Posts Tagged Shiites

The revenge of the Sunnis

ISISWhy are Sunni Arabs generating waves of terror and zeal for the caliph? I argue that it’s a reaction to a century of steady erosion of Ottoman-era Sunni dominance, especially in the zone between the Mediterranean shore and the Persian Gulf. It’s not a sudden collapse, it’s a long-term unwinding that has taken Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad out of Sunni hands. The Shiites (and Jews), once last, are now first—and Arab Sunnis blame the West. (I also have something to say about the Sunni-mania in Israel.) Read the entire piece here, at Mosaic Magazine.

, ,

The Shiite crescent eclipsed

This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

The Shiite crescent eclipsed

, , , , ,

Khomeini’s Messengers in Mecca

Martin Kramer, “Khomeini’s Messengers in Mecca,” in Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), pp. 161-87.

This is the last and most detailed version of a series of studies devoted to the subject of Iranian-Saudi and Shiite-Wahhabi conflict in Mecca. Earlier versions: “The Ancient Sunni-Shiite Feud,” The New York Times, August 5, 1987; “Behind the Riot in Mecca,” Policy Focus, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, no. 5, August 1987; “Tragedy in Mecca,” Orbis (Philadelphia), vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring 1988), pp. 231-47; “La Mecque: la controverse du pèlerinage,” Maghreb-Machrek (Paris), no. 122 (Oct.-Nov.-Dec. 1988), pp. 38-52; and “Khomeini’s Messengers: The Disputed Pilgrimage of Islam,” in Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East, eds. E. Sivan and M. Friedman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 174-97.

According to the tradition of Islam, Mecca during the annual Muslim pilgrimage is a city open to all Muslims, in which all forms of strife and bloodshed are forbidden. The peace of Mecca is a concept so rooted in Arabia that it even predates Islam, and was observed by sojourners in Mecca before the Arabian shrine became the center of Muslim faith.

But in 1987, Mecca became a site of unprecedented carnage when demonstrating Iranian pilgrims clashed with Saudi security forces in a bloody confrontation that claimed over four hundred lives. The Saudis and their supporters called the event a premeditated riot: violent Iranian demonstrators crushed themselves to death in a stampede of their own making. The Iranians and their sympathizers called it a premeditated massacre: the Saudis conspired to provoke and shoot Iranian pilgrims. The pilgrimage to Mecca, far from providing a respite from the conflicts that beset Islam, had itself become a point of confrontation between rival visions of Islam. The pilgrimage peace had been shattered by the brickbats and bullets of Muslims.

The disruption of the pilgrimage peace admitted multiple interpretations. It occurred at a moment of escalating tensions in the last phase of the Iranian-Iraqi war, following the American reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers and the introduction of foreign escorts in the Gulf. This foreign intervention, favored by Saudi Arabia and opposed by Iran, created an atmosphere of crisis between the two states. Yet the deterioration of the pilgrimage peace also reflected tensions dating back to Iran’s revolution, an event which kindled a broader rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over primacy in the Gulf and in Islam. That conflict had its remote origins in the great historical animosity of Wahhabism, the fount of Saudi Islam, to Shi‘ism itself. Nor can the most recent pilgrimage strife be divorced from the history of mistrust between Shi‘ite pilgrims and their Sunni hosts, a history that stretches back as far as the sixteenth century. At a still deeper level, the event echoed Sunni-Shi‘ite animosities that had their origins in the seventh century, at the very dawn of Islam.

Even if it is allowed that the Gulf crisis triggered the violence of 1987, it was understood by Muslims in a larger historical context. Much of that understanding is implicit and unspoken, because it is essentially sectarian. Sectarian bigotry dare not speak its name openly. Like racial and ethnic prejudice in other societies, sectarian prejudice is not professed openly in the Muslim world. “They are now propagandizing and claiming that this incident was a war between Shi‘ites and Sunnis,” charged Ali Khamene’i, then the president of Iran, after the 1987 violence. “This is a lie! Of course there is a war; but a war between the American perception of Islam and true revolutionary Islam.”1 The pilgrimage controversy is not only one between Shi‘ites and Sunnis, but neither is it one between Khomeini’s truth and America’s falsehood. It is a conflict that is simultaneously political and sectarian, that combines a present-day clash of interests with the historic clash of sects in Islam. Some of these sectarian differences touch upon the Muslim pilgrimage itself, and involve conflicting notions of sanctity and asylum. The aim of this essay is to explain the interaction of contemporary politics with the enduring prejudices that Saudis and Iranians still bring to Mecca.2

From Ottomans to Saudis

The pilgrimage ritual itself is not an issue about which Sunnis and Shi‘ites have conducted an elaborate polemic. The bedrock of sectarian conflict has always been the matter of the Imamate—the question of legitimate authority in Islam—which is a matter of theological controversy outside the ritual sphere. Yet over time, theological differences were transformed into political, social, and cultural differences, and these infected both sects with bigoted lore about Shi‘ite pilgrims and Sunni hosts. This was particularly evident after Sunni-Shi‘ite differences took the form of Ottoman-Safavid armed conflict, beginning in the sixteenth century. That was perhaps the most divided century in Islamic history, marked by great wars of religion between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. When the holy cities were under Sunni Ottoman rule, there were years in which the Ottomans denied entry to Shi‘ites coming from Safavid domains. The Safavids reacted by trying to discourage the pilgrimage to Mecca and emphasizing the importance of Shi‘ite shrines in their own domains.3

The Sunni corpus of libel is perhaps more readily documented, if only because it sometimes led to violent acts against Shi‘ite pilgrims. At the root of the Sunni lore is the belief that Shi‘ites feel themselves compelled to pollute the holy premises. Much evidence for Sunni belief in this libel exists both in Islamic textual sources and in European travel literature. This pollution was said to take a particularly repelling form: Burckhardt and Burton, the great nineteenth-century explorers of Arabia, both heard about attacks on Shi‘ite pilgrims, prompted by the suspicion that they had polluted the Great Mosque in Mecca with excrement. According to Burton, “their ill-fame has spread far; at Alexandria they were described to me as a people who defile the Ka‘bah.”4

The Shi‘ite libel was just as farfetched. It held that Sunnis did not respect Mecca as a sanctuary, and that the lives of Shi‘ite pilgrims were forfeit even in these sacred precincts, where the shedding of blood is forbidden. Shi‘ite pilgrims were indeed liable to humiliation at any time; as Burton wrote of Shi‘ites on pilgrimage, “that man is happy who gets over it without a beating, [for] in no part of Al-Hijaz are they for a moment safe from abuse and blows.”5 Yet it would seem that, for the most part, Shi‘ite pilgrims were as secure as other pilgrims, provided they exercised the discretion (taqiyya) permitted them by Shi‘ite doctrine and conformed with the customs of their Sunni hosts. During the Ottoman period, the Iranian pilgrims’ caravan also bought its security through a special tribute, paid both to desert tribes en route and to the guardians of the sanctuaries.6

Since toleration could be had at a price which Shi‘ite pilgrims were prepared to pay, their lives were rarely as threatened as their dignity. The open manner in which Shi‘ites observed Muharram in Jidda epitomized the tolerance of the late Ottoman years. When the Dutch Orientalist Hurgronje witnessed these ceremonies in 1884, he found the Ottoman governor in attendance. Hurgronje reported that the governor “not only drank sherbet but also wept piously.”7 Writing of his pilgrimage in 1885, an Iranian Shi‘ite described the tolerance shown to Shi‘ites generally:

Previously, in Mecca the populace greatly persecuted the Iranian pilgrims who were Shi‘ites, so they had to practice complete dissimulation. These days, because of the weakness of the Ottoman government and the European style civil law which is practiced there, and the strength of the Iranian government, this practice is completely abandoned. There is no harm done to the Iranians. No one would molest them, even if they did not practice dissimulation.8

But sectarian antagonisms were exacerbated following the advent of Saudi rule over Mecca in 1924. The doctrinal divide which separated Ottoman Sunnism from Shi‘ism seemed narrow in comparison to the chasm which separated Saudi Wahhabism and Shi‘ism. Wahhabi doctrine regarded Shi‘ite veneration of the Imams and their tombs as blasphemous idolatry. The Wahhabi iconoclasts had earned lasting notoriety in Shi‘ite eyes when they emerged from the Arabian desert in 1802 and sacked Karbala, the Shi‘ite shrine city in Iraq. They slew several thousand Shi‘ites on that occasion and desecrated the revered tomb of the Imam Husayn, whose martyrdom in the seventh century is the pivotal event in Shi‘ite religious history. Those Shi‘ites who perished became martyrs in the eyes of their coreligionists, sacrificed on the very site of Husayn’s martyrdom.

When a revived Wahhabi movement swept through Arabia during the first quarter of this century, it appeared as hostile as ever to Shi‘ism’s most fundamental assumptions. The leader of the movement, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud, when asked in 1918 about the Shi‘ite shrines in Iraq, could still declare that “I would raise no objection if you demolished the whole lot of them, and I would demolish them myself if I had the chance.”9 He never had that chance, but he did besiege and occupy Medina, and his bombardment of the city produced a general strike in Iran and an uproar throughout the Shi‘ite world. For while the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca holds the same significance for Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the visitation (ziyara) to nearby Medina is of special significance for Shi‘ites. The cemetery of al-Baqi‘, near the city, is the reputed resting place of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and four of the Twelve Imams. It was the Shi‘ite practice at this cemetery to pray for their intercession with God. 10 The Wahhabis, for whom prayer through these intercessors represented a form of idolatry, had leveled much of this cemetery in 1806, during an earlier occupation of Medina, but its domed tombs had been rebuilt by the end of the century. Now the Saudis, in their purifying zeal, again demolished the domes of al-Baqi‘, a move regarded by Shi‘ites as desecration of their hallowed shrines.

