By Murtaza Haider
Feb 6, 2013
For once, I agree with Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand mufti of Al-Azhar in Egypt, who told the visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to interfere in the matters concerning Sunni Arabs.
The Iranian President is on a three-day visit to Egypt, where he is attending the 12th annual summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In an afternoon visit to Sunni Islam’s most revered school of learning, Al-Azhar, the Iranian President was reminded of the centuries old schism between the Shia (mostly Iranian) and Sunni Islam. “Mr. el-Tayeb said attempts to spread Shia Islam in mainly Sunni Arab nations were unacceptable,” reported the Associated Press.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran has tried to assume the role of chief spokesperson for the entire Muslim community. Given that Shias are a tiny minority amongst the billion-plus Muslims, the majority of Sunnis did not appreciate the attempts by a minority sect to take the centre stage. This, however, has not deterred the cleric-led post revolution Iran for trying to assert itself in conflicts that have pitched Sunni Arabs against others. I would argue that Iran should immediately halt meddling in conflicts involving Sunnis and instead, restrict its efforts to improving the welfare of Shias, who are currently being hounded by extremist Sunnis in places like Pakistan and Bahrain.
As a child growing up in Pakistan, I saw the rise of Iranian influence amongst Shias. The Iranian revolution in 1979 galvanised not just the religious minded Shias, but even the liberals. Iran emerged as a strong and bold voice against imperialism. I remember being woken up to hear the early morning call for prayer from Tehran on our shortwave radio. The fact that pre-dawn prayers in Tehran were held 90 minutes before the break of dawn in Islamabad did not dissuade many from cutting short their sleep. The euphoria of a Muslim (and not necessarily a Shia) revival was contagious.
The months and years following the revolution saw the emergence of a more orthodox version of Islam in Iran. Soon many realised that it was not the revolution that Dr. Ali Shariati advocated for. Instead, Iran ended up with a rigid version of Shia Islam that resembled the orthodoxy of the Wahabi version of Saudi Islam. The liberal strands of Shia Islam that relied on the principle of Ijtihad (“the effort to derive Islamic laws from their original sources within one’s human comprehension”) were pushed to the back and in its place emerged the orthodoxy of Imam Khomeini’s Vilayat-e-Faqih (the guardianship of Islamic jurists).
Up until the late 70s, Shias in Pakistan and elsewhere travelled to Iraq to study Shia jurisprudence at the Hawza ‘ilmiya. In the early 80s, Iran started to offer scholarships and bursaries to attract the new generation of Shia scholars to Qom. Hundreds flocked to the seminaries in Qom where they learnt about Shia jurisprudence, and at the same time they embraced the political doctrine pushed by the organised clergy in Iran.
Death to every one
It was during the 80s that I saw the radical shift in the script of sermons delivered at Shia mosques in Pakistan. A chant emerged as the centre-piece of prayers that denounced the US, Russia, and Israel. It ended with the prayer seeking Khomeini’s longevity until Imam Mehdi’s appearance. The prayer in Persian read as follows:
Mergber Amreeka, mergber Rouseeyah, mergber Israel, mergber dushman-e-wilayatehfaqih
Ilahi, Ilahi, tawinqalabe Mehdi, Khomeini ranageh daasht
(Death to America, Death to the Soviet Union, Death to Israel, and death to anyone who opposes Khomeini. Oh God, until the emergence of the 12th Shia Imam Mehdi, please look after Khomeini).
While Iran was pushing its propaganda in Pakistan, so were the Soviets. As the Americans forced Pakistan and Afghanistan into a not-so-covert war with the Soviet Union, the reds struck back with propaganda and scholarships for journalists and leftist/socialist leaders. Again, hundreds from Pakistan left for higher education in Russia and its client states. While I was studying at the Peshawar University, we used to receive free copies of Pravda delivered to our university residence to be disbursed to students. In downtown (Saddar) Peshawar, bookshops sold subsidised literature on socialism. Many left-leaning students used to walk around the university campus wearing red scarves to show their solidarity with the political left.
It was only in the late 80s, when I was in my late teens, that I caught on to the obvious lacuna in the Iranian propaganda. While the Americans and the Soviets were at each other’s throats, Iranians were calling for the destruction of both. If the US was an enemy, why did Iran not see the Soviets as friends? After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The shift in Iranian propaganda came about quickly. Suddenly, and without any explanation, ‘death to the Soviet Union’ was dropped from the chant. Soviets were now friends of Iran and of Shias in Pakistan.
The US and Israel, however, have remained on the hate chant. While the Iranians do have legitimate reasons to be wary of the United States, their stance against Israel is based entirely on Iranian support for the Palestinians. Iranians do not trust the Americans and the British because of their unwelcome interventions in Iran in the past that has derailed democratic forces more than once. CIA and the British Intelligence orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953 when he tried to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. Later, the Americans support for Raza Shah Pahlavi during his dictatorial reign and afterwards also annoyed Iranians. And finally, the US backing of Iraq in its war against Iran is also something most Iranians are not willing to forget or forgive.
The Iranian propaganda in Pakistan seems absurd at times. Even now, after every attack on Shias in Pakistan, the Shia clerics blame Israel and the US for Shia massacres. The fact that extremist Sunnis are responsible for most attacks on Shias in Pakistan does not deter the Iran-schooled Shia clerics from blaming the US and Israel. The clerics do this even after the Pakistani Taliban claim responsibility for the massacres.
More Arab than the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict
Another Iranian invention is the Al-Quds day, which is observed on the last Friday in Ramazan to express solidarity with the Palestinians. Since 1979, Shias in Iran, Pakistan, and Lebanon, have taken out rallies in support of Palestinians, who are mostly Sunnis. This has obviously irked Israelis, to put it mildly. However, the Iranian attempt to hijack the single most important issue of the Sunni Arabs has not settled well with the Arab leadership. In fact, it has revived the centuries old Arab-Ajam rivalries. The ruling elite in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the rest of Arab world has in fact resented the Iranian support for Palestinian grievances.
While the Arab leaders felt threatened by Iran as it tried to emerge as the champion of Muslim causes, the Sunni Arab populace, including the Palestinians, also did not appreciate or welcome Iran’s help. The thought of Shia Iranians leading the Sunni Arabs was equally unacceptable to the Arab elite and the man on the street. Wikileaks released documents in 2008 that revealed the Saudi King wanting the US to attack Iran to “put an end to its nuclear weapons program”. More than 80 per cent Egyptians in a Pew Global Attitudes Project Survey in 2010 considered a nuclear-armed Iran a threat. Most Jordanians, Nigerians, Indonesians and Turks felt the same about Iran. A 2012 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed that most Sunnis in several Muslim majority countries did not consider Shias as Muslims.
Why then, does Iran try to champion Sunni Arab causes, when its help is not welcome?
Listen to the Mufti’s Free Advice
President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian religious ruling elite should pay heed to the free advice from the grand mufti of Egypt. The Iranians should not discard it as yet another example of sectarian hate speech. It may be so, but it highlights the enigma Iranians face; the very people they would like to help, do not welcome it. So why bother?
The age old Arab-Ajam schism is alive. Iranians will be well-served to recognise that their advances are not welcome by the Sunni Arabs. The Iranian clergy should instead consider introspection. It is one thing to lobby for Palestinian rights and another to grant the same to the democracy-seeking Iranians.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.