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The myth of the Shi'ite crescent

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    The myth of the Shi ite crescent By Pepe Escobar www.antiwar.com TEHRAN - A specter haunts the Middle East - at least in the minds of Sunni Arabs, especially
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3 10:02 AM
      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
      economic marginalization.

      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
      much longer?

      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
      Muslim community.

      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
      pro-Iranian Hazaras.

      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.



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