The myth of the Shi'ite crescent
- The myth of the Shi'ite crescent
By Pepe Escobar
TEHRAN - A specter haunts the Middle East - at least
in the minds of Sunni Arabs, especially Wahhabis, as
well as a collection of conservative American think
tanks: a Shi'ite crescent, spreading from Mount
Lebanon to Khorasan, across Mesopotamia, the Persian
Gulf and the Iranian plateau.
But facts on the ground are much more complex than
this simplistic formula whereby, according to Saudi
Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, Tehran controls its allies
Baghdad, Damascus and parts of Beirut.
Seventy-five percent of the world's oil reserves are
in the Persian Gulf. Seventy percent of the Gulf's
population is Shi'ite. As an eschatological - and
revolutionary - religion, fueled by a mix of
romanticism and despair, Shi'ism cannot but provoke
fear, especially in hegemonic Sunni Islam.
For more than a thousand years Shi'ite Islam has been
in fact a galaxy of Shi'sms. It's as if it was a
Fourth World, always maligned with political
exclusion, a dramatic vision of history and social and
But now Shi'ites finally have acquired political
representation in Iraq, have conquered it in Lebanon
and are actively claiming it in Bahrain. They are the
majority in each of these countries. Shi'ism is the
cement of their communal cohesion. It's a totally
different story in Saudi Arabia, where Shi'ites are a
minority of 11%, repressed as heretics and deprived of
their rights and fundamental freedoms. But for how
The Shi'ite sanctuary
Shi'ism has been the state religion in Iran since
1501, at the start of the Safavid dynasty. But with
Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic
revolution, for the first time in history the Shi'ite
clergy was able to take over the state - and to govern
a Shi'ite-majority society. No wonder this is the most
important event in the history of Shi'ism.
Asia Times Online has confirmed in the holy Iranian
city of Qom that as far as major ayatollahs are
concerned, their supreme mission is to convert the
rest of Islam to what they believe is the original
purity and revolutionary power of Shi'ism, always
critical of the established social and political
But as a nation-state at the intersection of the Arab,
Turk, Russian and Indian worlds, as the key transit
point of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Central
Asia, the Caucasus and the Indian sub-continent,
between three seas (the Caspian, the Persian Gulf and
the sea of Oman), not far from Europe and at the gates
of Asia, Tehran on a more pragmatic level has to
conduct an extremely complex foreign policy.
Diplomats in Tehran don't say it explicitly, but this
is essentially a counter-encirclement foreign policy.
And not only because of the post-September 11 American
military bases that today encircle Iran almost
Iran rivals Turkey for influence in Central Asia and
rivals Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Persian Gulf -
with the added complexity of this being a bitter
Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry as well. Rivalry with Pakistan -
again for influence in Central Asia - subsided after
the Taliban were chased out of power in Afghanistan in
2001. But basically Tehran regards Pakistan as a
pro-American Sunni regional power, thus not exactly
prone to be attentive to Shi'ites. This goes a long
way to explain the Iran-India alliance.
It's impossible to deal with Iran without
understanding the complex dialectics behind the
Iranian religious leadership. In their minds, the
concept of nation-state is regarded with deep
suspicion, because it detracts from the umma - the
The nation-state is just a stage on the road to the
final triumph of Shi'ism and pure Islam. But to go
beyond this stage it's necessary to reinforce the
nation-state and its Shi'ite sanctuary, which happens
to be Iran. When Shi'ism finally triumphs, the concept
of nation-state, a heritage from the West, will
disappear anyway, to the benefit of a community
according to the will of Prophet Mohammed.
The problem is that reality often contradicts this
dream. One of the best examples was the Iran-Iraq war
of the 1980s. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran first.
Iranians reacted culturally - this was a case of
Persians repulsing an Arab invasion. But Tehran at the
same time also expected Iraqi Shi'ites to rebel
against Saddam, in the name of Shi'ism. It did not
For the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, the Arab
nationalist impulse was stronger. And still is. This
fact undermines the neo-conservative charge that Iran
is fueling a guerrilla war in southern Iraq with the
intention of breaking up the country. The Ba'athist
idea of integration of Iraqi communities under a
strong state, in the name of Arab nationalism,
persists. Few in the Shi'ite south want a civil war -
or the breakup of Iraq.
