How Sectarianism Blinds the Shia to the Horrors of Syria

by Fouad Ajami | October 5, 2012

THE NEWLY ELECTED Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s passage to Tehran, in late August, for a gathering of 120 “non-aligned” nations, had both historical drama and political meaning. Morsi was the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since the theocrats came to power in 1979. He knew the depth of Iran’s commitment to the Syrian dictatorship, but he had not come to pander. It was the duty of all those assembled, he said, to stand against the “oppressive regime” of Bashar al-Assad. “The bloodshed in Syria is our responsibility on all our shoulders and we have to know that the bloodshed cannot end without effective interference from all of us. We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria. 

With this declaration, Morsi inaugurated a new era in Arab politics. Egypt, the largest Arab state, had thrown its moral weight on the side of freedom. Gone were the days when the Arab political order presented an unbroken chain of tyrannies. Egypt had turned inward after the fall of the Mubarak regime; but this was a signal that the country wanted to retrieve its place in the region’s pecking order.

The camera taking in the Tehran gathering caught a glimpse of a leader ill-at-ease as he watched the Egyptian president: Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Shiism had always been a faith of the oppressed, and exalted noble suffering by the dispossessed. And there was Maliki, the only Shia leader of an Arab state, taking in the moral and political consequences of his support for the Assad dictatorship. Sectarianism had clinched the matter for Maliki. A man of the Shia underground brought to power by an American war, he opted for an alliance with the Syrian dictator because he feared the rise on his Western border of a Syria ruled by a Sunni majority. Maliki had spent seventeen years in exile in Syria, a man on the run from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Doubtless, he had forged ties with the intelligence barons of the Damascus regime. Now the pre-eminent figure in Iraqi politics, he has shown nothing but hostility to the Syrian rebellion. He saw in the rise of so aggrieved and violated a country a wider Sunni campaign, led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to topple the Alawi regime in Damascus.

Maliki’s call was similar to that of Hezbollah’s leaders in Lebanon. The hapless Lebanese government, a mere cover for Hezbollah’s domination of that country, has had to toe the line of the ruler in Damascus. It, too, had to proclaim that the Syrian rebellion was a conspiracy aimed at the “axis of resistance” in the region. Hezbollah fighters, it is certain, had made their way to Syria to aid the dictator. No mercy was shown by the Lebanese authorities to Syrian refugees fleeing the regime’s terror. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threw all caution to the wind. There was a time not so long ago when Nasrallah was a favorite of the fabled Arab street, hailed for the war that his movement fought against Israel in the summer of 2006. Syrians in particular were devotees of the man. But this is now the past. Nasrallah and his movement are seen for what they are: satraps of Iran, Shia sectarians bent on the domination of Beirut, wedded to the tyranny in Damascus.

 

FROM ONE SIDE, Maliki’s Iraq, from the other side, Hezbollah in Beirut: Arab Shiism has been placed in a perilous and morally awkward position. For the length of a millennium, Arab Shiism had not held power, and remained the faith of an embattled minority. Shia were strangers to the great Arab cities. Urban Islam was Sunni, and it heaped on the Shia countryside scorn and grief. The Shia were truly the stepchildren of the Arab world. And secular Arab nationalism, when it came into its own in the 1950s and 1960s, was not much of an improvement on the old ways. The secular movement was but a garb for Sunni hegemony. The leaders who drove that movement were Sunni thinkers and politicians. Also Christian thinkers and politicians: it was much easier for political Sunnism to make room in its fold for Christian Arabs. A distinct minority, the latter were eager to please and were no threat to the large Sunni truth. They were polished, they knew foreign languages, and besides, in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, the Christians were city people, who shared Beirut and Damascus and Baghdad with the Sunnis, and lived side by side with them. Not so the Shia of the hinterland (or the Alawis, for that matter), who lacked the confidence and the poise of urban culture. 

It had not been easy or natural for these “compact communities”—the Shia and the Alawis—to make their way into urban life. In Lebanon, demography and the burden of an Israeli-Palestinian war fought in the Shia stronghold in southern Lebanon in the 1970s had pushed the Shia into Greater Beirut. In time, much to the heartbreak of the Sunnis, the Shia would overwhelm Beirut, which had been the home of the Sunnis. There were a mere 1,500 Shia in Beirut in 1920, the histories tell us. Shia of a certain age could still recall a time when Beirut had no Shia mosques and cemeteries. Now the Hezbollah cadres, sons of once-timid villagers, have the run of the city.

