Americans know that there’s some sort of distinction. With apologies to the 19th century wit Ambrose Bierce, we might say that "sectarian violence" is the devil’s way of teaching Americans about world religions.

But, of course, the roots of the Shia go way back, all the way to the seventh century, when a war erupted over the dynastic succession of the Islamic caliphate. Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed by rival Muslims in AD 680 in what is now Iraq. The bloody martyrdom tradition of Shia Islam -- the word itself refers to "followers" -- began there, more than 1,300 years ago.

To be a Shia Muslim is to see oneself as an endlessly persecuted minority (of 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, only 15 percent are Shia), mostly at the hands of the Sunni, whom the Shia regard as usurpers of the true faith. For their part, the Sunni regard the Shia as heretics, even pagans.

A major Shia outpost in the United States, the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, sits right on the Van Wyck Expressway in Jamaica, Queens. Including both a mosque and a school, the center serves as the spiritual hub for 15,000 Shia Muslims in the tristate area. A visitor there is made to feel welcome, and he can admire, for example, the words of the Quran intricately etched into a large metal mural in the lobby. Visitors are even welcome at evening prayer services -- just take your shoes off, please, and, as nonparticipants, stand respectfully in the back.

The big buzz around the Al-Khoei Center these days is Lebanon. Perhaps 40 percent of the Lebanese are Shia Muslims, and their leader, of course, is Hezbollah’s Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. So it would come as no surprise that the Shia, including American Shia, look at the current fighting differently from most Americans; as noted, Shia everywhere expect to be in the minority, even as their faith gives them a stubbornly militant optimism.

"The Shia Muslims ... see Hezbollah as a reminiscence of the movement of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad" -- those were the words put to me by Syed Meesam Razvi, spokesman for the Al-Khoei Center. Which is to say, just as Jews and Christians oftentimes reach back to ancient theological history to make a point, so, too, do Muslims. Razvi, then approving, quoted Nasrallah, addressing the Israelis: "You have no idea against whom you are fighting. You are fighting the children of Muhammad, Ali Hassan and Hussein." In the Middle East, the roots of conflict reach deep.

America mostly stumbled into the Middle East in the mid-20th century, because of Israel, the Cold War and oil. But in the wake of 9/11, we are there now, it would seem, for the long haul, and so we have no choice but to leaf through the bloody pages of its history and to tutor ourselves in its bitter theo-politics.

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