A Shi'i's Lament
It could be that I’m just too tired and jet lagged. Or it could be the sheer exhaustion of having to deal, yet again, with the same exclusionary and alienating anti-Shiism that seems to flow almost naturally from the lips of all too many of my Arab brethren. Or it could be that I have to listen to all of it during our holiest times, when you’d think there would be an extra effort made at mutual respect and tolerance, rather than the reverse. But whatever it is, I’ve had it. As an “other” in the Arab world (a Shi’i Arab) married to a different other (a Kurdish Iraqi) in that same world, I feel alienated and abandoned, and I have decided to give my frustrations voice. There remains to us no place for the “others”, with or without an Arab spring.
When I was in college, I knew three Egyptian fellows—Hisham, Yusuf and Amr. I entered as a freshman, and as a Shi’i somewhat wary of associating too closely with the main Islamic center. But these three fellows went out of their way, really, truly went out of their ways to attract and bring the Shi’a, invited Shi’a to lead the Friday prayers, visited us in our homes, really worked to bring forward a more open and inclusive center. And of course I reciprocated, many of the Shi’a did, we confronted Shi’a who were wont to say something that our Sunni friends found offensive, to our fellow Shi’a, in a manner that caused some hurt feelings. I’d take credit for that, but really Hisham Yusuf and Amr had each taken ten steps before I or any of the other Shi'a took one took one. I think of my senior year at MIT, when Hisham was President of the Muslim Students’ Association and I was vice president, when we had purged the place of all extremism and particularism, as one brief shining moment, our own college Camelot. It may not have lasted long, but it was there. I mention this because those three Sunni Arab Egyptians surprised me, and over two decades later, I’m still waiting for a second surprise. Instead, it’s continual disappointment.
That’s not to say some random Arab will not tell me we are all Muslims or mouth other pieties, surely they would. I don't doubt a substantial number are sincere, and it’s not fair to demand every one of them demonstrate, to me, that they mean it by confronting the near ubiquitous bigotry in their own midst. For all I know they do, it’s not to little single me they owe a duty anyway. So to say I am continually disappointed, and never surprised, is not to say every Sunni has a problem showing respect and tolerance to Shi’a. It is to say it is something of a broad, serious trend throughout the Arab world respecting the lack of a place for the others, and to suggest, quite frankly, there are far, far too few voices among the dominants to challenge the narrative and stand with the others. That I raise this now, and on this day, the day of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s Grandson, is mere happenstance caused by a confluence of events. The feelings, however, are real and I think broadly shared within our community.
On the plane ride back to the US today, a couple of Jordanians were lamenting Iraq’s state of affairs. “They call it a democracy, the Americans. The Prime Minister is a Shi’i. The President is a Kurd. What kind of democracy is this?” That’s a quote. Apparently in democracy you aren’t supposed to count 70% of the population. Last night, the discussion at my dinner table for a personal meal with a few folks I knew casually was why precisely it was that the Shi’a in Iraq were so weird as to go around walking to Kerbala from Baghdad at this time, with a few attempts at lame humor in the midst of it mimicking limping pilgrims. This, to be clear, is in response to news of a bombing, undoubtedly by a Muslim, in Iraq of Shi’a pilgrims on their way to Kerbala. Because, really, what could be a more appropriate Muslim response when one Muslim kills seven others than to make fun of those killed for being so odd? So much for the brotherhood of believers.
Yesterday, with a different group, at a table at a conference abroad not far away, it was how the “Iranians” insult the Prophet’s Companions, and how Jafar al-Sadiq, one of our most revered figures, was actually a Sunni. I think the day before that, with an overlapping group, it was the ridiculous claim, from a well educated person who really should know better than to spout such absurdist nonsense, that Bahrain’s Shia were actually Persian. This follows a bit a different claim, made in a different setting a few weeks ago, by a different person, respecting how the Shi’a of Lebanon were in fact more loyal to Iran than their own country, though you’ll be happy to know as an Iraqi Shi’a she was quick to note that I was not to be lumped in with the balance of the so-called “Persians.” (“Persian” to be clear to those who are liberal and therefore unsure precisely why it should be so insulting, is this already bigoted crowd’s way of suggesting you are a traitor to your nation, loyal to another, and therefore thoroughly contemptible. Naturally, that’s yet another reason to be offended by the rhetoric, if you are in fact of Persian extract living in the Arab world curious as to precisely why your citizenship should not be equal to that of others in your country by virtue of your ethnicity. This is true, in fact mentioned in my upcoming book. But for now we stray. You just have to assume for these purposes that Israel is horrible because it is a Jewish state that discriminates against Arabs, which is different than an Arab state that regards vast numbers of its own citizens as Persians and Persians as unfit for equal citizenship in their societies. Make sense? Of course not, so let’s move on.)