The demolition created so profound a sentiment in Iran, especially in religious circles, that the Iranian government refused to recognize Ibn Sa‘ud’s rule. Instead, Iran demanded that a general assembly of Muslims be created to regulate the holy cities, while a Shi‘ite conference convened in Lucknow, India, called upon all Muslims to use every possible means to expel Ibn Sa‘ud from the Hijaz.11 Denial of recognition was combined, in 1927, with a decision by Iran to forbid the pilgrimage to its nationals, as an act of protest against the alleged intolerance of the Wahhabis and their destruction of tombs.12

Still, the ban failed to discourage the most determined pilgrims from Iran, who continued to arrive via Iraq and Syria. And in a pragmatic step, Ibn Sa‘ud moved to defuse the extensive Shi‘ite agitation against him by a show of tolerance designed to win official Iranian recognition. Shi‘ite pilgrims from Arab lands met with exemplary treatment during the year in which Iran imposed the ban, and Iran’s ulama soon were demanding the restored right to perform the pilgrimage. In 1928, Iran lifted the pilgrimage ban, and in 1929 Iran and Ibn Sa‘ud’s kingdom concluded a treaty of friendship. Article 3 of the treaty guaranteed that Iran’s pilgrims would enjoy treatment identical to that of pilgrims from other countries, and that they would not be prevented from observing their own religious rites.13

Iran’s pilgrims came to enjoy a measure of toleration which reflected the pragmatism of Ibn Sa‘ud on Shi‘ite matters, an approach which also guided his policy toward his own Shi‘ite minority in the east of his kingdom.14 Ibn Sa‘ud, in both hosting and ruling over Shi‘ites, now asked only that they avoid public enactment of distinctly Shi‘ite rituals. A pattern of tolerance thus seemed to have been established. It was not much tested during the 1930s, when Iran’s own government imposed a virtual ban on the pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to conserve foreign exchange.15 But other Shi‘ites, especially from India, fulfilled the obligation with no difficulty, although they often expressed frustration at their inability to pray at graves and sites which had once been the focus of the Shi‘ite pilgrimage.16

All the more striking, then, was a serious recurrence of the Sunni libel of Shi‘ite defilement. In 1943, a Saudi religious judge ordered an Iranian pilgrim beheaded for allegedly defiling the Great Mosque with excrement supposedly carried into the mosque in his pilgrim’s garment. Ibn Sa‘ud remarked to some Americans that “this was the kind of offense which might be expected of Iranian.” The verdict in local coffee houses held that “the Iranians always act that way.”17 The incident, which infuriated religious opinion in Iran, culminated in an official Iranian protest and a demand for payment of an indemnity. The Iranian press indulged in a campaign of anti-Wahhabi polemic shriller than anything published since Ibn Sa‘ud’s conquest of the Mecca. Once again, tales of Wahhabi barbarism were retold, and the story of the sacking of Karbala was recounted with anguish and embellishment. The government of Iran imposed another pilgrimage ban, which it only lifted in 1948, after the dust of controversy had settled.

The pilgrimage controversy became dormant again following the political rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran during the 1960s, which was the outcome of shared apprehension over Egyptian-sponsored subversion. Theologians on both sides of the divide continued to publish intolerant polemical attacks and legal opinions directed against the rival reading of Islam. Yet the doctrinal disagreement was accompanied by a steady increase in the number of Iranian pilgrims, thanks to the introduction of a direct air service for pilgrims. The number of Iranian pilgrims rose steadily, from 12,000 in 1961 to 57,000 in 1972.

Revolution and Pilgrimage

This influx coincided with the appearance of an introspective and overtly political genre of Iranian writing on the pilgrimage. The radical Iranian publicist Ali Shariati, in his book entitled Hajj, sought deeper meaning in the Meccan pilgrimage in his quest for a solution to contemporary Islam’s broader philosophical and political dilemmas. Shariati urged the pilgrims “to study the dangers and consequences of the superpowers and their agents who have infiltrated Muslim nations. They should resolve to fight against brainwashing, propaganda, disunity, heresy, and false religions.”18

In 1971, several Iranians were arrested in Mecca for distributing a message to Muslim pilgrims from one Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Najaf, the Shi‘ite shrine city in Iraq: “At this sacred pilgrimage gathering, the Muslims must exchange their views concerning the basic problems of Islam and the special problems of each Muslim country. The people of each country should, in effect, present a report concerning their own state to the Muslims of the world, and thus all will come to know what their Muslim brothers are suffering at the hands of imperialism and its agents.” Khomeini then presented his own scathing “report” on Iran, describing it as “a military base for Israel, which means, by extension, for America.”19

After 1971, hardly a year passed during which some Iranians did not distribute a similar message from Khomeini to Muslim pilgrims. The effort usually met with Saudi apathy, for the Saudis did not regard this preaching as directed against themselves. Khomeini worded his annual pilgrimage message in such a way as to appeal to Iranian pilgrims, and to alert other pilgrims to the “shameful, bloody, so-called White Revolution” of the Shah. Such propaganda was liable to complicate Saudi relations with the Shah’s Iran, so Saudi authorities took measures against the more brazen distributors of Khomeini’s messages. But the Saudis did not regard these few troublesome Iranians as a serious threat to their own standing as rulers of Islam’s holiest sanctuaries. Khomeini himself performed the pilgrimage in 1973, without incident.

The truly radical feature of Shi‘ite doctrine as expounded both by Khomeini and Shariati was their abrogation of the Shi‘ite principle of discretion (taqiyya) during the pilgrimage, a discretion which had generally been reciprocated by Saudi tolerance. Khomeini now argued that a crucial obligation of the Muslim pilgrim was to “disavow the polytheists,” in an essentially political rite focused on denunciations of America, Israel, and corrupt Muslim governments. By urging his followers to view the pilgrimage as a political rite, he set Shi‘ites apart from other pilgrims, with serious consequences for the fragile tolerance which the Saudis had shown toward Shi‘ite pilgrims. The new preaching upset the delicate balance that preserved the pilgrimage peace, by urging a line of action that implicitly underlined differences between Shi‘ite pilgrims and Sunni hosts.

Following the Iranian revolution, Iran sought to act on the principles elaborated by Khomeini, by appealing directly to the Muslim pilgrims of other lands through political activity during the pilgrimage.20 The process of politicization was gradual. In 1979, Iran’s pilgrims engaged in only light propagandizing, and in 1980 Iran organized a much reduced pilgrimage, due to the outbreak of war with Iraq. But large demonstrations, resulting in violent clashes with Saudi police, first took place in 1981, when Iranian pilgrims began to chant political slogans in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Great Mosque in Mecca. Saudi security forces acted against the Iranians in both mosques, and a subsequent clash in the Prophet’s Mosque resulted in the death of an Iranian pilgrim. In 1982, the Iranian pilgrimage took an even more radical turn, when Khomeini appointed Hojjatolislam Musavi-Khoiniha as his pilgrimage representative. Khoiniha was the mentor of the students who had seized the United States Embassy in Tehran. Saudi police clashed with demonstrators whom he addressed in both Medina and Mecca. In Mecca he was arrested, and a speech delivered in Medina after the pilgrimage earned him expulsion as an “instigator.”

This renewed conflict on the ground intensified the polemical debate over the pilgrimage. The debate was not a simple repetition of the old libels, if only because the intellectual climate of contemporary Islam is inhospitable to overt sectarian polemics. For most Muslims, it is no longer considered politic to dwell openly on the differences between Sunni and Shi‘ite Islam. Indeed, merely to cite these differences is regarded by many as part of an imperialist plot to foment division in Islam. The new sectarianism takes a subtler form: Shi‘ites profess their unity of purpose with Sunnis, but then declare that a major expression of Sunnism (in this case, Saudi Wahhabism) is a deviation from ecumenical Islam. Sunnis declare their acceptance of Shi‘ites as Muslims, but then declare that a major expression of Shi‘ism (in this case, Iran’s revolutionary activism) constitutes a deviation from ecumenical Islam.

In this manner, sectarian prejudice is insinuated, even as the unity of Islam is openly professed. This is precisely how the lines of argument in the new pilgrimage polemic insinuated the libels of yesteryear—most perfectly in the brief correspondence between the Saudi King Khalid and Imam Khomeini in October 1981, at a time of violent clashes in Mecca and Medina between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police.21 Khalid compiled a revealing letter of protest to Khomeini, asking that Khomeini urge his followers to show restraint but strongly hinting that the Great Mosque had been defiled by blasphemous Iranian pilgrims. According to Khalid, Iranian pilgrims in the Great Mosque had performed their ritual circumambulations while chanting “God is great, Khomeini is great,” and “God is one, Khomeini is one.” There was no need for Khalid to elaborate on this charge. It was obvious that the Iranians’ slogans constituted an excessive veneration of their Imam, a form of blasphemous polytheism. All this had aroused the “dissatisfaction and disgust” of other pilgrims, wrote Khalid to Khomeini.

In fact, Khalid’s letter distorted well-known Iranian revolutionary slogans. Iranian pilgrims had actually chanted “God is great, Khomeini is leader.” The Saudis had confused the Persian word for “leader” (rahbar) with the rhyming Arabic for “great” (akbar). The pilgrims’ Arabic chant declared that “God is one, Khomeini is leader.” Here, the Saudis had confused the Arabic for “one” (wahid) with the rhyming Arabic for “leader” (qa’id). There was a vast difference between the slogans as actually chanted by the Iranians, and the inadvertent or deliberate misrepresentations of Khalid. In the actual slogans, Khomeini is cast as a leader unrivaled in the world, but subordinate to an almighty God. In the slogans as reported by the Saudis, Khomeini is placed on one plane with God, a verbal pollution of Islam’s holiest sanctuary. It was this familiar but disguised charge of Shi‘ite defilement which the Saudis sought to level at Iran’s pilgrims. The accusation gained credibility from the formerly widespread Sunni conviction that the Shi‘ites are bound to pollute the Great Mosque.

In his reply to Khalid, Khomeini evoked the old Shi‘ite libel, charging the Saudis with failing to respect the refuge provided by the Great Mosque. “How is it that the Saudi police attack Muslims with jackboots and weapons, beat them, arrest them, and send them to prisons from inside the holy mosque, a place which according to the teaching of God and the text of the Qur’an, is refuge for all, even deviants?” This was a decidedly Shi‘ite reading of the meaning of the Great Mosque’s sanctity, which owed a great deal to the concept of refuge (bast) which traditionally applied to Shi‘ite shrines in Iran. Such shrines were indeed absolutely inviolable places of refuge, where any kind of malefactor could find asylum.22

Nothing could have been further from the Wahhabi-Saudi concept of the sanctity of the holy places. These were and are regarded as sites so sacred that no deviation at all may be allowed in their precincts. Only from a Shi‘ite perspective did this Saudi concern for preserving the purity of the Great Mosque appear as blind disrespect. In 1979, when an extreme group of Sunni zealots took over the Great Mosque, the Saudis acted in good conscience to clear it of “deviants,” relying upon a fatwa issued by over thirty men of religion who argued that it was permissible to dislodge the defilers even by force of arms. This decision enjoyed wide Muslim support beyond Saudi Arabia, and Khomeini’s presentation of the Great Mosque as a place in which even “deviants” enjoyed absolute immunity could only be regarded as peculiarly Shi‘ite, for it relied upon a Shi‘ite concept of inviolable refuge which knows no parallel in Sunni Islam.

