TCS Daily

Return of Tet?

By Stephen Schwartz - April 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The so-called "Shia uprising" in Iraq, with reports of bonding between Shia Muslim rebels and terrorists from Fallujah in the so-called "Sunni Triangle," seemed like a dream come true for opponents of the U.S.-led coalition. For Kerry supporters, old-fashioned leftists, Saddam nostalgics, and Islamofascist sympathizers of various kinds, it appeared that the Iraqi people were prepared to forget their religious differences and unite in a great insurrection against the invader.

Even the "Wahhabi lobby" in American mosques injected itself into the uproar. The Islamic Center of Long Island, in Westbury, NY, is a notorious center of Islamist extremism. On April 9, 200 of the mosque's members signed a petition circulated by one Ghazi Khankan, regional director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR, for its part, is a fake "civil rights" organization that seeks to impose the ultraradical ideology of Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, on American Muslims. The CAIR petition demanded that President George W. Bush withdraw American forces from Iraq.

Some wishful-thinking enemies of Iraqi liberation even sought to compare the disorders with the Tet offensive of 1968, when a massive North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnamese and American forces contributed significantly to domestic U.S. disaffection with the Vietnam engagement. But the "Shia uprising" had various aspects that, from its beginning, doomed it to failure.

It was nothing like Tet, which involved tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, well-trained, well-armed, disciplined, and highly motivated. The so-called "Army of the Mahdi" cobbled together by the power-hungry young Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and launched against the coalition, is an irregular militia.

In addition, the 30-year old al-Sadr lacks the political credibility of the North Vietnamese, to say nothing of the more charismatic figures in recent Shia Muslim history, such as Ayatollah Khomeini. Muqtada al-Sadr launched his bid for disruption precisely because he lacks religious credentials and public standing among the Iraqi Shias.

Shia Islam embodies a seniority system of leadership. Young aspirants count for very little in Shi'ism; all power, respect, and decision-making resides in the hands of the ayatollahs, who are greybearded, veteran scholars admired and even venerated for their learning, writing, and theological sophistication. In this regard, Shia Islam most resembles the Orthodox tradition in Christianity; Muqtada al-Sadr has no more capacity to mobilize a majority of the Iraqi Shias than a lone Greek priest from the island of Crete would have to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

Al-Sadr has only one asset: his family name. His father, uncle, and two brothers were prominent Shia clerics murdered by Saddam Hussein's minions. But although martyrdom is the central motif in Shia Islam, family glory is insufficient for the young al-Sadr to usurp authority from such figures as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the dominant figure in Iraqi Shiism, even though Sistani is Iranian, not Iraqi.

Al-Sadr has challenged Sistani's authority since the liberation of Iraq was accomplished. The younger man's lust for power is also now seen behind the tragic murder of another youthful Shia cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, in the holy city of Najaf a year ago. Al-Khoei was known for moderation and modernism. His father, Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, who died in 1992, was best known in the Islamic world for rejecting Ayatollah Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule, known as "wilaya ul-faqih." Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei argued that religious and political leadership should remain separate from one another. The al-Khoei legacy supported reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran, and the al-Khoei Foundation maintains offices in New York and London.

When the young al-Khoei was murdered in the precincts of the Imam Ali Mosque, one of the most sacred Shia shrines, he had come to the premises in the company of a representative of the fallen Saddam regime. At the time, it was claimed that a riot had been precipitated by the unwise desire of American officials to promote a reconciliation "photo op" between the two.

But at the beginning of this month the Coalition Provisional Authority made public an arrest warrant charging Muqtada al-Sadr wuth complicity in the killing of Abd al-Majid al-Khoei.

It is certainly true that al-Sadr's reaction to the death of al-Khoei was suspicious. The crime occurred, in the words of Newsweek's Joshua Hammer, "at the doorway of the headquarters of Muqtada al-Sadr." Al-Sadr claimed he had tried to prevent the slaying, but that he was afraid for his own life. When asked his opinion of the dead al-Khoei, al-Sadr replied curtly, "He's gone. Why talk about him?"

Thus, in addition to a lack of theological status, al-Sadr must contend with deeper mistrust about his motives. Further, the very act of naming his force of disaffected and vagrant thugs an "Army of the Mahdi" will offend many Shias. "Mahdi" is the Islamic equivalent of the Jewish and Christian term moshiach, or messiah. In the "Twelver" tradition, which is the majority Shia trend, "the Mahdi" is the last of twelve imams or virtuous leaders. (Other Shias recognize seven imams (the Ismailis) or five imams (the Zaydis). The Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Muntazar, lived in the ninth century C.E., but vanished, and is known as the "Hidden Imam"; his reappearance at the end of times is awaited by Shia believers. Al-Sadr has no claim to being the "Hidden Imam" but his very use of such terminology illustrates a distasteful self-aggrandizement.

Al-Sadr has also acted irresponsibly in launching his armed protest in the days leading up to the Shia holy observance of Arbaeen, which began on April 9. Arbaeen commences 40 days after Ashura, a commemoration of the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, during the tragic events, some 14 centuries ago, from which the Shia sect emerged. In the days of Arbaeen, hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims will flock to Najaf. Al-Sadr's provocation exposes the Arbaeen pilgrims to considerable danger.

Finally, pious Shia Muslims must feel alarm at the suggestion they should rise up in cooperation with the terrorists in Fallujah. Fallujah has historically been known as a center of Wahhabism, the cult that also inspires al-Qaida. As expressed by Bin Ladenite chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Wahhabis hate Shias, whom they literally consider a deviation from Islam originating in a Jewish conspiracy, more than they do Westerners. In February, a letter from al-Zarqawi inciting attacks on Shia Muslims was intercepted. In typical Wahhabi style, al-Zarqawi declared, "The Shia are a greater danger and their harm more destructive to the nation than that of the Americans."

For these reasons -- al-Sadr's upstart position, his bad reputation in the al-Khoei case, and his general disposition toward irresponsible disruption -- it is doubtful he can stir many Shias to join him. Once his "uprising" has collapsed, the coalition should assure that he be tried in the al-Khoei case, as well as on other criminal charges. It is doubtful any of the Shia greybeards will risk anything on his behalf. And for their part, the "Wahhabi lobby" in America should stop trying to turn mosques into political headquarters, and should cease imitating the rhetoric heard in Fallujah.

Stephen Schwartz recently wrote for TCS about The Case of Suitcase Nukes.


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