Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Everywhere in Iraq, streets are lined with election posters and there are pictures of candidates in every pose you can possibly think of. For the Iraqi parties these elections are important because each provincial government can pass its own laws and decide how and where money is spent. For the people it is better still because they know the names of the candidates and can vote for a specific person. The Shia parties have not run as a single coalition and this will make the results much more interesting than the previous elections. They, as well as the people, will know how much of the 'street' they control in specific cities.
The two big Shia lists, Maliki's State of Law Coalition and Hakim's Al-Mehrab Martyr list are expected to take the majority or large minority of the vote. The Sadr Movement are not taking part in the election but have given their support to the Free Independent Movement. Many "Independent" lists are taking part because they feel the big parties have failed to provide the necessary services for the people and the big parties have thrown in many of their followers in some of these lists so as to not put all their eggs in the one basket.
There is a political war being fought in the name of Islam between the Hakim and Maliki parties over the rituals and traditions that take place in Muharram. The spiritual leader of the Da'wa Party is Ayatollah Fadhlallah and the spiritual leaders of the Supreme Council are the "Marja'iya", a name that vaguely refers collectively to the Grand Ayatollah's based in Najaf.
Ayatollah Fadhlallah considers the shedding of blood by Shia Muslims an innovation that has nothing to do with Islam. He was publicly demonised by the clerics in Najaf and Kerbala for attacking such a widespread practice. The majority of the Grand Ayatollah's however, do not consider "tatbir" to be forbidden per se and accept it with a few conditions that differ from Ayatollah to Ayatollah but the general conditions are that it is allowed if it does not cause serious damage to one's health and also if it does not cause damage to the image of Islam.
As a young kid growing up in London I have been (and taken part) in countless "tatbir" debates and every now and then a prominent scholar does something or says something that sparks these debates again. This time it was Sayyid Hussain al-Shami who caused outcry among the clergy. Hussain al-Shami is the Imam of the Dar al-Islam Foundation in London, a veteran Da'wa member and cultural aide to Prime Minister Maliki. In a speech given this year to members of his London congregation he condemned many of the rituals that take place in Muharram. Although nothing he said was new or out of line with what many Da'wa leaders have repeatedly said it was the timing that made the difference. This was in Muharram and in the middle of an election campaign and his rivals made sure to counter attack.
In Najaf, scholars were quick to condemn al-Shami and the Da'wa Party in a letter that was later published in Buratha, one of Hakim's media outlets. The letter started with "The Islamic seminary in Najaf condemns the speech by the Prime Ministers' aide [Shami] and demands the party he belongs to to seek forgiveness from Allah and apologise to the millions of 'Hussainis' after his damaging speech on the rituals of Muharram". It is important to note that not a single cleric signed the letter personally and it could possibly have been written by a single person. In the same letter another Da'wa member Walid al-Hilli was accused of giving a speech in Mecca in front of Shia and Sunni scholars saying that the millions who marched to Kerbala do not pray i.e. are not religious Muslims. A week later, Hilli refuted these claims in a press release and denounced them as lies.
A recording of the Shami speech in London was played to all four Grand Ayatollah's in Najaf. They expressed their strong beliefs that the rituals that take place in Muharram should continue in Iraq but were careful in not pointing their fingers directly at the Da'wa Party.
This couldn't have come at a better time for Hakim whose political party used the attack on the rituals of Muharram to their advantage in their election campaign. Al-Forat, the station owned by Hakim and used as his political mouthpiece, changed their 290 (election number) logo to include the words "Oh Hussain". Hakim's aides, including his son Ammar, have toured the cities of Iraq warning the people that the legacy of Hussain is under attack and that if they want to make sure these traditions are kept alive they should vote for their list. An unorthodox mixture of politics and religion that reduced many in the crowd to tears.
What makes the attack by Hakim strange is that his party was quick to point fingers at the Da'wa Party but not once have they ever spoken out against Iran, where the practice of tatbir is strictly forbidden. The Basij, a paramilitary unit loyal to Ayatollah Khamanei, are deployed on the 10th of Muharram in many Iranian cities and publicly beat up anyone carrying a dagger that is used for tatbir. Although it is obvious why Hakim does not condmen the Iranians and why Gaza was on the agenda in his election campaign it just goes to show that contrary to what many are claiming, this has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with politics.
Forget about water, electricity and services, this election for many will be about who loves Imam Hussain more, the 'sell-outs' in Malikis list or the 'standard bearers' in Hakims list.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The fuse of this bomb was lit immediately after Prophet Mohammed's death when Abu Bakr became Caliph but the explosion occurred when Hussain Ibn Ali and his companions had their heads decapitated and paraded in Damascus while their bodies were left unburied in the scorching desert of Kerbala. The battle is seen as a civil war by historians because on one side of the battle field stood the grandson of the Prophet with 71 of his closest family members and friends and on the other side a 30,000 strong army led by Omar Ibn Sa'ad sent by the Ummayad Caliph Yazid Ibn Mu'awiya. Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid and the price he paid was his head. The battle ended after only a few hours. The end result a quick and decisive victory for Yazid. Every man, and in some instances, child, that faced the army of Yazid was killed.
Every year, for the past 1,320 years, the Shia have mourned the death of Hussain. For many of these years, and especially during the reign of Saddam, the Shia have been arrested, tortured and even executed for publicly mourning. The pilgrimage to the Imams shrines is always encouraged except for when there is a danger to ones life, property or family. However, the pilgrimage to Kerbala is the only exception and is not discouraged even if one fears death. Because of the persecution the Shia have faced it has become part of their "Shia" identity.
Every gathering that mourns in some way or another is called a "Majlis" and there are lecturers who speak to large crowds of the lessons to be learnt from Kerbala in almost every main road, neighbourhood and mosque in Najaf. These usually take place inside buildings or under tents erected solely for this purpose. After the lecture the people are reminded in graphic detail what fate awaited the men in Hussain's army who charged the enemy against the odds. Men cry and beat their chests ("Latum") to the poems that are recited.
On the streets, for the last 3 days, the "Meshiq" starts after sunset. Hundreds of men wielding swords stand side by side and swing their swords in union to the sound of drums beating away. They are signifying symbolically that they would have been ready to fight with Hussain if they had been born in a different era. The most time consuming, colourful and most watched ceremony in Najaf is the "Masha'el" procession.
On the last night, the 9th of Muharram, there were 84 lit beams representing different families, tribes, areas and even streets in Najaf. It took almost 5 hours for the procession to end. After it finished I headed towards Kerbala with a few friends and due to the special occasion the security was unprecedented. The car could not enter the city center and so we had to walk the rest of the journey.
Around a century ago, a tribe from Dweyreej in Southern Iraq decided to run bare foot from the Imam Hussain shrine to the Abbas shrine and this is another tradition that has been resumed after the fall of Saddam and is known as the ''Dweyreej run''. It becomes so crowded at the shrine gates it is a miracle none of them get trampled to death.
The most controversial act of mourning is "Tatbir". Thousands of men shed blood by striking the top of their heads with razor sharp daggers to the sounds of trumpets and drums. Sunnis condemn it outright but the Shia are divided. Some openly encourage it and others forbid it. Many of the people get dizzy from the loss of blood and their daggers end up being forcefully taken away from them for fear of death.
The controversy surrounding some of these traditions has recently come to light in spectacular fashion and my next post will be about how this division has played a role in the coming provincial elections.
Friday, January 09, 2009
The first shock came at the Iraqi-Iranian border crossing in Mehran. The Iranian official who was meant to check our bags was like a little girl at a sweet shop. "I'll have that one, that one, no not that one...and yes that one". At first I thought she was joking but when I didn't see her smile I put the bags she pointed to on the scanner belt. I went with a group of friends and only 4 out of 11 bags were scanned.
We had already arranged with the Iraqi officials on the other side but I was left behind and when I went around the queue to catch up with the group I could hear someone shout "Stop...stop!" in Arabic. I turned around slightly and saw a skinny US soldier wearing dark sunglasses. I pretended not to notice him but he quickly ran ahead of me and stopped me just before I could reach the Iraqi guard. When he spoke broken Iraqi with me I said "It's okay you can speak English". He sighed and said "Ex-see-cuse mee meester...ve sayyed to you es-stooop...vyy you did e-noot es-stoop".
I couldn't believe it when I heard his hardcore Farsi accent. He was Iranian, wearing US Army uniform, unarmed, standing less than 20 feet away from the last official Iranian border guard and was in charge of checking passports. I would have assumed he was an Iranian-American but the dark sunglasses (in winter) and the fact that he was the only 'American' unarmed baffled me. He took me to a cabin where I was searched by the real Americans and had my fingerprints and picture taken. The first thing I did when I got out was ask one of the Iraqi policemen what the hell was an Iranian doing on this side of the border. He looked over his shoulder and said "Mujahadeen" (MKO).
The real shock came when I realised not a single bag was checked by either the Iraqi or American soldiers. No scanners, no dogs, no nothing. The driver who took us to Najaf was not worried when I jokingly told him I could have smuggled a bomb from Iran. He laughed "A petty bomb? They have factories inside Iraq that make them!".
It was as if the Iranians, Iraqis and Americans couldn't care less what enters Iraq through the border. If this is what happens in one of the busiest official borders in Iraq I dread to think what goes on in the desert.