Differing concepts of sanctity also affected that part of the pilgrimage controversy played out in Medina. In 1982, Khomeini’s representative to the pilgrimage chose the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ in Medina as the site for a series of demonstrations combined with visitation prayers. After the Saudi demolition of the shrines in the cemetery in 1926, al-Baqi‘ ceased to serve as a place of organized Shi‘ite visitation. But after Iran’s Islamic revolution, Iranian pilgrims began to recite prayers outside the high wall which the Saudis had built to seal off the cemetery. In 1986, in a concession to Iran’s pilgrims, Saudi authorities allowed them access to the cemetery itself, and Khomeini’s representative to the pilgrimage formally thanked Saudi King Fahd for permitting the return of Shi‘ite pilgrims to the venerated site. This obsessive interest in al-Baqi‘ and other tombs, and the resort to the cemetery as a rallying point for pilgrims in Medina, reflected an especially Shi‘ite notion of Medina’s sanctity, and served to evoke past resentment against the Saudis for having defaced the memory of the Imams.

This heightened Shi‘ite interest in Medina also owed a great deal to changes in the spiritual geography of Shi‘ite Islam. After the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq, it was no longer possible for Iranians to visit the Shi‘ite shrine cities in Iraq and the tombs of the Imams in their sacred precincts. For the great mass of Shi‘ites, the pilgrimage to these sites in Iraq had taken precedence over the pilgrimage to Mecca and the visitation to Medina. Their inaccessibility greatly enhanced the significance for Iranian Shi‘ism of the holy cities of Arabia. By 1988, over one million Iranians had made application to Iranian authorities to embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.23 As a result, al-Baqi‘ emerged again as a major Shi‘ite center of pilgrimage, and mass prayer services were conducted there after Iran’s revolution, not by the Saudi men of religion who manage the mosques in Mecca and Medina, but by visiting Shi‘ite clerics.

The Pilgrimage Understanding

Such identifiably Shi‘ite themes and methods of protest might have blinded other pilgrims to the political message of liberation which Iran wished to convey during the pilgrimage. The fear that Iran’s message might be dismissed by other Muslims as Shi‘ite dissent was responsible for some of the ecumenical intonations of Khomeini’s pilgrimage representatives and other Shi‘ite clerics. Most notably, Khomeini’s representatives instructed Iran’s pilgrims to pray with all other pilgrims behind the Sunni prayer leaders in the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, lest they stand out for their Shi‘ism rather than their political activism. This restraint, matched by a parallel Saudi restraint in dealing with Iran’s pilgrims, left the impression that the pilgrimage controversy had been defused. The climate of confrontation dissipated in 1983; although tensions remained high, only minor incidents marred the pilgrimage peace over the next few years.

By 1986, it seemed that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached a compromise permitting Iran to conduct a limited measure of political propaganda during the pilgrimage. By the informal terms of the pilgrimage understanding, Khomeini’s pilgrimage representative was permitted to organize two pilgrims’ rallies, the first in Medina and the second in Mecca, in areas removed from the holy mosques in each city. A number of understandings restricted the form and content of these demonstrations. Iran’s pilgrims were not to import or display printed matter and posters of a political nature, and their slogans were to be directed only against the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Israel. Other Muslim governments and the host government were not to be criticized. This understanding allowed Iran’s pilgrims to express their views, but enabled Saudi authorities to confine all demonstrating to two fixed events.

Yet not all of Iran’s zealots accepted these limitations. In 1986, a group of Iranian pilgrims who opposed the strategy of moderation in dealing with Saudi Arabia arrived in the country with a large quantity of high explosives in their suitcases. Their apparent aim was to destroy the pilgrimage understanding reached between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The plot failed: Saudi airport authorities discovered the explosives and arrested over one hundred pilgrims upon their arrival. The episode embarrassed those Iranian leaders who had assured Saudi Arabia that the pilgrimage peace would be preserved, and they dissociated themselves from the plot by their silence while the Saudis detained the pilgrims for weeks. But the plotters did enjoy the support of one of the major factions in Iran, which opposed the pursuit of the any opening toward the Saudis and favored the aggressive export of the revolution. In the pilgrimage plot of 1986, it became clear that the pilgrimage peace was an unstable one, affected by the changing balance in Iran’s internal power struggle.

The heightened political tensions of 1987 surrounding the introduction of U.S. naval forces into the Gulf also threatened the pilgrimage understanding. Saudi authorities were alarmed by a speech made at the beginning of July by Khoiniha, Khomeini’s former pilgrimage representative. Khoiniha had presided over the most turbulent pilgrimage seasons. His replacement as pilgrimage supervisor and his appointment as prosecutor general in 1985 was probably intended to reduce the chances of confrontation in Mecca. But he remained a powerful figure in Iran and a champion of extremists who opposed all limitations on Iran’s pilgrims. His speech was plainly provocative. This year, he declared, “a mere march or demonstration will not suffice.” Iran should not simply “gather a certain number of people who might support the views of the Islamic republic.” Khoiniha demanded that Saudi Arabia allow Khomeini’s pilgrimage representative to enter the Great Mosque in Mecca for one night, and there conduct a referendum among the throngs of pilgrims over the decision of the emir of Kuwait to invite foreign escorts for Kuwaiti tankers. At the same time, Khomeini’s representative would explain Iran’s case in the Gulf war. “All we ask is that the Saudi government not oppose this, nor send its guards to the Great Mosque. Let us see what happens. We will try it for one year.”24

Saudi authorities now had grounds to suspect that some of Iran’s pilgrims might attempt a takeover of the Great Mosque, as a political maneuver to embarrass Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.S. Khoiniha’s statement touched a raw nerve, and immediately elicited a warning from an unnamed official source in Saudi Arabia. The source noted that Saudi Arabia supported numerous other occasions for the expression of Muslim opinion on various matters, even during the pilgrimage. But such consultations in the Great Mosque would constitute an innovation in Islam, and “anyone who attempts to innovate in Islam will go to hell.” Saudi Arabia would shoulder its responsibility for safeguarding the Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina.25

Khoiniha’s statement put the Saudi security apparatus on a high state of alert, and lent more credence to inevitable rumors that the Iranians planned a violent confrontation. But Khoiniha’s demand did not figure in the negotiations between the Saudi ministry of pilgrimage affairs and Khomeini’s official pilgrimage representative, Mehdi Karrubi. As Khomeini’s spokesman, Karrubi asked only that Iran be allowed to conduct its demonstration in Mecca as in past years. An Iranian official even covered the route of the planned demonstration with a Saudi official, and it clearly ended a mile short of the Great Mosque.

But despite this understanding, the Saudi authorities remained deeply suspicious. On the eve of the Mecca demonstration, they pressured Karrubi to cancel the march, lest violence break out. Karrubi refused, and declared that “in the event of disorder and disruption, the responsibility for this will be fully with the Saudi government.”26 Two days before the planned demonstration, the Iranian media published Khomeini’s annual message to the pilgrims. While longer and more high-strung than the messages of recent year s, it did not constitute a major departure from the understanding regarding the pilgrimage itself. Khomeini included the customary plea to pilgrims that they “avoid clashes, insults, and disputes,” and warned against those intent on disruption “who might embark on spontaneous moves.”27

The Understanding Destroyed

The atmosphere in Mecca was charged with tension on 31 July, the day of the planned demonstration. Many units of Saudi security forces were in evidence throughout the city and at the Great Mosque, where the usual Saudi “morality” police were replaced by armed soldiers. For the first time, guards at the gate subjected entering pilgrims to full body searches and forbade pilgrims from carrying anything into the Great Mosque, including sun umbrellas and canteens.28 These measures apparently reflected a Saudi intelligence estimate that an attempted Iranian takeover of the Great Mosque constituted a real possibility.

In the afternoon, the Iranian demonstration began in the usual fashion, with slogans and speeches. The march commenced upon the conclusion of the speeches; as in the past, it was led by chador-clad women and war invalids. At or near the end of the planned route, the march came upon a cordon of Saudi riot police and National Guardsmen who refused to allow the procession to go any further.

This dangerous situation became explosive in the wake of two developments. Apparently, some within the crowd of Iranian pilgrims chose this moment to echo Khoiniha’s provocative demand, and called upon the marchers to continue to the Great Mosque. At the same time (or perhaps even earlier), unidentified persons in an adjacent parking garage began to pelt the Iranian demonstrators with bricks, pieces of concrete, and iron bars. This exacerbated the situation on the confrontation line between the pilgrims and the police, and both sides began to exchange blows, the police using truncheons and electric prods, the demonstrators using sticks, knives, and rocks.

Because Karrubi and the other Iranian officials had not positioned themselves at the head of the march, they had no control over the conduct of Iran’s pilgrims at the crucial point of contact with Saudi police. During the ensuing confrontation, the Saudis backed down temporarily and the crowd surged forward. According to American intelligence sources, the tide was finally turned by reinforcements from the National Guard, who fired tear gas shells into the crowd and then opened fire with pistols and automatic weapons.29 The Saudis later denied firing on the demonstrators or even using tear gas. They claimed that the dispersed demonstrators surged in retreat, trampling one another to death. According to official Saudi figures, 402 people died in the clash, including 275 Iranian pilgrims, 85 Saudi police, and 42 pilgrims from other countries. Iran claimed that 400 Iranian pilgrims died, and that several thousand were injured.

This reconstruction rests upon a selective reading of the contradictory accounts provided by Iranian and Saudi sources.30 As no independent investigation will ever be conducted, important details will remain in doubt. But no evidence has been produced by Saudi Arabia or Iran to establish that the other side acted deliberately or with premeditation in order to provoke violence. The available evidence indicates that a group of undisciplined Iranian pilgrims, acting under the influence of at least one provocative statement by a leading Iranian official, wished to enter the Great Mosque as demonstrators. Saudi security authorities, who had been alerted to this possibility but lacked self-confidence in the face of provocation, employed deadly force to thwart the Iranian crowd.

Saudi television offers the Saudi version.

While the actual events in Mecca remained shrouded by irreconcilable claims, there could be no doubt about the immediate effect of the deaths at Mecca in revalidating hoary prejudices. The accusations which flew in both directions after the incident had few parallels in their intensity. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, relied upon Sunni prejudice when he charged that the real objective of the Iranian pilgrims was “to spoil the pilgrimage, because, as is known, the pilgrimage is done only if the Great Mosque is entered.” Iranian “sedition” inside the Great Mosque would have made it impossible for other pilgrims to have carried out the required circumambulations in the Great Mosque. “The pilgrimage would have been spoilt.”31 There is no evidence that the Iranian demonstrators, even those who wished to carry their protest into the Great Mosque, intended to ruin the rite for other pilgrims. But by his charge Nayif sought to associate the Iranian demonstrators with the legendary Shi‘ite “defilers” of the Great Mosque.

Iranian statements pandered to the belief still held by Shi‘ites that the fanatic Saudis were driven by their own misguided beliefs to kill innocent Shi‘ite pilgrims. Khomeini declared that the Saudi rulers, “these vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back,” and announced that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics.”32 Once more, the Saudis were transformed into what the speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, called “Wahhabi hooligans.” Rafsanjani recalled the nineteenth-century Wahhabi massacres (of Shi‘ites) in Najaf and Karbala, the Wahhabi destruction of Islamic monuments in Medina (venerated by Shi‘ites), and the Wahhabi burning of libraries (containing Shi‘ite works). The Wahhabis “will commit any kind of crime. I ask you to pay more attention to the history of that evil clique so that you can see what kind of creatures they have been in the course of their history.”33 This represented a deliberate attempt to fuel a present crisis with the memory of past sectarian hatreds.