Azerbaijan and Afghanistan
Azerbaijan - where 75% of the population is Shi'ite -
could not be included in a Shi'ite crescent by any
stretch of the imagination, even though it was a
former province of the Persian empire that Russia took
over in 1828.
Azeris speak a language close to Turkish, but at the
same time they are kept at some distance by the Turks
because they are in the majority Shi'ites. Unlike
Iran, the basis of modern, secular Turkey is national
- not religious - identity. To complicate matters
further, Shi'ism in Azerbaijan had to face the shock
of a society secularized by seven decades of Soviet
rule. Azeris would not be tempted - to say the least -
to build an Iranian-style theocracy at home.
It's true that Azeri mullahs are "Iranified". But as
Iran and Azerbaijan are contiguous, independent
Azerbaijan fears too much Iranization.
At the same time, Iran does not push too hard for
Shi'ite influence on Azerbaijan because Azeri
nationalism - sharing a common religion on both sides
of the border - could embark on a reunification of
Azerbaijan to the benefit of Baku, and not of Tehran.
And if this was not enough, there's the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an enclave of Armenian
people completely within Azerbaijan, where Iran
supports Armenia for basically two reasons: to reduce
Turkish influence in Azerbaijan and to help Russia
counteract Turkey - perceived as an American Trojan
horse - in the Caucasus.
A fair resume of this intractable equation would be
that Azerbaijan is too Shi'ite to be totally
pro-Turkish, not Shi'ite enough to be completely
pro-Iranian, but Shi'ite enough to prevent itself from
becoming a satellite of Russia - again.
On Iran's eastern front, there are the Hazaras of
Afghanistan, the descendants of Genghis Khan. In the
17th century Hazarajat, in central Afghanistan, was
occupied by the Persian empire. That's when it
converted to Shi'ism. Hazaras have always suffered the
most in Afghanistan - totally marginalized in
political, economic, cultural and religious terms.
Under the Taliban they were massacred in droves - as
the Taliban were surrogates of Saudi Wahhabism: that
was a graphic case of rivalry between Iran and Saudi
Arabia being played out in the heart of Afghanistan,
as much as a case of pro-Pakistan Pashtuns against
Hazaras compound a significant 16% of the Afghan
population. As far as Tehran is concerned, they are
supported as an important political power in
post-Taliban Afghanistan. But once again it's not a
case of a Shi'ite crescent.
Iranian military aid flows to the Shi'ite party
Hezb-e-Wahdat. But there are more important practical
issues, like the road linking eastern Iran with
Tajikistan that goes through Mazar-e-Sharif in
northern Afghanistan and bypasses Hazara territory.
And there's the strong Iranian political influence in
Herat, in western Afghanistan - the privileged fiefdom
of warlord Ishmail Khan. When Khan was jailed by the
Taliban in 1997 in Kandahar, he was liberated thanks
to Iranian mediation. Khan is now energy minister in
the Hamid Karzai government, but he still controls
Herat. The road linking Herat to the Iranian border
was rebuilt and paved by Iranian engineers. People in
Herat can't get a single TV program from Kabul, but
they get three Iranian state channels. Western
Afghanistan is as much Afghan as Iranian.
Meanwhile, in South Asia ...
The Moghul empire in India was heavily Persianized.
The Moghuls had been speaking Persian since the 14th
century - it was the administrative language of the
sultans and the empire's high officials in Delhi,
later carried as far away as Malacca and Sumatra.
India - as much as Central Asia - was extremely
influenced by Persian culture. Today, Shi'ites
concentrate in northern India, in Uttar Pradesh,
around Lucknow, and also in Rajastan, Kashmir, Punjab,
the western coast around Mumbai and around Karachi in
Pakistan. Most are Ishmalis - not duodecimal, like the
Iranians. Pakistan may have as many as 35 million
Shi'ites, with a majority of duodecimal. India has
about 25 million, divided between duodecimal and
Ishmalis. The numbers may be huge, but in India
Shi'ites are a minority inside a minority of Muslims,
and in Pakistan they are a minority in a Sunni state.
This carries with it a huge political problem. Delhi
sees the Shi'ites in Pakistan as a factor of
destabilization. That's one more reason for the close
relationship between India and Iran.