In Iraq, there was a variation on the same theme. Shiism was rural here as well, centered in the south and the middle Euphrates. But the centralizing state under the Baath disturbed the age-old balance. In a tale of great irony, Saddam Hussein helped to seal the fate of Sunni primacy. He hacked away at the life of the Marsh Arabs, and drained the marshes, and the Shia inhabitants of this region were herded into Baghdad. There had been a Shia mercantile community in Baghdad, something of a Shia aristocracy with urban roots. The newcomers were a different breed, without the graces and the skills of urban life. They converged on what the dictator, in his megalomania, dubbed Saddam City. The American invasion in 2003 gave this volatile community its chance. Saddam City became Sadr City, named for a high clerical family that had lost two noted martyrs to the Saddam terror. The ascendency of Muqtada al-Sadr, a younger inheritor of that mantle—albeit a man of little learning and culture—was the culmination of that tangled history.

 

THE URBANIZATION of the Alawis, a mountain people whose history and temperament and doctrine are at great variance with Shiism, was the product of the military seizure of power in Syria in the course of the 1960s. The Alawis rode the coattails of the officer corps. Their sons had gone into military service because they were poor and without opportunities. In a country of traders and family firms, the gates were shut before the Alawis. So military ascendancy gave the Alawis their chance. They came into Damascus, from the coast and the hill country that had been their home. The regime planted Alawi kinsmen at the entrances of Damascus, a preparation for a time of reckoning with the Sunnis. It is estimated that there are now 500,000 Alawis in Damascus. Homs was another target, and by the time of this upheaval the Alawis were a quarter of the population of that city. They congregated in their own neighborhoods; they were the regime’s people, both feared and despised.

The Alawis are a people apart, it has to be emphasized—they are not Shia. In the early 1970s, an ambitious Shia cleric based in Lebanon, the renowned Imam Musa al-Sadr, issued a fatwa declaring the Alawis a community of mainstream Twelver Shiism. No one was fooled. Sadr was astute and worldly, and his fatwa was a gift to the dictator next door, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. Assad was the first Syrian ruler who did not hail from the Sunni community. The faithful had bristled at his rise, and regarded an Alawi ruler as a violation of the proper order of things. It took well over a decade to reconcile Sunni society in the principal cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and Hama to the rule of the Alawi Assad.

A cunning man, Assad resorted both to inducements and terror. He courted the Sunni religious establishment, and the clerical institution obliged. Those in the clerical class who could not accept the change were sidelined, and there were those who chose exile in Saudi Arabia and in the cities of Western Europe and North America. The Sunni business class in Aleppo and Damascus came to a grudging acceptance of the Alawi ruler: he reined in the radical economic doctrines of other Baathist officers and ideologues, and he offered the merchant class a practical bargain. He would stay out of their business affairs and they would leave the political domain to him.

Still, all was not well in the souk: there was the Muslim Brotherhood, active in the markets of Aleppo and Hama. They ignited a rebellion that would rage for several years. In the popular mind, this rebellion is identified with the smaller city of Hama and the cruelty that it suffered in early 1982, but it had been hell in Aleppo as well. It was during that terrible time that the ruler’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who commanded the regime’s forces of repression, observed that he would be willing to liquidate a million Syrians in order to preserve the “revolution.” (Alawi rule had to be given the legitimacy of a socioeconomic revolution against the old order.) It was not easy to reconcile urban-Sunni Syria to the rule of the Alawi schismatics.

 

THE CURRENT WAR for Syria was destined to be at once a regional sectarian war and the eruption of a people who wanted an end to four decades of tyranny and plunder. The weight of Iran, and its commitment to the survival of the Assad dictatorship, was certain to make the struggle for Syria a great sectarian contest. The city of Damascus was being fought over. The Sunni order had witnessed the erosion of Sunni primacy in Beirut in the 1980s, and Baghdad, too, thanks to an American war, had passed into the political dominion of the Shia. So it stood to reason that the fate of Damascus would stir Sunni Arabs everywhere.

