The Emerging Shiite Powerhouse


The war in Iraq has produced an unintended consequence -- a formidable Shiite Muslim geographical bloc that will dominate politics in the Middle East for many years. This development is also creating political and spiritual leaders of unparalleled international influence.

It is easy to see the Shiite lineup. Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities, and so does Bahrain. In Lebanon, Shiites are a significant plurality. In Syria, although they are a minority, they are the dominant power in government. They are the majority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and have a significant presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The United States is used to thinking of the world in terms of individual nation-states. But the Shiites are a transnational force.

The United States unwittingly supplied the key linkage for this bloc. By destroying the secular government of Saddam Hussein, it brought that country's Shiite majority to the fore, revealing a solid line of Shiite majority nations from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

This force is magnified because devout Shiite followers have a primary loyalty to spiritual leaders rather than secular officials, and that leadership is supremely well equipped to secure the loyalty of its followers. Shiite leaders are organized, well funded, and set up to provide charitable aid, health care and social welfare -- a social safety net notably absent in the U.S. occupation so far.

The task of keeping tabs on Shiism is made somewhat easier for Washington since the city of Najaf is rapidly becoming the Vatican of the Shiite world and lies in the heart of the American occupation. Najaf is where Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, is buried. Ali's descendants are revered by Shiites as the only legitimate spiritual leaders of Islam.

On May 19, more than 1,000 Shiite protesters marched in Baghdad to protest the American presence in Iraq. The crowd cried, "No, no for America! Yes, yes for al-Hawza!" The Hawza is the influential council of Islamic clerics in the city of Najaf. Understanding the Hawza is a key to understanding how the Shiite community is organized.

The strength of the Shia community lies in its independent and dynamic leadership. Unlike the Sunni community, Shiites have no legal schools, and therefore no absolute, fixed interpretations of Islamic law. Each believer chooses a spiritual leader -- a person "worthy of emulation," usually an ayatollah. The Imam Ali Foundation, run by the powerful Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hussaini Sistani, provided the following explanation in response to a query about the role of the spiritual leader. "You do what the [leader's] expert opinion says you should do, and refrain from what his expert opinion says you should refrain from without any research ... on your part. It is as though you have placed the responsibility of your deeds squarely on his shoulders."

The spiritual leader is also well financed by his followers. Since Muslims must give alms as a basic religious duty, ayatollahs provide a place for these alms to be deposited. Most of them run extensive charitable organizations, many with enormous monetary resources.

The combination of financial resources and untrammeled influence over their followers makes the clerics very powerful men indeed. Fortunately, most are responsible to a fault with their power.

The Hawza assembly is necessary because ayatollahs are in competition for authority and influence. Therefore some sort of council helps provide a unified voice for the community of believers. This does not entirely prevent rivalry, especially since a number of ayatollahs are returning from decades of exile.

The latest to return is Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SAIRI), who has a military group, the Badr Brigade, at his beck and call. A rival to al-Haqim is Muqtada al-Sadr, whose father, revered cleric Mohammad al-Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Muqtada is not yet an ayatollah, but his fiery charisma has attracted many young followers.

The most revered cleric, with enormous influence and effective control over the Hawza, is Ayatollah Sistani. He seems reluctant to make dramatic pronouncements, favoring the politics of balance. A few savvy Bush administration officials hope Sistani will serve as a stabilizing force in the reconstruction period. However, they should not be too sanguine about this. Sistani is committed to Shiite rule in Iraq, and has indicated that he is losing patience with American occupation. The loyalty of his followers throughout the Shiite community could make him one of the most powerful spiritual and political figures in the world.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman is the author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran," and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."

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