Trojan horses in the Gulf
Seventy-five percent of the population of the Persian
Gulf - concentrated in the eastern borders of Saudi
Arabia and the emirates - is Shi'ite, overwhelmingly
members of a rural or urban proletariat. Hasa, in
Saudi Arabia, stretching from the Kuwaiti border to
the Qatar border, has been populated by Shi'ites since
the 10th century. That's where the oil is. Seventy
percent of the workforce in the oilfields is Shi'ite.
The potential for them to be integrated in a Shi'ite
crescent is certainly there.
Another historical irony rules that the bitter rivalry
- geopolitical, national, religious, cultural -
between Iran and Saudi Arabia has to played out in
Saudi territory as well. A Shi'ite minority in the
land of hardcore Sunni Wahhabism - and the land that
spawned al-Qaeda - has to be the ultimate Trojan
horse. What to do? Just as in Iraq under Saddam, the
Saudi royal family swings between surveillance and
repression, with some drops of integration, not as
much promoting Shi'ites in the kingdom's ranks but
heavily promoting the immigration of Sunnis to Hasa.
Deeper integration has to be the solution, as the
access to power of Shi'ites in Iraq will certainly
motivate Saudi Arabian Shi'ites.
Kuwait lies north of Hasa. Twenty-five percent of
Kuwaitis are Shi'ite - natives or immigrants, and they
provoke the same sort of geopolitical quandary to the
Kuwaiti princes as they do to the Saudis. Although
they are a religious, social and economic minority as
well, Shi'ites in Kuwait enjoy a measure of political
rights. But they are still considered a Trojan horse.
South of Hasa, in Qatar, where also 25% of the
population is Shi'ite, is the exact same thing.
And then there's Bahrain. Sixty-five percent of
Bahrain is Shi'ite. Basically they are a rural
proletariat. It's the same pattern - Sunnis are urban
and in power, Shi'ites are poor and marginalized. For
decades, even before the Islamic revolution in 1979,
Iran had insisted that the Shi'ites in Bahrain were
Iranians because the Safavid dynasty used to occupy
both margins of the Persian Gulf. Tehran still
considers Bahrain as an Iranian province. The Shi'ite
majority in Bahrain is prone to turbulence. Repression
has been inevitable - and Bahrain is helped in the
process by, who else, Saudi Arabia.
But there are some encouraging signs. The small
Bahrain archipelago is separated from Saudi Arabia by
just a bridge. Every weekend in the Muslim world -
Thursday and Friday - Saudis abandon Wahhabi
suffocation in droves to relax in the malls of Manama
and its neighboring islands. Women in Bahrain are
closer to women in Tehran than to Saudi. They wear
traditional clothes, but not a full black chador, they
drive their own cars, they go about their business by
themselves, they meet members of the opposite sex in
restaurants or cinemas. For them, there are no
forbidden places or professional activities.
The locals tend to believe this is due to the relative
modernity of the al-Khalifa family in power. Even the
South Asian workforce is treated much better than in
the neighboring emirates.
Bahrain is not particularly wealthy - compared to the
other emirates - and unlike Dubai it does not strive
to become an economic powerhouse. There are plenty of
schools and a good national university - although most
women prefer to study in the US or Lebanon. But all
this can be illusory. Shi'ites won't stop fighting for
more political participation. Six months ago there was
a huge demonstration in Bahrain, demanding a new
constitution. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are
extremely popular in Bahrain.
There are only 6% of Shi'ites in the wealthy United
Arab Emirates. But they can compound a problem as
acute as in Kuwait or Qatar because of the enormous
trade and business Iranian influence in Dubai.
The whole equation of Persian Gulf Shi'ites has to do
with a tremendous identity problem. The key argument
in favor of them not being an Iranian Trojan horse is
that first and foremost they are Arabs. But the
question remains in the air. Are they most of all
Arabs who practice a different form of Islam, which
the Sunni majority considers heretic? Or are they
Shi'ites bound to pledge allegiance to the motherland
of Shi'ism, Iran? The answer is not only religious; it
involves social and political integration of Shi'ites
in regimes and societies that are basically Sunni.
Shi'ism in the Arab Gulf may be "invisible" to the
naked eye. Only for the moment. Sooner or later the
sons of Imam Ali will wake up.
Tomorrow: Who's in charge, Qom or Najaf?
Asia Times Online Ltd.
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW