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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

May 12, 2004

Arabs react to murder of Peter Berg.

In addition to a good piece on NPR this morning, here are some roundups of opinion from the Arab street about the barbarous murder of Peter Berg by Al-Qaeda militants:

source: Islam Online - Iraqis condemn beheading of American civilian

BAGHDAD, May 12 ( - Iraqis strongly condemned Wednesday, May13 , the beheading of an American citizen in Iraq by unknown people, saying it is against the true essence of Islam.

Dr Muthana Harith al-Dhari, Secretary General of Muslim Scholars Association, strongly denounced the killing, saying it runs counter to the teachings of Islam and "does disservice to our religion and our cause."
Deputy Head of the Islamic Party Iyaad Samarrai said the abhorrent treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers should never give an excuse for treating U.S. prisoners the same way.

"This is absolutely wrong," he told IOL, asserting that "Islam does prohibit the killing or the maltreatment of prisoners."
Al-Dawa Party, led by Shiite Interim Governing Council member Ibrahim Al-Jafari, also condemned the decapitation of the American citizen in the strongest possible terms.

"Undoubtedly, we reject these acts, which run counter to the true essence of Islam and are totally unjustified," said Jawad Al-Malki, a member of the party's politburo.

He said such acts tarnish the image of Islam and play into the hands of subjective media.

"The beheading of Berg is shocking, grisly, unjustified violence and an act of terrorism," he told IOL.

"By the same token, we condemn the barbaric and terrorist practices of U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners, but as we don't want this to befall our people, we don't want it to befall others as well."
William Warda, an Iraqi rights activist, criticized the beheading as "imprudent".

He said the Iraqi Human Rights Organization denounces the killing of any foreigner in such a gruesome way as it has condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by occupation forces.

"We place all human beings on an equal footing irrespective of their race, religion and color," he told IOL.

source: The Age - Iraqis condemn beheading, blame US

"As Muslims we can't accept it, but we don't blame them. It was a natural reaction to the human rights violations we have seen at Abu Ghraib. What the Americans are doing now is terrible," said a 45-year-old woman dentist who refused to give her name.
"Since the man came here to do something good for Iraq, it was shameful. Whoever comes to serve this country will be treated kindly by Iraqis, but I blame the Americans for being behind such activities," said restaurant worker Falah Faisal, 30.
But Muaid Louis Abdullah Ahhad, a Christian who owns a photo shop, denounced the execution and blamed followers of wanted al-Qaeda militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi for the beheading.

Zarqawi, who has a bounty of $US10 million ($A14.39 million) on his head, is accused by Washington of leading a network in Iraq that has carried out attacks against the US-led coalition and civilians aimed at fanning civil conflict.

The video of Berg's killing was entitled "Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi slaughtering an American", though it was not clear if he was involved.

"These people aren't Muslims. They are just using Islam as a cover and are harming the reputation of this religion," said a 50-year-old Shi'ite engineer for Iraqi Airways who also refused to give his name.

"I didn't know about it, but if he was an American, he was innocent. He came to Iraq on a mission to help Iraqis," said Ali Abu Nabi, a 29-year-old house painter.

But his friend, Ahmed Taleb, 24, a kiosk owner, poured scorn on the Americans, saying they had done nothing to rebuild the country.

"It's the poverty that's leading these criminals to act in such a way," he said.

Overall, the reaction might best be summarized as this: horror at the beheading, outrage over the justification using Islam, and some sympathy for the revenge aspect (in terms of assigning partial blame). Since by the US military's own estimates, about 70-90% of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were innocents, I'm inclined to dismiss the latter the way I dismiss Oklahoma Senator Inhofe's dishonorable statements.

There is a useful article on Islam Online about what Islam teaches about treatment of Prisoners of War. The invocation of the murderers of Peter Berg of the Prophet SAW as justification of their acts was particularly obscene and they will pay a price in hellfire - American first, afterlife second. Bill Allison notes that the article was spurred by the Abu Ghraib torture rather than the beheading of Berg; however I think that the detail doesn't really have direct relevance, given teh reactions above.

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May 9, 2004

Ayatollahs against theocracy.

via Pejman Yousefzadeh, comes an example of moderate (ie, theological mainstream) muslim leaders speaking out against tyranny in Islam's name:

"Seyyed Hossein Khomeini, a Shi'ite Islamic cleric like his grandfather the late Ayatollah Khomeini, told the Voice of America had he been in his grandfather's shoes he 'would never have taken such an action as issuing the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.'