Following the Mecca tragedy, both Saudi Arabia and Iran conducted large-scale campaigns to influence Muslim opinion abroad. The Saudi government ordered its principal missionary organization, the Muslim World League, to convene an Islamic conference in Mecca in October 1987. More than six hundred supporters and clients of Saudi Arabia from 134 countries attended the conference, which was opened by Saudi King Fahd. As expected, the conference condemned Iran alone for the Mecca violence: Iran’s government—a government “accustomed to terrorism and a thirst for Muslim blood”—“solely bears the responsibility for the outrage in God’s holy mosque.” The conference endorsed the measures taken by the Saudi authorities “to quell the sedition and to contain the fires of wickedness.”34 Iran immediately attacked the conference in Mecca as one more attempt by the Saudis to “buy the religion of Muslims.”35 Saudi Shi‘ite opposition sources charged that the Saudis had spent $470 million on the conference, and that total expenses were liable to reach $700 million. The conference, far from being Islamic, had a narrowly Sunni, Wahhabi, and Saudi orientation, said its Iranian critics; it was a conference of men of religion who served the rulers, not the religion.36

The following month, Iran convened an “International Congress on Safeguarding the Sanctity and Security of the Great Mosque,” under the auspices of the ministry of Islamic guidance and the foreign ministry. Rafsanjani, in addressing the three hundred participants from 36 countries, called for the “liberation” of Mecca and the establishment of an “Islamic International” which would govern Mecca as a free city.37 Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri, at the time Khomeini’s successor-designate, met with the foreign guests and denounced the Saudis as “a bunch of English agents from Najd who have no respect either for the House of God or for the pilgrims who are the guests of God.” Just as Jerusalem would be liberated from the “claws of usurping Israel,” Mecca and Medina would be liberated from the “claws of Al Sa‘ud.”38 A Sunni cleric at the conference apparently took the analogy still further, denouncing the Saudis as Jews. An Iranian conferee clarified the point: Iran did not label the Saudis Jews, but “even if we do not agree that you are Jews, your deeds are worse than those of the Jews. What you did to Muslims in the House of God has never been done to Muslims by the Jews.”39 The insinuation that the Saudis were Jews—the worst possible libel—echoed an old piece of Shi‘ite bigotry that attributed Jewish origins to the Saudi ruling family.40 The Tehran resolutions were repeated by Iranian-inspired seminars on the pilgrimage that subsequently met in Beirut and Lahore. The Saudis also convened supporting conferences elsewhere, most notably in London, where Saudi clients declared support for the use of force in quelling Iranian “sedition.”41

The Three-Year Boycott

After the initial round of conferences, attention shifted to the next pilgrimage. The Saudis were reluctant to impose an outright ban on Iran’s pilgrims, lest they open Saudi Arabia to the charge of denying Muslims the opportunity to fulfill a fundamental obligation of Islam. But the Saudis clearly sought to translate the tragedy into a far-reaching revision of the informal understanding that had come apart in 1987, and that had become a thorn in the side of Saudi security.

First, Saudi officials, citing wider Muslim support for their version of the 1987 tragedy, made it clear that no marches would be allowed again. The demonstrations which Khomeini had attempted to introduce as part of the pilgrimage ritual—and which the Saudis had tolerated—would no longer be allowed.

Second, the Saudis then moved to cut the number of Iran’s pilgrims. Numbering 150,000 per year, they had come to constitute the largest national group. This move won full endorsement from the foreign ministers’ conference of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting in Amman in March 1988. That gathering placed the blame for the tragedy in Mecca squarely on the shoulders of Iran’s pilgrims, and voiced support for Saudi measures to prevent a repetition of the violence. But most important, the conference supported a Saudi proposal to limit the number of pilgrims by establishing national quotas for pilgrims, based upon each country’s population. The ostensible aim was to give Saudi Arabia a three-year interlude to expand and improve facilities in Mecca. But while these facilities did need modernization, the most important effect of the planned quota of one thousand pilgrims per million population would be a drastic cut the number of Iran’s pilgrims, from 150,000 to 45,000. The Saudis, of course, were fully aware of Khomeini’s stand that any reduction in the number of Iran’s pilgrims would result in an Iranian boycott of the pilgrimage.

Finally, to assure such a boycott, Saudi Arabia chose this moment to sever relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia had maintained relations with Iran through the confrontation of October 1987, despite the storming of the Saudi legation by a Tehran crowd and the resulting death of a Saudi diplomat. But in April 1988, Saudi Arabia severed relations, with the clear purpose of making it impossible for Iranian pilgrims to secure pilgrims’ visas.

As expected, the Iranian government, with the sanction of a ruling by Khomeini, responded to the Saudi measures by boycotting the 1988 pilgrimage altogether. As expected, Iran accused the Saudis of preventing Muslims from fulfilling the fundamental obligation of pilgrimage. Any Muslim with the means to perform the pilgrimage was entitled to do so, claimed the Iranians; the Saudi implementation of a quota system demonstrated their incompetence.42 In Khomeini’s message on the first anniversary of the “massacre,” he accused the “centers of Wahhabism” of “sedition and espionage.” At Mecca in 1987, he said, “the sword of blasphemy and division, which had been hidden in the hypocritical cloak of Yazid’s followers and descendants of the Umayyad dynasty, God’s curse be upon them, had to come out again from the same cloak of Abu Sufyan’s heirs to destroy and kill.”43 Whatever his intention, Khomeini’s resort to this historical analogy constituted a sectarian allusion—despite his claim, in the very same message, that it was the U.S. and the Saudis who tried to portray the Mecca events as a sectarian clash. It would be his last word on the pilgrimage: Khomeini died less than a year later.

The boycott continued in 1989, but even in the absence of Iran, Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions ran high. During July, two explosions in Mecca killed one pilgrim and wounded sixteen more. Saudi police speedily arrested over thirty Kuwaiti Shi‘ites, and in September a Saudi executioner beheaded sixteen of them by sword in a public square in Mecca. The leader of the plot claimed to have acted on behalf of Iranians who presented themselves as officials of the Iranian embassy in Kuwait. The Saudis apparently were not persuaded that these Shi‘ites had operated on highest Iranian authority, and did not accuse Tehran of involvement in the blasts. But the broadcasted confessions of the plotters seemed accusation enough.44

In April 1990, one hundred and forty deputies of the Iranian parliament issued an open letter, setting terms for the return of Iran’s pilgrims. The parliamentarians demanded that the Saudis “apologize for their treachery to the meek Iranian pilgrims”; that Saudi Arabia pay blood money to the families of the Iranian pilgrims killed “unlawfully” by Saudi security security forces in 1987; that Saudi Arabia compensate Iranian pilgrims for “assets” seized from their caravans in the aftermath of that tragedy; that Saudi Arabia accept 150,000 Iranian pilgrims; and that these pilgrims be allowed to “disavow the polytheists”—that is, hold demonstrations.45 Saudi Arabia rejected all these demands as so much cheek, and the boycott continued for a third year. During the pilgrimage itself, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who had succeeded Khomeini as Iran’s “leader” the previous summer, issued a message to the world’s Muslims condemning the “despotic and traitorous rulers of the Hijaz” who had closed the door of the House of God on Muslim believers. “God’s shrine is safe for U.S. advisors and oil company owners, but unsafe for selfless Muslims,” Khamene’i lamented.46

An Understanding Renewed?

Contacts toward resolving the pilgrimage controversy nevertheless continued between Iran and Saudi Arabia as 1990 ended. In September, Saudi foreign minister Sa‘ud al-Faysal met Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati in New York to discuss the 1991 pilgrimage. Publicly, Sa‘ud al-Faysal announced that “we are very eager to see the Muslim people of Iran travel to Saudi Arabia this year to perform their pilgrimage rituals.”47 Velayati expressed optimism that “our pilgrims will be able to perform the important religious-political hajj rituals this year.”48 Privately, Sa‘ud al-Faysal reportedly offered to accept a larger number of Iranian pilgrims in 1991. The Saudi minister also proposed that the Iranians hold their rally but in a “fixed” place, without marching through the streets of Mecca. At that fixed point, Khamene’i’s annual message could be read to the pilgrims, just as Khomeini’s message had been read in the past. The Saudis repeated the offer during the GCC meeting in Qatar in December, which Iran attended as an observer. There Saudi Arabia reportedly proposed the figure of 90,000 Iranian pilgrims.

From the autumn of 1990, direct Saudi-Iranian talks took place on the highest diplomatic level, involving five meetings between Sa‘ud al-Faysal and Velayati. Omani mediation helped to produce a written agreement, signed by the two foreign ministers in Muscat in March 1991. The agreement resolved the two outstanding issues that had divided Saudi Arabia and Iran. First, it set the number of Iranian pilgrims at 110,000, a figure later raised to 115,000. This was more than the annual quota of 45,000 which Saudi Arabia had set over a three-year period after 1987, a measure that produced a total Iranian boycott. Yet it was also less than the 150,000 Iranian pilgrims who had arrived annually through 1987. Second, Iran would be permitted to conduct one rally in a fixed place in Mecca, where a message from Khamene’i could be read to assembled pilgrims, as Khomeini’s message had been read in the past. It was also understood that the rallied pilgrims would not criticize Muslim governments, although it was understood that they might chant the usual “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The new agreement included an Iranian commitment to prevent any flow of demonstrating pilgrims from the rallying point. On this basis, the two countries renewed diplomatic relations, and the stage was set for the return of Iran’s pilgrims to Mecca in 1991. Preparations for the pilgrimage went smoothly, orchestrated this time by a new pilgrimage representative, Muhammad Muhammadi-Reyshahri, one of Rafsanjani’s own troubleshooters.

There was a complication, which emerged after the pilgrimage of 1991 was underway, involving the choice of a site for Iran’s rally. The Saudis proposed a number of sites, all of them remote from the heart of Mecca and difficult of access. The Saudis clearly wished to place as much distance as possible between the rallied pilgrims and the center of the city. Iran rejected these sites, arguing that their location made it impossible for the rally to draw pilgrims from other countries. At the last minute, Saudi authorities relented and allowed the rally to gather in a square near the headquarters of Iran’s pilgrimage representative, a site already at a good distance from the Great Mosque.