But she said I’m not a Persian, in fact unbeknownst to me I’m not really a Shi’i. This is only became Shi’a a few hundred years ago, because our tribal leaders decided on that for political reasons. It was supposed to be a concession in my favor by a Syrian living in Beirut. It’s an interesting game as I see it. Can I play?
Hey Egyptians. You aren’t really Muslim, or that portion of you who claim you are Muslim aren’t. You only became Muslim when the Muslim Arab armies invaded. Hey Palestinians, go back to Byzantium. And don’t laugh you white Anglo-Saxons. Didn’t you know Charlemagne converted you, you guys are actually animists of some sort I think. Or maybe you’re Catholics but you certainly aren’t real Protestants, that was Henry VIII who did that. Fun! Now we must leave fantasy world where one’s commitments can be seriously evaluated on the basis of the reasons their forebears took particular actions and return to our regularly scheduled programming.
This, to be clear, passes for intelligent conversation among all too many of my Arab brethren, and again, it’s not as if I select as my own Sunni friends people likely to say such things, because I don’t. As Lebron says, they’re my friends. Still, set me at a dinner with a group of Sunnis who don’t know my sect, or who weren’t paying attention, and to me it’s more a gritting my teeth and hoping the subject does not come up. Because if it doesn’t, the dinner might have been pleasant, but if it does, it won’t end well with exceptions to that being marginal almost to the vanishing point. I’m too tired for the most part to keep arguing, besides which once they find out I am Shi’i they usually retreat and find a concession (like that we Iraqi Shi’a are Arabs and really aren’t as Shi’i as we think), which is even more exhausting to deal with.
Which of course explains remarkably well the abandonment of Bahrain’s Shia by vast majorities of Muslims, even those living in the United States. Either they’re actually Persians, and remember, it’s okay to kill Persians (see above) or the other one I’ve heard is that they are too “sectarian” because apparently a few protestors are caught on film beating up some random South Asian workers who appear as innocent as can be imagined, obviously a detestable deed. So to be clear a group of people who have lived their lives under pervasive, systematic and well documented discrimination on the basis of religious sect may not be supported because some small number are “sectarian”. It reminds me of some guy I heard once who pointed out how Nat Turner’s rebellion was suppressed not because of support for slavery but because of all the innocent white people, including women and children, his rebelling slaves killed. Because, see, that was the problem in the antebellum South. Too many racist slaves.
I suppose it is too much to expect much help from religious leaders when the general trends among educated and poorly educated, native and abroad alike, are so depressingly similarly bigoted. But in any case it isn’t there. Yusuf Qaradawi is more than happy to fan the flames of sectarian hatred for more television time, perfectly happy to abandon Bahrain’s Shi’a and talk seriously of democracy in Syria or Egypt. He lies unchallenged, Yusuf says what the masses want to hear, and it’s pretty clear they want to hear this. I used to regard his pronouncements with some detached bemusement, one day it’s okay to kill American soldiers in Iraq, the next it’s okay to be a Muslim American soldier in Afghanistan. What day of the week is it? I can tell you if it’s okay to kill Jewish children according to the Great Shaykh. It was a mistake to be so accommodating to Yusuf the shameless demagogue, his complete lack of scruples even as to human life deserved more criticism than I delivered. A prostitute exercises more discrimination than Yusuf Qaradawi, with due apologies to the prostitutes for comparing them to such a detestable man.
Are you a Palestinian Fatah supporter who wants to insult a member of Hamas? You call him a Shi’i. How about Hamas itself? They extol the virtues of a great Shi’a murderer of our times, Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. And Yasir Arafat of course was Saddam’s greatest friend, the greatest Shi’a murderer of our times. Yet I’m the one who has abandoned the “Arab cause” by not saying enough critical things about the Israeli occupation. I defend unlawful and immoral occupations of the sort in which Israel is engaged to nobody, but I do find it funny how having thoroughly been alienated, with murders against my brothers justified on the grounds that we are Persians, as if that’s possibly a reason to kill someone anyway, and told we are too stupid to know our revered Imam was in fact on their side, after all that, after Shi’is die on a holy day and it’s time to tell a joke about their dumb rites, then suddenly you say “Israel” and I’m supposed to snap like a loyal dog to attention because now it’s “our” cause and shouldn’t I be on “our” side. Ain’t gonna happen, and not just because I don’t believe in “sides” but rather demand independent thinking and judgment. In fact, it’s a good thing I demand independent thinking of myself, or otherwise who knows what “side” I’d be on, and who knows if I would characterize Israel’s occupation as illegal and immoral if I was supposed to be a side picking automaton who didn’t think. After all when it comes to picking sides, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, I got no beef with the Jews. No Jew ever called me a traitor.
And I suppose one could argue that the Shi’a are “just as bad” which is probably true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far as concerns the region. I’m perfectly happy to concede that within Iraq, it remains the obligation of the Shi’a majority to include the Sunni minority and they haven’t done enough. At times, at the height of anti Ba’ath hysteria, it’s been awful, miserable failure. If a Sunni Iraqi wishes to be more extreme, I can meet halfway, I can accept the validity of his claim and perhaps dispute its extent. But I can acknowledge, in my book, in my publications, elsewhere, that he has a point and that the Shi’a are overwhelmingly not as sympathetic as they should be and it is in the details where we differ. But by all means put the onus on us Shi’a and criticize. I do,publicly.
But in the region, it is the responsibility of the majority to make us feel included, and trust me when I say we do not. “Miserable failure” is to do too much justice to what occurs, because it implies effort, and I see none of significance. It isn’t as if the Sunnis of the Arab world, again with significant if very limited exception, think the Bahraini Shi’a have a point and deserve better treatment with the difference being a matter of how repressed they are, it is that they think of the Bahraini Shi’a, and let’s be charitable and stick to elites, are sectarian Persians who deserved to be crushed. I wish in this Iraq’s Shi’a could see the frustrations of Iraq’s Sunnis, and more broadly I wish all of the Shi’a could see the frustrations of all the “others” out there in the Arab world—not just the Kurds whose plight I know from my wife, but the Copts of Egypt and the Berbers of Algeria and Morocco, the Jews of Tunisia, the blacks of the Sudan and Libya, and develop a more liberal and cosmopolitan outlook. I wish we might ourselves defend churches, because we know what it is to be laughed at when we are bombed. (Though to be fair, laughed at is a rather extreme response, most Sunnis I know would never do such a thing for murders at Ashura. They’d just ignore it. Wouldn’t appear on the blogs or the databases, ho hum a few Shi’a died, how about those Steelers anyway? Now if a few Shi’a beat up a Pakistani custodian in Manama, an awful deed to be sure of course, THAT’s worth not only the blogs and databases, swamping the blogs in fact, but also provides a convenient basis to turn away again from the suffering of the Shi’a. That’s the general educated response, even the academics’ response. The street is usually worse.) In any event, we Shi’a don’t rise to that occasion, and that’s tragic too. I sense a betrayal of our Holy Imam Hussein on the anniversary of his death when we do not sacrifice for all the downtrodden, feel their plight as our own. Such is the way of things in the sad state they are today.
In any event, I’m sure after a while I’ll cool down and realize what unites me with my other Arab brethren is greater than what divides me, that change comes slowly, that the revolutions convulsing the Arab world will not alter anything overnight, and that all we can do is work persistently, evenly, patiently with the like minded of good will, of which of course there are many (even if a small minority,still a great many) in both sects, and across religions, ethnicities, genders to achieve a better and more prosperous Middle East. It is a time to hope and not despair. So my head has told me from the day a fruit seller brought a tyrant to his knees.
But today is the day of Ashura, our sacred holy day, the day of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, and after all that has occurred, and in great physical and psychic exhaustion, I wish to give license to my heart and not my head, for just this day, just this once, so you know how we,the others in the Arab midst, feel. Here’s what I think today, or feel rather, straight from the heart.
Tyranny or democracy, it’s always the same in the Arab world. You won’t accept us, you won’t even make an effort to see the world through our eyes. You demand loyalty and offer no tolerance. You ask for support, and abandon us or are silent when our children our killed. When you come to accept the others, and all the others, Jew and Christian, Shi’i and Druze, black and Berber, when you hear an insult as against a Shi’i on his holy day you take it as an insult to you, when you see a church bombed, you take it as a mosque bombed, when some modicum of mutual respect, honor and tolerance reaches or even just perceptibly registers somehow in civil discourse, penetrates even one tenth of a millimeter, give us all a call, we’d love to join in. Until then, go fuck yourselves.
Your faithful Persian,