"In an exclusive interview that aired today, Khomeini told the VOA Persian television show News and Views that, historically, some Shiite leaders and scholars have considered themselves Velayat Faghih (supreme leaders) who expect people to abide by their verdicts, even when they involve death sentences. Although his grandfather was included in this group, he pointed out Islam accords this kind of decision-making authority only to prophets, not to ordinary people.

"Khomeini went on to say that he is open to the idea of meeting author Salman Rushdie after watching a series of interviews with Rushdie on VOA, believing that he might benefit from the writer's knowledge about religion, especially the religions in the author's native India."

Note that this is the grandson of the Ayatollah who personifies the face of Iranian clerical oppression. The important thing to realize is that teh freedom to speak out so forthrightly is a fragile one. Many muslims living in tyrannical states cannot speak freely. In iRan, the reason that such public dissent is even thinkable is precisely because the reform movement has been growing from within, a groundswell that is entirely homegrown. If, as the hard-liner neocons demand, America were to pose a military threat to Iran, rest assured that all the progress that has been won at such cost would be undone in a moment.

Contrast Iran with Iraq. Liberty cannot be granted, it can only be aided, by an external entity. If democracy takes root - as seems inevitable - in Iran, it will be far more robust than the pseudo-sovereign Iraq that will be no different from Egypt in being a US client state. Iraq is the rhetoric, Iran is the reality. Maybe.

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May 8, 2004

why perceptions matter.

Via a roundabout ego-search, I came back across the article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly about the investigation into who shot Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy whose death was caught on tape during a firefight with the IDF. What struck me, however, was the relevance of the concluding paragraph to the larger designs upon the Middle East that our present Administration is pursuing:

In its engagement with the Arab world the United States has assumed that what it believes are noble motives will be perceived as such around the world. We mean the best for the people under our control; stability, democracy, prosperity, are our goals; why else would we have risked so much to help an oppressed people achieve them? The case of Mohammed al-Dura suggests the need for much more modest assumptions about the way other cultures—in particular today's embattled Islam—will perceive our truths.

I think that the torture at Abu Ghuraib is notable in that it gave the conspiracy theorists their first crack at actual evidence for their theories.

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Just Go.

Iraqi blogette Riverbend has a long rant about Abu Ghraib, cutting through the fog of our domestic media's coverage about Rumsfeld's testimony and Bush's speeches and drops with unadulterated fury the verdict upon our nation: guilty.

Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances- just take your Puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

I want to argue with her and explain to her that these actions were not representative of us, but how can my abstract statement make any headway against the reality that she has to face? Like Jonathan, I'm beginning to question whether our presence in Iraq truly is better than the alternative.

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May 6, 2004

The mujahideen of Najaf.

The San Jose Mercury News features a Knight-Ridder exclusive on the Thulfikar Army, with an actual interview of a member:

AN-NAJAF, Iraq -- Armed with a 9mm handgun and grit, Haidar is trying to do what the U.S. military camped nearby hasn't done: Drive the gunmen of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from this holy city.

Since mid-April, Haidar and scores of other men from An-Najaf have gathered nightly in the city's sprawling cemetery to attack members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Only a few gunmen are targeted each time to prevent big firefights that might injure civilians, said Haidar, who spoke with Knight Ridder on the condition that his last name not be used.

``If we capture them and they swear on the holy Koran they will leave Najaf and never come back, we let them go,'' the 20-year-old furniture maker said. ``If they resist, they are killed.''

The group claimed to have killed at least a half-dozen Mahdi gunmen and chased off more than 20.
Before joining Thul Fiqar, Haidar said he had shot his 9mm handgun only once and that was into the air to celebrate the capture of Saddam.

Yet the men have a major tactical advantage over Mahdi members, many of whom are from nearby Al-Kufah, Baghdad and other southern towns. Thul Fiqar fighters are hometown boys who know every inch of An-Najaf, including the hundreds of pathways in the cemetery, which is the largest Muslim burial ground in the world. This cemetery is where they have concentrated their attacks against Sadr's gunmen, who go there at night to monitor U.S. troop movements in the distance.