The sectarian affiliation had not always carried the day. It is forgotten now that Hafez al-Assad had a privileged place in the Arab councils of power. A dictator among dictators, he played the game with skill, and positioned Syria in the course of the October War of 1973 and its aftermath in a trilateral arrangement of power: Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. It was the League of Arab States that gave him the green light for the conquest of Lebanon. He had been admitted into the exclusive club of Arab officers and kings. His fellow rulers knew about his Alawi background and identity, but it was swept under the rug. His repression of the Muslim Brotherhood had the silent consent of the holders of power in other Arab lands.

Hafez al-Assad was a taciturn man who kept the lid on Syria—and Lebanon—and that was good enough for the ruling elites of the Arab world. There was turmoil, and there was radicalism, in Beirut and among the Palestinians in the early 1970s, but Assad managed to pass himself off as a reliable gendarme of public order. Even American diplomacy accepted such a view of the Syrian dictator. And eventually his son Bashar was extended the same indulgence. But Bashar could not maintain the balance that his father had kept between Iran and the conservative Sunni states. The historian Itamar Rabinovich has tracked this signal transformation in his authoritative book, The View from Damascus: Hafez Assad was an ally of Iran, whereas his son became a vassal.

As Bashar drifted into a relationship of subservience to the Iranian theocracy, the sectarian identity of the Damascus regime reared its head. Still, the Arab oil states granted Bashar time, and hoped for the best. But in 2005 the Syrian regime and its operatives in Lebanon murdered Rafiq Hariri, Sunni Lebanon’s preeminent politician. Hariri was the House of Saud’s man in Beirut, a dual Saudi-Lebanese national. The Saudis saw Bashar for the remorseless killer he was, but still they averted their gaze from that crime, and forgave Bashar in the hope of weaning him off his dependency on Iran. Quintessential realists, the Saudis concluded that the advantages of Syria in Lebanon could not be matched, and in July 2010 King Abdullah and Bashar al-Assad flew to Beirut together aboard the Saudi monarch’s plane. A message was sent to the Sunni and Christian warlords by Saudi Arabia that they were on their own, and that they had to accommodate themselves to the re-assertion of Syrian power in their country. George W. Bush, the protector of the Cedar Revolution, was gone, and so was Jacques Chirac, a close personal friend of the late Hariri. But this Syrian-Saudi reconciliation was overtaken by the eruption of the rebellion against Bashar. This was not just a rebellion against an oppressive ruler. It was also a Sunni revolt against a minoritarian rule. The chant of the rebellion, “Allah U Akbar!” (“God is Great!”), foreshadowed the course of this upheaval.

The protests crystallized around mosques and Friday prayers. A turning point came some four months after the start of the troubles, in August 2011, which corresponded with Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. The regime had begun to shell mosques, and thereby openly to violate religious sensibilities. The subtlety that had gone into papering over the Alawi identity of the regime could not survive such a brutal fight. The blasphemous incantation by regime vigilantes of “La ilah ila Bashar!” (“There is No God but Bashar!”) put Bashar and his regime beyond the pale. It was then that the Saudi monarch, the self-styled Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, came out with a full-scale repudiation of the Syrian regime and described it as a “killing machine.”

 This YouTube war became a great outrage in the Arabian Peninsula and the states of the Gulf. Religious preachers and lay scholars and ordinary people alike were stirred by the suffering of the Syrians. Bashar al-Assad’s war for survival had become an explicit Sunni-Shia fight. If there had been hope that the battle for Syria would remain a secular affair, it rested on illusion. This was a deeply agitated region, and its most intensely felt sentiment was the sectarian schism between the Sunnis and the Shia, a veritable civil war over Islam itself.

 

THE PERSIAN THEOCRACY holds great sway in both Iraq and Lebanon, it is true. It has money to dispense, and military muscle to throw into the fight. But it would be incorrect to see the choices made by the Shia in Baghdad and Beirut as mere reflections of Iran’s will. Nouri al-Maliki is not a puppet of Iran. He brought to this struggle the force of his—and his coalition’s—historical and political preferences. Maliki and the Shia of Iraq were given their pre-eminence by the American war. Then the Americans packed up their gear and quit Iraq. The Shia political class acted as though the American withdrawal was what they wanted. They were under Arab eyes, and they were sensitive to the charge that they were American clients, sheltering behind American protection.

