The suffering of Shia Muslims is heartbreaking

I was born a Shia Muslim, and can see how the rise of the New Model Sunni Army is targeting us

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Saturday 17 September 2011 13:34
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Warm thanks to all of you - Muslims and non-Muslims - for the many thoughtful and empathetic letters which arrived after my recent Channel Four programme, a personal exploration of my journey as a Muslim struggling to hold on to a faith that has become such a hallmark of extremism. Much of the demonisation of Islam is grossly unfair (which is why I will always defend the best aspects of the religion and victimised Muslims), but some of what people believe about us is based on reality, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Warm thanks to all of you - Muslims and non-Muslims - for the many thoughtful and empathetic letters which arrived after my recent Channel Four programme, a personal exploration of my journey as a Muslim struggling to hold on to a faith that has become such a hallmark of extremism. Much of the demonisation of Islam is grossly unfair (which is why I will always defend the best aspects of the religion and victimised Muslims), but some of what people believe about us is based on reality, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Several of you were appalled by the murderous threats that my family receive, simply because I am the "wrong" kind of Muslim, and because I am married to a Christian. They hurt and they frighten me, and sometimes the police have to be called, but for every killer e-mail, I get dozens of others from Muslims who see my voice as an important echo of theirs.

I was born a Shia Muslim, and can see how the recent rise of the New Model Sunni Army is targeting us. We make up only 10 per cent of the Ummah (the world-wide Muslim population), although Shias are the ruling majority in Iran and 60 per cent of the population in Iraq.

The assassination this week of the much respected Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim in Najaf - one of the holiest of sites for Shia Muslims - is an act of political vandalism in an unstable country and further evidence of mounting persecution of Shia Muslims. In Pakistan, thousands of Shias have been killed as they pray, walk, take their children to school. The brutes are slaughtering many of the most educated people in the country: doctors in surgeries, teachers, writers, architects, entrepreneurs.

A brief description of Shia-ism. The Prophet Mohammed died without naming a successor. His best friend, Abu Bakr, was elected the first Caliph. Three further Caliphs were elected by Muslim leaders in Medina, and the fourth of these was Ali, son-in law of the Prophet. He settled in southern Iraq, and it was there that he was assassinated in AD 661. His son was also murdered. The schism began at this point, with Sunnis choosing to follow exactly the Prophet's words and deeds and the Shias to believe in various interpretations expounded by successive leaders who came down from Ali.

Change, accommodation, and an historical view of compulsions and obligations is woven into Shia preaching and practice, but leaders can have extraordinary influence, which is always dangerous. There is also an élitism that Shia Islam fosters and Sunni Islam rejects.

Ayatollah Khomeini developed his autocratic ideas while in exile in Najaf, where he declared that religious and political power had to be vested solely in the hands of militant clerics. He came at a time when the plottings of the powerful nations were creating much global resentment. Khomeni exploited this to make Shia Islam brutally conformist too.

He had antecedents in previous centuries. In Iran, Sunnis and other minorities have long been suppressed, and their rights violated mercilessly. But on the whole, within Shia Islam there is greater diversity, and a tendency to evolve with the times. At its best, it teaches us never, ever to condemn the prayers of others. Which of course is deeply resented in these times when Islamicists want to regain the past and impose intolerable monolithic rules and regulations.

Their hypocrisy is nauseating. A number of British Muslims (including a pietistic woman who frequently broadcasts on the infinite tolerance of Islam) refused to talk to me for my programme because I am a Shia Muslim. They advised Channel Four to choose a non-Muslim presenter instead.

Such insufferable British Muslims demand better rights in this country but never mention the way minorities are treated in Muslim countries - from Saudi Arabia to Turkey - or the many ways women and children are denied basic choices that all human beings are entitled to.

So why do you stay with the faith, your letters ask? Because of the humility it teaches me, the care it insists I must give to the old and young, the instruction it gives me not to put my own desires always before all others, the light it brings when I pray with the intensity I daily seek and sometimes attain.

And then pride that I come from many great traditions (I have just returned from Granada in Andalucia, where the Moors did us proud for centuries), which contain brilliant histories, and intellectual and political thought.

The Shia Iranian Dr Ali Shariati was developing this positive, modernist Shia-ism while in exile in Paris with his old colleague Khomeini. Shariati read Sartre, Fanon, and opened his mind. He wrote: "We want the Islam not of the Royal Palace but of justice; not of caliphs and class stratifications and aristocratic privileges but of freedom, progress and awareness; not of captivity, stagnation and silence." When he returned to Iraq, he became so popular that Khomeini had to destroy him.

The forces of darkness have since pushed on. Today the poor Iraqi Shias who annually mourn the bloodshed they have had to endure for centuries grieve again. It breaks my heart a little more.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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