On the eve of the pilgrimage, Rafsanjani and Reyshahri made several statements that set a conciliatory tone for the pilgrimage. And at the last minute, Velayati himself arrived as a pilgrim. During his stay, he had two audiences with King Fahd, and three meetings with his Saudi counterpart, Sa‘ud al-Faysal. “Saudi Arabia’s conduct has been proper,” he announced, “and we hope that in view of good understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia we will see the pilgrimage rituals performed more splendidly than ever before in coming years.”49 After the pilgrimage, the two countries raised their diplomatic ties to the ambassadorial level. In addition, Saudi Arabia agreed to receive some three thousand Iranians a week over the next seven months, to perform the minor (out-of-season) pilgrimage (umra). There were 300,000 Iranians on the waiting list for this pilgrimage.

In 1992, the pilgrimage also passed uneventfully. Iran’s leadership set the low key of the pilgrimage: Rafsanjani announced that the political aspect of the pilgrimage could not be allowed to have a negative effect on “other dimensions of the pilgrimage,” which were presumably spiritual. In 1991, there had been “no problem,” and Rafsanjani expressed hope that “excesses and extremes” would be avoided this year as well.50 Ahmad Khomeini, son of the late leader of Iran’s revolution, told departing pilgrims in a speech at his father’s mausoleum that “disavowing the polytheists is not tantamount to opposition to the Saudi and similar governments.”51 Once again Rafsanjani’s stalwart, Reyshahri, served as Iran’s pilgrimage supervisor, and he closely followed the conciliatory lead of Iran’s leaders, especially during the annual demonstration in Mecca. Some 3,500 Iranian pilgrims, with yellow ribbons on their arms, guided pilgrims to the demonstration site in front of the Iranian pilgrimage headquarters. Iranian sources put the crowd at 150,000 pilgrims. As agreed, the pilgrims confined their banners and chants to the familiar “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” making no criticism of the Saudis themselves. The Saudi police and security forces kept a distance of several miles from the demonstration.52 There were no incidents, and Rafsanjani expressed his satisfaction: “Of course, I did not think that it was ideal, but it was a relatively good pilgrimage.”53

An End to Demonstrations?

It seemed that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached a final understanding on the extent of Iran’s own use of the Meccan platform. The number of Iranian pilgrims, long a bone of contention, remained steady at 115,000, by mutual agreement. Reyshahri, who headed Iran’s pilgrims, once again set a conciliatory tone as the 1993 season approached, reminding Iranians that “it would be the greatest sin if the dignity of Iranian pilgrims were to be cast in disrepute.” He therefore called on Iran’s pilgrims to pray with Sunni brothers in congregational prayer.54 And Saudi-Iranian political relations were generally on the upswing. Velayati visited Saudi Arabia as the pilgrimage got underway, and there was even talk of a visit by King Fahd to Iran and a summit with Rafsanjani. There was no reason to expect any change in Meccan status quo, which provided for one Iranian rally in Mecca.55

On 27 May, the Iranians were to have held their annual rally for the “disavowal of the polytheists.” This was the occasion for the usual chants and banners of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” and the delivery of a message to the pilgrims from Iran’s leader, Khamene’i. But much to the consternation of the Iranians, Saudi police threw up roadblocks around the rally site opposite the headquarters of the Iranian pilgrims, and they turned away pilgrims who arrived for the rally. Reyshahri protested that this violated the understanding between the two governments. “It was only due to my recommendation to have revolutionary patience, and also due to the obedience of the pilgrims, that we were able to control their feelings, so as to make sure that no incident occurred.”56 But the Saudis justified their action. They had always opposed such “unruly processions interspersed with cheers and shouting of sensational slogans,” and had warned Reyshahri they would not be tolerated.57 Saudi Arabia reiterated its “categorical rejection of the staging of marches, gatherings, and demonstrations in general.” 58 Shaykh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, grey eminence of the Saudi religious establishment, made a statement against Iran’s “disavowal of polytheists” march in particular, calling the practice a “groundless heresy” that could have “evil consequences.”59

In a quick shift, Reyshahri rallied Iran’s pilgrims five days later at their caravan camp in Mina to hear Khamene’i’s message, which he also had broadcast in Arabic over loudspeakers.60 According to the Iranians, the Saudis quickly dispatched security forces to the site, but they were caught by surprise and could only encircle the rally. The Saudis claimed they did not notice any such gathering in the Iranian camp. But back in Mecca, the Saudis put up a tight security cordon around the Iranian pilgrimage headquarters once again, preventing pilgrims from entering or leaving. Reyshahri left Saudi Arabia early, to protest the Saudi action.61

The Saudis did not seek a political confrontation with Iran, and immediately after the pilgrimage resumed their conciliatory tone. But they also made it clear that the Iranian demonstration in Mecca, even in an attenuated form, violated their monopoly on the politics of the pilgrimage. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia had moved still closer to the U.S., and also extended support to the American effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The kingdom’s rulers saw even less reason to tolerate demonstrations which featured chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” In short, Saudi Arabia sought the first opportunity to restore the pre-Khomeini status quo ante, and finally acted when it was reasonably certain that Iran would not launch a counter-campaign of Islamic vilification. They were right: despite its protest, Iran backed down from confrontation. Even Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the speaker of Iran’s parliament and a vocal critic of the Saudi management of Mecca, chose to play down the incident: “We believe [the Saudi decision] was due to pressure by others from outside, compelling Saudi Arabia to prevent the rally. But this will not give way to a severance in our relations. We should daily improve our ties with regional and neighboring countries, and we should mutually resolve bilateral issues.”62

In 1994, the Saudis took still another step back from the prior understanding, by reducing the numbers of Iran’s pilgrims by half. The Saudis read the situation accurately: Iran, groaning under a mountain of debt and short of foreign exchange, accepted the cut with muted protest. In Mecca itself, the Saudis repeated the maneuver of the previous year. On the eve of the planned Iranian demonstration, battalions of Saudi police surrounded the headquarters of the Iranian pilgrimage mission. Water cannons and armored personnel carriers were deployed around the mission; helicopters flew overhead. Reyshahri again cancelled the rally, opting instead for “ceremonies” at the Iranian pilgrims’ camp in Mina.

The “disavowal of the polytheists” ceremony in Mecca, having been reduced from a march to a rally, existed no longer. Yet Iranian political figures responded with restraint. Both Khamene’i and Rafsanjani criticized Saudi policy but they employed restrained language. Rafsanjani in particular called for renewed efforts to reach an understanding. “A hajj that means hajj to a Shi‘ite can take place,” said Rafsanjani. There was a need to find a formula “in which both our views and the views of the Saudis are catered for, and through which the Saudis’ concerns will be alleviated.”63 As usual, the Iranian press took a harsher tone, but this did not resonate in public. The Saudi legation in Tehran requested and received police protection at the height of the Saudi “siege” of Iran’s headquarters in Mecca, but at no point did any of Iran’s leaders summon demonstrators into the streets of Tehran.

Iran clearly had lowered its profile over the pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia had acted to reduce the impact of Iran’s pilgrimage, quantitatively and qualitatively; even as Iran protested these measures, it accepted them. In part, this reflected an Iranian desire to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. But Iran’s retreat from sectarian confrontation may have had an even more profound motive. As the 1990s unfolded, Iran’s regime had become inwardly preoccupied with its own stability and survival. One threat to that stability, formerly dormant, was posed by Iran’s own Sunni minority, who number somewhere between 12 and 18 percent of Iran’s population. In 1994, the Sunni question suddenly burst upon Tehran in a dramatic way.

In January, authorities in the Shi‘ite shrine city of Mashhad demolished a Sunni mosque, ostensibly as part of an urban renewal project. On 1 February, the populace of Zahedan, capital of the predominantly Sunni province of Baluchistan, reacted violently in anti-government riots which left several dead and dozens dead. On 20 June, a ferocious bomb went off inside the packed prayer hall in the mausoleum of Imam Reza in Mashhad during Shi‘ite Ashura observances, killing twenty-six worshippers. Iran accused the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an opposition group, but widespread speculation attributed the bombing to Sunni militants. The sudden appearance of violent Sunni protest within Iran suggested that the sectarian sword cut both ways and that Iran also had sacred shrines of pilgrimage which could become Sunni-Shi‘ite battlegrounds. The most important such shrine, in Mashhad, drew at least eight million pilgrims a year—the so-called “pilgrimage of the poor,” an emotional substitute for the pilgrimage to Mecca.64 Perhaps this realization contributed to Iran’s accommodating posture in Mecca: after the domestic violence of 1994, Iran’s interest lay not in fanning sectarian flames but in quenching them.65

But as the fifteen years since Iran’s revolution have demonstrated, the revival of Islam has been more than a reassertion of Islam against the West. It has incited rival understandings of Islam against one another. The social and political earthquake of Islamism has not only opened the ancient fault line between believers and unbelievers. It has opened the fault line, just as ancient, between the two oldest traditions of Islam. Their holy places now echo with bombs and bullets. Indeed, more Muslim blood has been shed during the past decade in Mecca, Mashhad and Najaf, than in Jerusalem and Hebron. It is the revival of this clash of Islamic civilizations which may prove to be Islamism’s most enduring legacy.

Number of Iranian Pilgrims, 1979-1994
(to the nearest 5,000)

1979: 75,000
1980: 10,000
1981: 75,000
1982: 85,000
1983: 100,000
1984: 150,000
1985: 150,000
1986: 150,000
1987: 160,000
1988: 0
1989: 0
1990: 0
1991: 115,000
1992: 120,000
1993: 115,000
1994: 60,000


1 Khamene’i sermon, Radio Tehran, 6 August 1987, quoted in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts: The Middle East and Africa (hereafter cited as BBC Summary), 7 August 1987.

2 This study draws on the detailed narrative of international Islamic politics I have written for the annual Middle East Contemporary Survey (hereafter cited as MECS). For my accounts of the pilgrimage, see MECS 6 (1981-82): 284-88, 301-3; 7 (1982-83): 238, 249-51; 8 (1983-84): 175-77; 9 (1984-85): 161-64; 10 (1986): 149-51; 11 (1987): 172-76; 12 (1988): 177-85; 13 (1989): 182-84; 14 (1990): 189-91 (by Reinhard Schulze); 15 (1991): 191-93; 16 (1992): 216-18; 17 (1993): 116-17.

3 On the doctrinal shift from pilgrimage to visitation, see Said Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 168-170. On Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, see Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, 1517-1683 (London: Tauris, 1994), 134-39.

4 Richard F. Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah & Meccah (1893; reprint, New York: Dover, 1964), 2: 168, n. 1; John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia (1829; reprint, London: Frank Cass, 1968), 168, 251-252.

5 Burton, ibid.

6 On these taxes, see H. Kazem Zadeh, “Relation d’un pèlerinage à la Mecque,” Revue du monde musulman, no. 19 (1912): 159-60. Discriminatory levies continued to be collected from Shi‘ites until the late 1930s.

7 C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century (Leiden: Brill, 1931), 141.

8 Mirzâ Mohammad Hoseyn Farâhâni, A Shi‘ite Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1885-1886, eds. and trans. Hafez Farmayan and Elton L. Daniel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 228-29.

9 Quoted by H. St. J. B. Philby, Arabia of the Wahhabis (London: Constable, 1928), 67.

10 On the special place of Medina in Shi‘ite Islam, see Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shi‘ite Religion (London: Luzac, 1933), 142-51. On the cemetery’s history, see Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., s.v. “Baki‘ al-Gharkad” (A.J. Wensinck-[A.S. Bazmee Ansari]). On Shi‘ite worship there in Ottoman times, see Farâhâni, A Shi‘ite Pilgrimage, 267-69.

11 Oriente Moderno 6 (1926): 310, 513-14, 610.

12 Oriente Moderno 7 (1927): 91, 111-12.

13 Text of treaty, Oriente Moderno 10 (1930): 105-6.

14 The evolution of this policy is detailed by Jacob Goldberg, “The Shi‘i Minority in Saudi Arabia,” in Shi‘ism and Social Protest, eds. Juan R.I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 230-46.

15 The author of the British pilgrimage report of 1937 wrote of “the well-known reluctance of the Iranian Government to see good Iranian money spent outside Iran.” A. C. Trott, “Report on the Pilgrimage of 1937,” PRO, FO371/20840, reproduced in Records of the Hajj: A Documentary History of the Pilgrimage to Mecca, vol. 7, The Saudi Period (1935-1951) ([Slough]: Archive Editions, 1993), 194.

16 For examples of such complaints, see the documents reproduced in Records of the Hajj, vol. 6, The Saudi Period (1926-1935), 415-32.

17 As reported by James S. Moose (Jidda), dispatch of 24 February 1944, National Archives, Washington, D.C., RG59, 890f. 404/55. For reproductions of the the British reports, see Records of the Hajj, 7:529-59.

18 Ali Shariati, Hajj (2d ed.; Bedford, Ohio: Free Islamic Literatures, 1978), 109. For more on the book, see Steven R. Benson, “Islam and Social Change in the Writings of ‘Ali Shari‘ati: His Hajj as a Mystical Handbook for Revolutionaries,” Muslim World 81 (1991): 9-26.

19 Khomeini’s message, 6 February 1971, in Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, trans. Hamid Algar (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 195-99.

20 For a general discussion of this development, see R. K. Ramazani, Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 91-100, 111-12.

21 Khalid-Khomeini correspondence, Al-Nashra al-arabiyya lil-hizb al-jumhuri al-islami (Tehran), 19 October 1981; and in Sawt al-umma (Tehran), 31 October 1981.

22 Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., s.v. “Bast” (R.M. Savory).

23 Figure given by Mehdi Karrubi, Tehran Television, 16 June 1988, quoted in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report: The Middle East and South Asia (hereafter cited as FBIS), 21 June 1988. The same need explains Iranian Shi‘ism’s rediscovery of the mausoleum of Sayyida Zaynab, the Imam Husayn’s sister, near Damascus. A minor site of Shi‘ite visitation in the past, it has been transformed into a major shrine, visited by thousands of Shi‘ites from Iran and Iranian-backed Shi‘ites from the Lebanese Hizbullah. Iran also has invested large resources in restoration of the still lesser shrine of Sayyida Raqiya, Husayn’s daughter, near the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. On these sites, see Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti, “A proposito della communità imamita contemporanea di Siria,” Oriente Moderno, n.s., 3 (1984): 193-201.

24 Khoiniha’s speech, Radio Tehran, 2 July 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 4 July 1987.

25 Saudi Press Agency (hereafter cited as SPA), 3 July 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 6 July 1987.

26 Radio Tehran, 30 July 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 1 August 1987.

27 Text of speech, Radio Tehran, 29, 30, 31 July 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 31 July, 1, 3 August 1987. For a close content analysis of the message, see Michael Glünz, “Das Manifest der islamischen Revolution: Ayatollah Homeinis Botschaft an die Mekkapilger des Jahres 1407/1987,” Welt des Islams, n.s., 33 (1993): 235-55.

28 Fahd al-Qahtani, Majzarat Makka: Qissat al-madhbaha al-su‘udiyya li’l-hujjaj (London: Al-Safa lil-nashr wal-tawzi‘, 1988), 27-28.

29 Report on the assessment of American intelligence sources, New York Times, 6 September 1987.

30 The most detailed eyewitness accounts from a pro-Iranian perspective include that of the Pakistani Shi‘ite journalist Mushahid Hussain, which appeared in the Washington Post, 20 August 1987, and the several reports collected by Qahtani, Majzarat Makka, 77-107. Qahtani’s book is an extensive survey of the event and the worldwide reaction to it. The Saudi director-general of public security, Gen. Abdallah bin Abd al-Rahman Al Shaykh, provided the most comprehensive Saudi account in a statement which prefaced a special Saudi documentary film on the incident, aired on Saudi Television on 20 August 1987.

31 Nayif’s press conference, SPA, 25 August 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 27 August 1987.

32 Khomeini’s message to Karrubi, Radio Tehran, 3 August 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 5 August 1987.

33 Rafsanjani’s speech, Radio Tehran, 2 August 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 4 August 1987.

34 Conference communiqué, SPA, 15 October 1987, quoted in FBIS, 16 October 1987.

35 Al-Ahd (Beirut), 23 October 1987.

36 Al-Thawra al-islamiyya (London), October 1987.

37 Rafsanjani’s speech, Radio Tehran, 26 November 1987, quoted in FBIS, 28 November 1987.

38 Montazeri’s speech, Radio Tehran, 27 November 1987, quoted in FBIS, 29 November 1987.

39 Emami-Jamarani’s speech, 29 April 1988, quoted in FBIS, 2 May 1988.

40 For a Shi‘ite collection of alleged proofs of the Jewish origins of the Saudis, see Nasir al-Sa‘id, Tarikh Al Sa‘ud, vol. 1 ([Beirut]: Ittihad sha‘b al-jazira al-arabiyya, n.d.): 392-403. I am indebted to Prof. Werner Ende for this reference.

41 Report of conference, Al-Sharq al-awsat (London), 4 July 1988.

42 Mehdi Karrubi, Tehran Television, 16 June 1988, quoted in FBIS, 21 June 1988.

43 Khomeini’s message, Radio Tehran, 20 July 1988, quoted in FBIS, 21 July 1988. Abu Sufyan was a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe who had originally opposed Muhammad. His son, Yazid, was responsible for the killing of the Imam Husayn. Another son, Mu’awiya, founded the Umayyad dynasty. The family and the dynasty are deemed usurpers in the Shi‘ite reading of early Islamic history.

44 On the bombing incident, see Reinhard Schulze, “The Forgotten Honor of Islam,” MECS 13 (1989): 182-84.

45 Text of letter, Keyhan (Tehran), 11 April 1990, quoted in FBIS, 24 April 1990.

46 Khamene’i’s message, Radio Tehran, 28 June 1990, quoted in FBIS, 2 July 1990.

47 Sa‘ud al-Faysal quoted by Radio Tehran, 30 September 1990, quoted by FBIS, 1 October 1990.

48 Velayati quoted by IRNA, 4 October 1990, quoted by FBIS, 4 October 1990.

49 Islamic Republic News Agency (hereafter cited as IRNA), 29 June 1991, quoted in FBIS, 1 July 1991.

50 Al-Alam (London), 16 May 1992.

51 Khomeini’s speech, Resalat, 6 May 1992, quoted in FBIS, 1 June 1992.

52 IRNA, 7 June 1992, quoted in FBIS, 10 June 1992.

53 Rafsanjani’s speech, Radio Tehran, 12 June 1992, quoted in FBIS, 15 June 1992.

54 Radio Tehran, 10 May 1993, quoted in FBIS, 11 May 1993.

55 Al-Alam, 12 June 1993.

56 Radio Tehran, 27 May 1993, quoted in FBIS, 28 May 1993.

57 Statement by “responsible source,” SPA, 2 June 1993, quoted in FBIS, 3 June 1993.

58 SPA, 29 May 1993, quoted in FBIS, 1 June 1993.

59 SPA, 2 June 1993, quoted in FBIS, 3 June 1993.

60 Khamene’i’s message, Iranian Television, 27 May 1993, quoted in FBIS, 28 May 1993.

61 IRNA, 5 June 1993, quoted in FBIS, 7 June 1993.

62 Nateq-Nuri’s interview, Middle East Insight, July-August 1993.

63 Rafsanjani’s sermon, Radio Tehran, 20 May 1994, quoted in FBIS, 23 May 1994.

64 See Nasrine Hakami, Pèlerinage de l’Emâm Rezâ: Étude socio-économiques, Studia Culturae Islamicae 38 (Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1989).

65 For the Sunni-Shi‘ite strife of 1994, see “Sunnite ‘reprisal’ against Shiite sanctuary in Iran?” Mideast Mirror, 20 June 1994; and “The Coming Sectarian Conflict in Iran,” Mideast Mirror, 9 September 1994.

, , , , , ,

When Minorities Rule

A presentation by Martin Kramer to the Policy Forum of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 15, 2004. Martin Kramer shared the podium with Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian writer, intellectual, and coordinator of the Damascus-based Tharwa Project , a program devoted to religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. A summary of Abdulhamid’s remarks appears here. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

When we hear the phrase “minority rule,” the first inclination is to think that it is something abhorrent. It is precisely the phrase that was used to categorize South Africa under apartheid: white minority rule. We assume that such rule is illegitimate by definition. The European ideal of the nation, as it formed in the nineteenth century, is predicated on the nation as a numerical majority, formed by people who share some fundamental attribute of culture, be it language, ethnicity, religion, or shared descent. The numerically smaller groups within the polity that do not share this attribute are described as minorities, and as such should be entitled to various protections even as they are offered avenues of assimilation. What is insufferable is minority rule; that is an inversion of the natural order.

Historical legacy

But this is a very modern and very European idea. Minority rule has long been the norm in the Middle East. The traditional Muslim polity was not concerned with establishing the numerical superiority of Muslims. Indeed, in the most dynamic Muslim empires, Muslim minorities ruled over non-Muslim majorities. We do not have hard figures, but the evidence suggests that in the great Arab empires, Muslims did not form the majority of the population until the early Middle Ages. In the Ottoman empire, for most of its existence, and while it encompassed the Balkans, Muslims were in the minority. In the Moghul empire in South Asia, the Muslims formed a thin ruling crust resting upon a predominantly Hindu society.

Muslims did not agonize over their status as numerical minorities in these situations. The natural order since time immemorial had been imperial rule by elites who embraced a different culture, language, and religion than those of the populations over which they ruled. And since sovereignty belonged to God, and through him to the divine-right ruler, the question of who was in the majority or the minority had no relevance. Legitimacy had other sources, in Islamic law, and in the ideal of just rule.

Muslim empires generally ruled according to the precept that “there is no coercion in religion,” and because non-Muslims were subject to extra taxation, it actually served the rulers to remain in a minority. The result was that the Middle East, even after the Islamic conquests and the gradual conversions to Islam, remained home to a plethora of religious and other minorities, which enjoyed considerable autonomy. This gave rise to the mosaic that we see today, comprised of enclaves of different religions, sects, and ethnic groups. This is a consequence of the kind of social contract that prevailed across the Islamic Middle East for centuries: authority tolerated the autonomy of varied groups in society, and society accepted rule by an elite minority.

Now there are debates about the nature of this system, and the tradeoffs it involved. There is the harsh view of Bat Ye’or, who believes that the traditional system of state relations with non-Muslim minorities constituted a kind of thousand-year apartheid, systematically discriminating against non-Muslims, leaving them in an endemic state of insecurity. She has named this sort of apartheid dhimmitude, after the word dhimmi, which means a Christian or Jew living as a subordinate protected person under Islamic rule.

There is the rather more nuanced view of Bernard Lewis, who argues that the cases of actual persecution of minorities were few, certainly as compared to Europe, and that they occurred as a consequence of general societal crises. Lewis holds that in most places and times, minorities did thrive in their own autonomous space. He has been keen to stress that such tolerance was not equality, which would have been a dereliction of Islamic law, but his is a generally favorable assessment.

Finally, there is a view best articulated by the late Elie Kedourie, who believed that the Islamic system in its last, Ottoman phase had achieved a nearly perfect equilibrium among social groups. He regarded European nationalist ideas as a virus that brought disease, and the destruction of the Ottoman empire in the First World War as an act of hubris, one that unleashed the very worst forces, and substituted a “wilderness of tigers” for an ordered world in which everyone had a defined place.

Whatever you think of these approaches, it is clear that the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman empire, if not also in its last days, has been a dangerous place for many minorities. The list is long: the Armenian tragedy or genocide; the depradations against Assyrians upon Iraq’s independence; the persecution of ancient Jewish communities across the Arabic-speaking lands; the enslavement and massacre of non-Muslim blacks in Sudan; and the list goes on. As a result, parts of the Middle East have become much less diverse than they were two generations ago. Just visit Alexandria, which was once a Mediterranean melting pot, and that has become a bleak and monolithic city with its back to the sea. Just visit Bethlehem, now largely emptied of its Christian population. There are many such cities and towns and villages across the Middle East, where monotone has replace mosaic.

That change was the result of coercive nationalism, which declared that you must either shed all your particular beliefs and traditions, in order to join the Arab (or Egyptian or Syrian) nation; or you will be regarded as a foreigner and fifth-columnist of imperialism, and be gradually dispossessed and driven out. It is true that both Britain and France used minorities as allies in their efforts to find economical ways to exert imperial control. They recruited from minorities, as a counter-balance to the very same Arab nationalism they had once promoted. But the Arab nationalists then took this as a license to suppress and dispossess those very same minorities. The predominant effect of half a century of Arab nationalism has been this: those who would not or could not conform, had to submit or leave. Christians submitted or left. Kurds and Shi’ites in Iraq faced a similar choice. Jews left or reassembled in Israel, a kind of redoubt for a minority that made a programatic plan to become a majority in one place, and so chart its own course.

Now the interesting thing about Arab nationalism is that, while it purports to represent the identity of the majority of Middle Easterners, many of its prime promoters have been members of minorities. Many of its early ideologues were Christians, who saw in Arab identity a way to escape their own subordinate status in an Islamic state. The Hashemites, who were installed in Transjordan, Iraq, and briefly before that in Syria, were outsiders—a small ruling clique imported from Arabia. In Syria, it was minority groups, such as Alawis, Druze, and Ismailis, who seized the mantle of Arabism from the old Sunni elite, and used it to make Syria into a pan-Arab champion. And in Iraq, when the minority regime of the Hashemites fell, it was eventually replaced by minority regimes of Sunni Muslims who concocted a notion of Arabo-Iraqi identity, precisely to deflect the charge that they were ruling on behalf of a minority sect. Jordan is a case of minority rule twice over: by the imported Hashemites, and by the native East Bankers in preference to the imported Palestinians, who form a majority.

So even in the era of nationalism, the Middle East, east of Suez at least, continued to be ruled by minorities. This applied not only to Sunni-ruled Iraq, Alawi-ruled Syria, and Hashemite-ruled Jordan. It has also come to apply to the Arab Gulf states, in which the number of foreigners now wildly exceeds the number of natives. This is one of the paradoxes of Arabism: it was used by regimes to give themselves a veneer of populism, when in fact these regimes had their bases in minority groups.

Democracy vs. social order

Outsiders, especially Westerners, look at this and say to themselves: this is not legitimate and it cannot last. Each person should be allotted one equal vote. If that means that power will shift from the Sunnis to the Shiites in Iraq, so be it; if that means it will shift from the Alawis to the Sunnis in Syria, so be it; if that means it will make the Shiites into Lebanon’s power-brokers, so be it; and if that means dominance will shift from the Hashemites and the East Bankers to the Palestinians in Jordan, then so be it. Minority rule is a vestige of the past; let it be phased out, through the implementation of real democracy.

This is the reason democracy promotion is so feared in the Middle East. We see democratization as a noble enterprise to erode authoritarian rule. They see it as a foreign demand for a fundamental shift of power among sectarian and ethnic groups. In a homogenous place like Egypt, and in other parts of North Africa where the rulers come from the majority social or ethnic group, democracy does not have that same association. But across the Fertile Crescent, to empower “the majority” means to take power away from a long-empowered sectarian or ethnic or kinship group that happens to be smaller, and vest it in one that happens to be larger.

The problem with this is that minority rule can sometimes be more respectful of difference, more tolerant, and more open than majority rule. That certainly was the case in the Ottoman empire for much of its history. It has arguably been the case in places like the progressive Gulf states and Jordan. In Iraq, of course, minority rule was a disaster. In other words, minority rule may be good, or it may be bad; it may be enlightened or it may be despotic; it depends on the circumstances.

The same goes for majority rule. The principal effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein has been to bring the Shi’ites to the fore of politics in the Arab world. The United States, willy-nilly, has allied itself to Shi’ite power, by dint of its democratizing message. But it is by no means certain that Shi’ite power will be tolerant of the pluralistic values that democracy is supposed to nuture and protect. Indeed, in Iraq, the prospects for such an outcome would seem to rest on the shoulders of one 74-year-old man, Ayatollah Sistani. In Lebanon, too, it is not at all clear that an enhancement of Shi’ite power would make the country more open and tolerant of differences, be they political, cultural, or religious. And would we really want Palestinians, with their historic long-running grievances, to set the course of Jordan?

The democracy agenda tampers with much more than the political order. It tampers with the social order, in a number of places where that order functions passably. These are conservative societies; they fear disorder; and if democracy means overturning ethnic and sectarian balances, and opening the door to possible conflict, they are bound to suspect it.

In fact, the unseating of such minorities already has a reputation for serving as a precursor to civil strife. It could well be argued that Lebanon would not be Lebanon without the Maronites; in the same measure, Iraq would not be Iraq without the Sunnis. These minorities founded both states, and they legitimized their separate existence. In Lebanon, the decline of the Maronite minority has left a vacuum that persists to this day, and that makes it uncertain even now whether the country can be restored to sovereignty. The same holds true of Iraq: the displacement of the Sunnis, who have always been the hinge of Iraq, has unhinged the country. One does not have to be a follower of the Phalanges or the Baath party to realize that these two communities have cultural roles in both countries beyond their numbers, and that their marginalization might be as fateful for pluralism as the earlier marginalization of Jews, Greeks, and the other groups that leavened Middle Eastern society.

America’s inadvertent overturning of the group hierarchy is one of the reasons why “they hate us.” The people who really hate America think that it will do everywhere what it has done in Iraq: shift power to the benighted Shi’ites, in the name of democracy. The empowerment of the Jews via the creation of Israel overturned one traditional order, but empowering Shi’ites is an escalation that reaches into the very essence of Islam. That is what fuels the insurgency in Iraq, and that is what keeps new recruits coming to Al-Qaeda. All one has to do to find evidence is look at the jihadist websites to see what they say about Shi’ites. We are tampering with a 1,400-year-old hierarchy, the product of untold generations of struggle within Islam.

Self-determination first

If democracy contains within it the seed of disorder, what is the alternative? The problem in the Arab world is not a lack of democracy. It is a lack of self-determination. Here I do not mean national self-determination; I mean latitude for ethnic, religious, and kinship groups to exercise the maximum autonomous control over their collective lives. This is what has been eroded by the cancerous growth of the state over the past fifty years, exemplified by Iraq. The problem is the overbearing state, which has achieved efficiency in one thing only: depriving the Middle Easterner of the freedom he most cherishes, which is to be left alone to practice his faith, speak his language, and enjoy the traditions of his sub-national community.

This community does not always value democracy. In Iraq’s Sunni triangle, they like their tribes and they might want a tough-minded sheikh to keep order among them; in the Shi’ite south, they might wish to venerate a white-bearded recluse in a turban, and have him resolve all their disputes; and so on. What they crave is not democracy, but sub-national self-determination, for both majorities and minorities. More important to them than one-man one-vote, are guarantees for social, religious and linguistic freedom, implied by the retreat of the state.

To what point should it retreat? Ideally, to the distance at which the Ottomans stood. We have much more to learn from the Ottoman way of empire in the Middle East than from the British or the French. The European imperial powers also overturned heirarchies, which is why they constantly had to put down the kind of insurgencies that the United States now faces in Iraq. The Ottomans obviously had certain advantages over Europeans: first, they were Muslims, and second, the peoples of the Middle East were not at a heightened level of political consciousness until the empire’s last days. But the Ottomans ruled for as long as they did because they did not threaten their subjects with an all-intrusive state, and did not seek to turn the social order on its head.

An interviewer once asked the late Elie Kedourie whether he was nostalgic for the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. Kedourie replied:

Nostalgia is not a very profitable sentiment nor is there any sense in regretting something that cannot be revived. All one can say, is that these political systems and institutions, contraptions, or call them whatever you will, worked while they were there. They functioned; and considering the societies that that Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians ruled, they did not do a bad job of it. What one can also say, is that the successor states have failed lamentably.

He went on to praise the Ottomans for their “very sensible attitude to the problems raised by large groups of people who were under their control. When it came to insurrection, the Ottomans were quite ruthless. But apart from that they tried very hard to maneuver, to meander, to try and conciliate.”

America cannot revive the Ottoman empire, but it might take a lesson from its legacy: that empire is most effective when it is invisible, that there are things worse than minority rule, that there is no greater evil in the Middle East than an intrusive state, that people who do not rebel deserve to be left alone to run their affairs as they see fit, and that it is wisest not to overturn existing heirarchies, but to maneuver and meander within them. Pursue the idea of majority rule, come what may, and we may eventually find the majority of the Middle East agreed on one thing: that America is an evil empire. That kind of consensus is bound to undermine American interests, and would be the worst outcome of the best intentions.

, ,

Shiites and U.S. Policy: Between Allies and Adversaries

This lecture was delivered by Martin Kramer on October 16, 2004, at the 2004 Weinberg Founders Conference, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

In invading Iraq, the United States destroyed longstanding Sunni hegemony over that country. By its attempts to establish a democratic order, the United States seems destined to empower the Shiites, who form a majority of the population. This empowerment has yet to unfold, but when it does, it will have repercussions.

Shiites in Middle East

This moment reminds me of the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when we asked the same question. What will be the impact of the revolution on Shiites elsewhere? At that time, many analysts anticipated that the entire region was on the brink of a Shiite revolt. The Iranian revolution would undermine the established order and bring Shiites out from the shadows. In Iraq, where the Shiites form a majority, and in Lebanon, where they form the largest sectarian community, Shiites would be impossible to suppress. Their grievances against the Sunni-inflicted Arab nationalist order would be as irresistible as the Iranian revolution itself. We were on the brink of a Shiite era.

It did not happen. And the reason it did not happen can be summarized in two words: Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam Hussein who rallied the Sunni-led regimes around him in his war with Iran. It was Saddam Hussein who ruthlessly crushed the fledgling Shiite movement in Iraq. Saddam Hussein cast himself as the Arab bulwark against the Iranian hordes, but many in the Arab world also saw him as the Sunni champion against Shiite ascendancy.

Thanks in large measure to Saddam Hussein, the Iranian Revolution never really spread. He blocked its export to Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, the Shiite group Hizballah gained a foothold, but only because Syria licensed it to attack Israel. There was no Shiite-led Islamic revolution in Lebanon, and whenever Hizballah got out of line, Syria put it in its place.

The legacy of the Iranian revolution and Hizballah’s terrorism gave Shiism a reputation as an almost inherently anti-American form of Islam. The United States had seen Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini use Shiite themes to make an anti-American revolution and to establish a theocratic dictatorship. It saw Hizballah play on Shiite themes to rally its followers in Lebanon to support bombings, hijackings, and hostage-taking. Hizballah was seen then much as al-Qaeda is seen today, and Shiism was regard then much as Wahhabism is regarded today.

This legacy informed the U.S. decision not to support the Shiite revolt in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The fear was that it would open Iraq up to Iranian penetration. In 1991, Iraqi Shiites paid the price for Khomeini’s anti-Americanism and Hizballah’s terrorism.

Over the next decade, Americans pondered whether their assumptions about Shiism had been right. Iraqi Shiites set about persuading American policy makers that the Shiites in a liberated Iraq would be free of Iranian influence. The Shiites in Iraq, they said, would never be pawns in Iranian hands, and Iraqi Shiism would not spawn a new version of Hizballah. Iraqi Shiites had their own, largely secular, priorities. They had their own religious leadership. And they might form a partnership with the United States if America would liberate them. The United States allowed itself to be persuaded this was so.

In the end, the obstacle of Saddam Hussein was removed not by Iranian human-wave attacks and Ayatollah Khomeini, but by U.S. guided munitions and President Bush. Saddam delayed the Shiite moment. U.S. intervention has brought it back.

The consequences of this are difficult to foresee. There is no question that the removal of Saddam has set the stage for a revival of Iraq’s historic role in Shia Islam. By now, most Americans are aware that Iraq contains the holiest Shia shrines, the Shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf, the Shrine of the Imam Husayn in Karbala, and other important shrines in other cities. But these are not merely places of pilgrimage and burial, and Najaf is not just the Jerusalem or the Lourdes of the Shiites. It is also an Oxford and a Cambridge. It was the great center of scholarship and study, a seat of apprenticeship for Shiite clerics. Aspiring young Shiites once flocked to Iraq from the four corners of the world, especially from Iran and Lebanon. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayn al-Sistani himself is a classic example. He was born in Iran. He came to Najaf as a young man to study and he stayed. But he still speaks Arabic with a distinct Persian accent, which may be one reason we never hear him speak in public.

Saddam’s regime shut out most of the foreign Shiites. He expelled many who had been resident in Iraq for decades. The centers of scholarship and learning atrophied, and places like Qom and Mashhad in Iran replaced them. But the liberation of Iraq has made it possible to imagine the restoration of Iraq’s Shia institutions to their former glory. That would shift the center of Shiism back to Iraq and away from Iran, which is one of the reasons Iran has such a keen interest in establishing influence over Iraq’s Shiite religious institutions.

Iraq is also immensely important to Lebanese Shiites. In earlier generations, virtually all of the senior Shiite clerics in Lebanon were schooled in Iraq. The most senior Shiite cleric in Lebanon today is Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. His father went to Iraq to study and then settled in Najaf. Fadlallah was born in Najaf; he lived and studied there until the age of thirty, when he came to Lebanon.

The younger generation of clerics beneath Fadlallah has had to study in Iran, but there is no doubt that a new generation would prefer to study in Iraq, which has very great prestige in the eyes of Lebanese Shiites.

Are the Shiites adversaries or allies? The answer is that they are something of both. The adversarial relationship is rooted in the history of U.S. relations with Iran and Hizballah. For more than twenty years, the United States had a reputation as the adversary of Shiite empowerment. It clashed spectacularly with Khomeini’s Iran and Hizballah. It allied itself with strongly anti-Shiite regimes in the Sunni Arab world, primarily Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq. And even when it broke with Saddam after the Kuwait invasion, the United States refused to lift a finger to help Iraq’s Shiites. That legacy is far from erased. The United States remains in an adversarial relationship with Iran and Hizballah, whose leaders still lead enthusiasts in chants of “death to America.”

There are two new developments. First, the United States now confronts another virulent form of extreme Islamism of the al-Qaeda variety. This variety of Islamism, which is Sunni and tinged with the doctrines of Saudi Wahhabism, is riddled with anti-Shiite prejudice. In the cosmology of these extreme Sunnis, the Shiites belong right down there with Americans and Jews as devilish subverters of true Islam. Where there are no Americans or Jews, as in Pakistan, Shiite targets will do just fine. The United States, by declaring war on these Sunni extremists—the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Zarqawi, and the Wahhabi hate network—is battling the visceral enemies of Shiism. This lays the foundations for a potential alliance of convenience.

The second factor is that the United States not only removed Saddam, but is now fighting the Sunni extremists who want their dominance of Iraq back. The Sunni extremists in Iraq have already targeted Shiite holy places and clerics. Because the Shiites do not have the means to strike back, they are counting on the United States to neutralize the threat. And the United States, by preaching democracy for Iraq, is essentially preparing the groundwork for the ascendance of a Shiite majority. Iraq’s Shiites need the United States to carry them to power, and the United States needs the Shiites to legitimize the U.S. mission in Iraq. So here, too, there are grounds for an alliance of convenience whose champion on the Shiite side is Ayatollah Sistani.

Among the Shiites, two models for achieving ascendancy, for realizing the Shiite moment, are in competition. The first is the Iranian-inspired Hizballah model. Its basic premise is that the United States is the enemy of Islam in general and of Shiism in particular. The United States inevitably will betray the Shiites because its real interests lie with the corrupt Sunni monarchies and with Israel. For the Shiites to realize their moment in the Middle East and for other Muslims to accept their leadership, Shiites must lead the resistance to American and Israeli hegemony.

Hizballah offers itself as an example of how a Shiite movement can transcend its sectarian origins to capture the imagination of the Muslim masses. While Arab regimes and Yasser Arafat were trading away Arab rights to get back territory, Hizballah waged a determined resistance to drive Israel out of Lebanon and ultimately achieved what no Arab army or the PLO ever achieved. It drove Israel from Arab land. It put an end to an Israeli occupation without making any concession and without offering peace in return.

And since the Israeli withdrawal, Hizballah has taken its struggle into the heart of Israel through its material and moral support for the Palestinian intifada. Hizballah has smuggled arms, subsidized the so-called “martyrdom operations,” and spread its propaganda on al-Manar television. Hizballah presents itself to the Arab Muslim masses, to the Arab street, as the last standard bearer of genuine independence from Western domination and Israeli hegemony.

This is the resistance model. The message of Hizballah and its Iranian allies to Iraq’s Shiites is that resistance will take them from the margins to the center. It will put the Shiites at the vanguard of a struggle that is destined to prevail, the struggle of the Muslim masses to replace American military, economic, and cultural hegemony with the authentic and true values of Islam. We see strong echoes of this resistance discourse in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Opposing the resistance model is what we might call the democracy model. According to this model, the Shiites are now in a demographic position, both in Iraq and in Lebanon, to become the dominant factor in politics. If there were true one-man, one-vote systems in Lebanon and Iraq, the Shiites would inevitably occupy the center of the political arena. Since Iraq and Lebanon are central states in the Arab world, this would finally put the Shiites on a par with the Sunnis and break the Sunni monopolies enshrined in the dogmas of Arab nationalism.

Because the United States has ceased to be a status-quo power in the Middle East, because it is driving a democracy agenda, both in Iraq and, lately, in Lebanon, it is objectively the ally of the Shiites. The Shiite road to power runs through democracy, not resistance, and a de facto alliance with U.S. power to clear the road makes sense. This approach has important adherents, including Ayatollah Sistani, but it is not nearly as well articulated as the resistance rhetoric that often drowns it out.

Can the United States influence this competition of approaches? On the very simplest level, it already has. Just as the United States does not wish to be perceived as the enemy of Islam, it does not wish to be cast as the enemy of Shiism. The Shia shrines in Iraq are symbols of the creed; the U.S. facilitation of pilgrimages and avoiding damage to the shrines during battles has been vitally important in countering the idea that America is an enemy of the Shiites.

But just as the United States cannot have a policy toward Islam per se, it cannot have a policy toward Shiism per se. U.S. policy has been driven, and it will continue to be driven, by the usual factors. In Iraq in particular, policy will be driven by Iraq-specific factors.

But we should be aware that U.S. actions have shifted the sectarian balance. In promoting democracy, the United States does not just undermine the authoritarian order, it inevitably undermines Sunni primacy. It is often said that the Shiites constitute only one-tenth of all Muslims. There are about 130 million Shiites. But about 120 million of them live in the region between Lebanon and Pakistan where they almost equal Sunnis in number. The shift of political power in their direction will raise sectarian tensions. It will anger dispossessed Sunnis, who may gravitate towards extremism, and it will require the United States to find its own delicate balance so that it is not drawn into any sectarian conflict.

Until the Iraq war, the United States was largely preoccupied with a highwire balancing act between Israel and the Arabs. Now, the United States will have to juggle Shiites and Sunnis at the same time. All wars have unintended consequences. A major challenge is to identify them as they emerge. This is potentially a huge one. It will require consummate skill and a lot of luck to turn it into a minor one.