But in truth they were not ready to hold their own in the region. There was paranoia in Baghdad, as the struggle for Syria escalated. By Nouri al-Maliki’s reckoning, if this Sunni pact—Turkey and the Arab oil states—was to succeed in bringing down the regime in Damascus, his Shia-led government could be their next target. There is plenty of bad blood between the Shia leaders and the House of Saud. It is no secret that the Saudi state viewed the rise of the Iraqi Shia with a jaundiced eye. From the vantage point of the House of Saud, the Americans should have overthrown Saddam while leaving intact the Sunni ascendancy in Baghdad. But that kind of fine-tuning was not in the cards. If the British regency of Iraq in the aftermath of the Great War worked to the advantage of the Sunni political class, the American regency, brief as it was, conferred ascendancy upon the Shia.

The force and the weight of Shia demography carried the day in post-Saddam Iraq. The Americans unleashed the Shia majority out of a long slumber. And the Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf states—greeted that change in Baghdad with undisguised hostility. The Sunni religious preachers had been unwavering in their antagonism, and Saudis from all walks of life were the largest contingent of jihadists who converged on Iraq to war against the American “infidels” and the Shia “heretics.” Data captured by the American forces in Iraq confirm the prominence of Saudi jihadists among the Arabs who crossed into Iraq: fully 40 percent of them hailed from Saudi Arabia.

The rise of an Islamist government in Ankara was an added source of worry for Iraq’s new Shia powers. From Baghdad, the AK Party of Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was seen as an expression of a neo-Ottomanism suddenly ascendant in Turkey. The old Ottoman dominion had rested on the power and the legitimacy of Sunni Islam. Minorities may have been protected by the Ottoman authorities throughout the empire, but there was no mistaking the theological bases of the empire: pride of place belonged to Sunnism. Moreover, Turkey was larger, wealthier, and far more established than the fragile government in Baghdad. In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, there was a Turkoman community that looked to Ankara for patronage and protection.

The anxiety about Turkey’s hatching schemes against the Shia of Iraq has been a common assumption of the Shia political class. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Iraq’s nervous leaders concluded. When Turkey, amid the Syrian crisis, provided asylum to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi after the Maliki government sentenced him to death in absentia on fabricated charges of murder and terrorism, Maliki’s coalition in Baghdad had the proof it needed—and wanted—of Turkey’s hostility. It was not the most subtle of ruling cabals that held sway in Baghdad: Hashemi was the highest ranking Sunni Arab in the government, he was immensely popular among his community, and he was a courageous man who lost three of his siblings to the terror waged by Al Qaeda. But Maliki’s appetite had grown with the eating. He was now on a quest for absolute, uncontested power.

Still, the Iraqi decision to side with Bashar was not without its ironies. For several years, the Syria-Iraq border was the passage of choice for jihadists headed to Iraq. Syrian handlers facilitated the passage of the jihadists. And the Damascus regime was known to have pushed its share of terrorists into Iraq. On one occasion in 2007, the regime had offered a pardon for prisoners willing to cross into Iraq. It was known that Saddam Hussein’s top lieutenant, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, had made his way to Syria. All of this, it would seem, was forgiven once the Syrian ruler was on the ropes. The Maliki government was to side with the tyranny in Damascus in the deliberations of the League of Arab States. More importantly, Iraq had granted Iran the right to fly over its airspace to resupply the Assad regime. Iraq’s rulers had brushed aside the American entreaties to shut down that traffic. Once America had pulled out of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki and his ruling cabal were on their own. They made no secret of their bias in favor of the Syrian dictator.

 

IRAN’S SATRAPS in Lebanon, the Hezbollah movement, had a narrower margin of maneuverability vis-à-vis Tehran. But they were on their own turf, a formidable military and political enterprise woven into the fabric of Lebanese life. Syria had been present on the ground in Lebanon for well over three decades. In the course of this long Syrian military presence, Hezbollah and the Alawi rulers in Damascus forged a thick web of relationships. Now and then Hezbollah’s needs, and the agenda of its Iranian patrons, were not to the liking of the Syrians. All things being equal, Damascus preferred pliant wards in Lebanon, and the Syrians found such figures in Amal, the mainstream Shia movement, and in its leader Nabih Berri. He was a tool of Damascus: his horizons were limited, he wanted the top Shia post in the country, speaker of parliament, a gift that the Syrians were willing to grant him. But Hezbollah was a mightier force, with a mind of its own, and Damascus had to tread carefully as it drew the terms of engagement with Hezbollah. Perhaps the Syrian regime was the senior partner in the relationship, but Hezbollah could not be taken for granted, and there was always the weight of Iran as a court of last resort.

In 2008, two years after Hezbollah’s war with Israel, Nasrallah’s forces struck into West Beirut, the historic home of the Sunnis. It was a huge military mismatch. Hezbollah overran the Sunni positions with stunning ease. The Sunnis of Syria, gazing at Lebanon, now understood that the anti-Israeli fighter was no hero of theirs. He was a Shia after all, and they were living under the yoke of Nasrallah’s allies, the godless Alawis.

The Syrian rebellion caught Nasrallah—as it had Bashar himself—by surprise. It had been assumed in that “axis of resistance” that rebellions would topple only rulers aligned with the West, such as Hosni Mubarak and the Tunisian strongman; only rulers old enough to have lost touch with their people. The prevailing opinion was that Syria was a case apart, that the regime had successfully closed up the political universe, that the Syrian people were broken, that the memory of the slaughter that took place in Aleppo and Hama three decades earlier had frightened the Syrian people into submission for all time. Then, in March 2011, the boys of Deraa shattered this complacency. Hama soon found its nerve, and Homs, its larger sister city in the central plains, picked up the torch of the revolt. The Syrian people surprised themselves and their ruler—and the Hezbollah leaders in Beirut as well. The expectation that this rebellion would be short-lived was overwhelmed by a revolution of great fury. Hezbollah was fully aware that its position in Lebanon would be much weakened were a Sunni-ruled Syria to rise, like an apparition, from a long subservience.

The reports that Hezbollah fighters and trainers have made their way to Syria must be reckoned reliable, though lacking in airtight evidence. Such evidence is hard to come by, given the nature of the battlefield and the absence of outside observers. But on the whole it would seem the logical thing to assume that Hezbollah would not stand by as the Syrian regime fought for its life. Hezbollah would not grant the Syrian rebellion even a shred of legitimacy. This was not a rebellion that sought reform, Nasrallah proclaimed, time and again. It was a conspiracy hatched by the United States and Turkey, financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Damascus had the honor of being the target of this conspiracy, Nasrallah said, because it was the citadel of the “axis of resistance,” a sworn enemy of Israel.

Hezbollah’s tribunes dismissed the devotion of the Sunni states to the cause of reform and decent politics. It was all sectarian preference, they believed. How else is one to explain the agitation over Syria in the Gulf, and the silence over Bahrain, where the Shia majority of that small kingdom faced an oppressive Sunni monarchy? The men of Hezbollah could not make a distinction between the frightening spectacle of Syria drowning in blood and the nasty, unjust Bahraini regime that nonetheless stayed within some limits and expectations of tolerable behavior. Bahrain called for justice, but in Syria the gates of hell opened. Scale matters: there can be no comparison between the nastiness of the Bahraini rulers and the barbarism of the regime of the House of Assad.

Lebanon is particularly sensitive to all matters Syrian, and the Lebanese have been given special knowledge of the ways of the Syrian regime. Having lived in a virtual Syrian protectorate from 1976 to 2005, the Lebanese know about Syria’s prisons. Hundreds of Lebanese have over the years perished in those prisons. The Lebanese watched Syrian proconsuls empty their country of any meaningful sense of sovereignty. A long trail of assassinations by Syrian agents had struck down luminaries of Lebanese politics and culture—two presidents, a prime minister, a Sunni mufti of the republic, journalists with talent and daring, parliamentarians of all denominations.

With this kind of “education,” all Lebanese should have been expected to yearn for the fall of the Assad dictatorship. But Lebanon is a tragically divided country. Consider the numbers, suggestive as they are, from a recent Pew Survey measuring attitudes in Lebanon toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad. To the query as to whether Bashar should step down, 80 percent of the Sunnis answered in the affirmative, as did 67 percent of the Christians, but only 3 percent of the Shia. The overwhelming majority of the Sunnis, 92 percent, had an unfavorable opinion of the Syrian dictator; among the Christians, the dictator’s unfavorability was 66 percent; among the Shia, only 4 percent. Thus it is not true that Hezbollah had reduced the Shia to fear and silence and hijacked the opinions of that community. A deeper animus toward the Sunnis of Syria is at work here. Greater Syria has always been a checkered world, and the Shia of Lebanon must have arrived at the conclusion that an Alawi regime in Damascus is favorable to them. 

In the worldview of the Shia, the Sunnis of Damascus are religious snobs and bigots who have never accepted or made peace with the ways of heterodox sects. The past is never dead in this landscape. To the historically minded of the Shia, Damascus was the seat of the hated Umayyad empire (661–750 C.E.). It was there that the Umayyads, who in the Shia narrative usurped the rights of the descendants of the Prophet, ruled while the virtuous Shia imams were cut down and robbed of their right of inheritance. It was to Damascus that the severed head of the iconic Imam Hussein was brought after the battle of Karbala, in southern Iraq, in 680. A hated ruler named Yazid, who by the telling was a blasphemer, had struck the severed head of the Prophet’s grandson with his whip. Damascus always carried the burden of that Shia grief and powerful sense of loss. Those Alawi soldiers from the hill country who subdued and humbled Damascus, brutes and brigands, must have been seen as avengers settling old scores with the Damascenes.

The majority of the Shia saw and yet did not see the suffering of Damascus and Homs. Hassan Nasrallah, with his insistence that this is a stage-managed revolt, part of a scheme to deliver the region to the Americans and the Turks and the Saudis, made it easier for otherwise decent men and women to avert their gaze from the slaughter across the border. From the vantage point of Nasrallah and his operatives, the sympathy shown the rebels in Syria by Morsi of Egypt was a response to be expected of a man of the Muslim Brotherhood—a Sunni siding with his own, and with a Saudi state whose economic patronage he was eager to secure.

 

BUT THIS KIND of moral blindness, this unthinking sectarian vengefulness, is unacceptable, and will lead only to disaster. There is always in Shiism an unease about power, an association of power with oppression. It so happened that the month of August 2012—by far the cruelest month in Syria’s rebellion, five thousand people killed, 100,000 refugees fleeing the cruelty, the fighter jets pounding neighborhoods in Aleppo and Deraa—corresponded with the thirty-fourth anniversary of the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr in Libya. Sadr was without doubt the most consequential and beloved figure in Lebanese Shia history. He had come to Lebanon in 1959 from his birthplace in Iran. He transformed Lebanese Shiism, and gave it an activist orientation. He was a man of enormous charisma, much revered by Lebanon’s Christians as well. He vanished on a trip to Libya: he was last seen in Tripoli on August 31, 1978, headed to a meeting with the Libyan ruler. He was fifty years old.

His followers insisted that he was still alive, and that he would return to them. And so his tale was something of a contemporary embodiment of the theme of the Hidden Imam who will one day return and fill the earth with justice. And this past August a respected jurist and Shia cleric, Mohamed Ali al-Hajj al-Amili, made the poignant connection between the beloved imam and the Syrian rebellion. Sadr was a man of dialogue, al-Amili observed, and he would have supported the quest of the Syrian people for dignity and freedom. It was shameful, he added, to side with the oppressor. Al-Amili knew the Shia temperament and its tales of lament and disinheritance. For him, those battling the odds in Syria were brothers, not strangers. In their way they were the Shia, battling their own dreaded Yazid of this age.

Shiism in Arab lands has come into considerable power in recent years. Urbanization, the spread of higher education and political awareness, the new activist interpretations of the faith propagated by jurists who stripped traditional Shiism of its quietism and political withdrawal: all of this has altered the worldview of the believers. It is all for the good, for no worthwhile life can be lived in fear and despair. But the wounds of the past have a way of becoming alibis for moral evasion and indifference in the present. Arab Shiism has now taken a ride on Iran’s coattails, but Iran’s needs, and Iran’s outlook, are strictly its own. They cannot be mistaken for Shia Islam. It is not the call of the faith that has brought Iran all the way to Lebanon. Strategic ambition, and Lebanon’s geographic proximity to Israel, are what turned Iran into a power of the Mediterranean. Iran bought a border with Israel. It would be painfully ironic if the Shia overcame their historical weakness only to lose their soul, their strong sense of righteousness, in the bargain. The Syrian rebellion is a test of the moral integrity of Shia identity. When victims come to power, they must beware of the darkness into which power may tempt them.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chairman of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Between Freedom and Sectarianism.

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