New Shia Confidence

Shiite "Arc of Crisis" in the Middle East?

In his article, Middle East and Islam expert Arnold Hottinger describes how, in the recent past, Shia influence in the Middle East has been fuelled by the Iraq and Lebanon armed conflicts

A man holding a poster displaying Shiite cleric al-Sadr (photo: AP)
In Iraq, too, Shiite influence, like that of the roughneck cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is growing

​​From a global perspective, between 10 and 15 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are Shiites. But in the Islamic heartland – the countries from Lebanon to Pakistan – there are almost as many Shiites as Sunnis. And the globally strategic zone of oil deposits at the head of the Gulf is home to about 80 percent Shiites and only 20 percent Sunnis.

In Iran, the Shiites have been the staatsvolk since the beginning of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century, making up more than 80 percent of the population. Yet in the Arab world they have never been a staatsvolk anywhere, neither in the states where they represent the largest religious community, as in Bahrain (70 percent) or Iraq (around 60 percent), nor where they form a more or less significant minority, as in Lebanon (around 40 percent), Kuwait (30 percent), Afghanistan (15-20 percent), Pakistan (15-20 percent), Syria (10 percent) and Saudi Arabia (5 percent, but concentrated around the oil fields).

Shiites as "minorities" in the Arab world

In the Near East, staatsvolk means the ethnic group or religious community which occupies the elite positions in the government, in the civil and military spheres, and usually also in the secret and security services as well as large parts of the upper strata of the bureaucracy and the upper classes, especially in positions that are strongly dependent on state sponsorship or patronage.

Members of a "non-staatsvolk", often called "minorities", can rise into the wealthy upper classes as well, but must generally manage without state sponsorship, and they seldom attain political leadership positions. In this respect, the Shiites have been "minorities" all over the Arab world, and in many cases have remained minorities to this day.

Shiite emancipation movements

However, since the 1950s the Arab Shiites have made efforts to liberate themselves from their minority position, fighting for the status of full-fledged citizens in their new nation states, not only in the letter of the law, but also in economic, social and political reality. They have suffered alls sorts of setbacks, even violent repression, as in Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Sayyid Musa as-Sadr, who came from Qom to Sur (Tyros) in 1951, founded the first Shiite self-help organizations in the 1970s, later giving rise to the Amal movement. Imam Musa himself disappeared in 1978 on a visit to Libya, probably assassinated by Ghaddafi's secret service. In Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Bagher as-Sadr founded the Da'wa Party in 1958 in an effort to improve the social and political status of Iraq's Shiites.

These initial emancipation movements of a definitely political but not revolutionary nature served as a basis for the Iranian "revolution exporting" which Khomeini pursued in the years after seizing power. The Iranians were helped in this by wars and repressive campaigns in Lebanon and Iraq.

The rise of Hizbullah

Hizbollah fighters at a rally (photo: AP)
When the Syrian army marched into Lebanon in 1991, the Syrians let the Iran-backed Hizbullah fighters keep their weapons with the mission of continuing the battle against the Israelis who had remained in South Lebanon

​​South Lebanon was occupied militarily by Israel from 1978 to 2000 – a total of around 22 years – and the country was ravaged by civil war from 1975 to 1991. In 1982, the year of Israel's first major attack on Lebanon, Iran began supporting this "radical" Shiite tendency with weapons, Pasdaran training and money. This led to a split from Amal and later to the formation of the Hizbullah, which incorporated a number of Shiite groups.

At the time, Amal was receiving support from Syria in the form of money and weapons. Its militia became an important force in the Lebanese civil war, used by Syria to further its interests. Hizbullah had two supporters, Iran and Syria, and from the very beginning it placed emphasis on social welfare and integration for the large numbers of needy Shiites, alongside battle slogans such as "free Jerusalem".

The war with Israel also played a crucial role in causing many of the previously rural Shiites of the south to flee to Beirut, over the years becoming an urban proletariat in the southern suburbs.

Hizbullah keeps its weapons

When the Syrian army marched into Lebanon in 1991, ending the civil war, the Syrians had no difficulties in disarming the Amal militias, which were dependent on them. But they let the Iran-backed Hizbullah fighters keep their weapons with the mission of continuing the battle against the Israelis who had remained in South Lebanon. This way Hizbullah was able to keep deploying and building up its forces. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the dispute over the Sheba Farms on the border provided a continued excuse for Hizbullah to keep up the fight against Israel.

In the sphere of social and domestic policy Hizbullah also managed to outmaneuver its rivals from Amal. The party built up an effective safety net based on the altruistic commitment of many civilian workers, and they exerted a discreet but profound social control in Shiite regions and neighborhoods, centered around the mosques and local centers. Today, the Hizbollah fighters' relatively successful resistance against the attacking Israelis has made the party very popular throughout Lebanon, even among non-Shiites.

The mobilizing force of the violence in Iraq

In Iraq, too, war and violence favored the radical, revolutionary and pro-Iranian tendencies. Saddam Hussein harshly persecuted Da'wa after coming to power in 1978; its founder, Ayatollah Bagher as-Sadr, was tortured to death in 1980. But the party maintained underground cells until Saddam was toppled by the American war.

Other Shiite groups were expelled from Iraq to Iran, or sought refuge there. In 1982 Ayatollah Muhammad Bagher al-Hakim, a scion of the al-Hakim family that was also brutally persecuted by Saddam, amalgamated them under the name SCIRI (Supreme Committee of the Iranian Revolution in Iraq), forming a militia, al-Badr, which fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War. After Saddam's overthrow, al-Hakim returned to Iraq, but was murdered on August 29, 2003 in Najaf.

Along with Da'wa, the party and the militia, now led by Hujjatul-Islam Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and still strongly oriented toward Iran, is one of the main parties in the Shiite coalition which now rules in Baghdad as a majority group, more or less theoretically, and only with the protection of the Americans in the Green Zone. The Badr militias are accused of having infiltrated the Ministry of the Interior and forming Shiite death squads that periodically take action against Sunnis.

In this way, Iran might well achieve a position as the patron and protector of important forces in the Arab world. Could this enable it to rise to the status of dominant power in the Near East? All the destruction wrought upon Arab political and social structures by the American and Israeli wars favors these developments. Some observers are already speaking of a "Shiite arc of crisis" that threatens the Arab world as we know it.

If the Americans and Israelis continue to spread chaos in the Arab world, moreover involving Syria and Iran, as they threaten, such an arc of crisis could in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Arnold Hottinger

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Arnold Hottinger was for 30 years Near East correspondent for the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He is the author of a number of books on Islam and the Arab world.

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