The immediate impact is negligible, Haidar admitted. Mahdi Army numbers in and around An-Najaf are estimated in the thousands, compared with the 250 claimed by the Thul Fiqar. Their quest also comes at a high price. Four members of the new group have been killed in firefights with the Mahdi Army, said Hashim, 27, a Thul Fiqar leader who refused to give his last name.

``The Americans made us happy when they got rid of Saddam Hussein,'' Haidar said. ``We're happy to return the favor by getting rid of the Mahdi Army.''

I'm pleased at the depth of detail in this article, which nicely counters the reductio-ad-Iran approach to any news of Iraq (see Dan Darling for a more realistic assessment of Iran's influence).

This is sort of a historical moment for me. Until now, I've never seen an example of modern-day jihad - the violent kind, precipitated by necessity, a true defense of the Faith. These mujahideen are true exemplars. I keep hammering the analogy to Jacksonian warfare because the militant form of jihad is nearly indistinguishable.

The full text of the article has been posted to the UNMEDIA list.

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May 3, 2004

The sword of Ali AS.

Time magazine devotes a small piece to the Thulfikar Army in Najaf:

Locals say the gunmen in the Volvo came from a new group calling itself the Thulfiqar Army, seemingly named for a famed two-pronged sword that in Shi'ite tradition was used by Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Two weeks ago, the group began distributing leaflets ordering al-Sadr to leave Najaf immediately or face death. Since then, residents say, Thulfiqar has killed up to four Mahdi Army militiamen, a figure challenged by al-Sadr officials, who claim the group is the invention of American propaganda. U.S. officials say they believe the group exists but have few clues about its composition. "We don't assess it to be a very large activity at this point," coalition spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said last week.

The article devotes some speculation to who may be controlling it, raising the specter of Iran. Frankly I find it tiresome to invoke Iran at all turns. The Iran-Sadr connection! The Iran-Chalabi connection! and now the Iran-Thulfikar connection? Even these glimmering, sketchy and even conflicting reports strongly suggest that the Thulfikar Army is a home-grown operation, a true grassroots insurgeny. Perhaps I am an idealist, irrevocably tainted by the rhetoric of Howard Dean, but I do believe that sometimes, the People do indeed have the Power.

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May 2, 2004

a useful resource indeed.

Attempting to "reveal" the warlike nature of Islam, an LGFer has posted a list of 111 ayats from the Qur'an that he interprets as uniformly justifying and making compulsory the murder of non-muslims. To be honest, it's a useful list, because anyone actually familiar with the Qur'an and who makes modest effort to read the ayats surrounding the excerpted ones will understand exactly how hollow their case is. As Charles has noted, context is the key to understanding; this list of ayats is the signpost which honest seekers of Truth will follow in that spirit. Those who have an a-priori vision of Islam, and jihad, will of course not need such a list to justify their belief.

For example, consider this story (via LGF) about the Islamist governor of Zanfara state in Nigeria who has ordered all churches therein to be demolished. According to the story, the governor has invoked the Qur'an, claiming that there is an injunction to fight the unbelievers wherever they are found. Looking at the handy ayat list, it seems that this nutbar is referring to Ayat 2.191. However, looking at the surrounding ayats for full context:

2.190 And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
2.191 And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.
2:193 And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.

These are Jacksonian ideals, indeed. The governor of Zamfara state is mis-using the Qur'an, and guilty of the same selective readings with which to further his agenda as some commentators at LGF with an anti-muslim agenda. Theirs will be a shared recompense.

Disclaimer - translations of the Qur'an are inherently flawed. But if that is the field upon which we must engage, so be it.

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April 29, 2004

live by the sword, die by the sword.

I'll admit to being all over the pessimism-optimism axis on the issue of Muqtada Sadr and the threat he poses to both eventual Iraqi liberty and the fate of the holy sites in Najaf. But Juan Cole has reported a real reason to hope:

Some teachers in the Najaf seminaries called upon radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to leave the shrine of Imam Ali, just as the Imam Husayn had departed from Mecca (when he led his uprising against the Umayyad empire in 680-81). This according to the Iranian newspaper, Baztab. The seminarians said that it was obvious that Muqtada's bloody confrontation with the US was doomed to fail, and that he should do the right thing and take his fight out of Najaf so as to protect it, just as Imam Husayn had protected Mecca.

This is precisely the correct manner in which to address the misuse of religion - by fighting fire with fire. If Sadr - or Osama bin Laden for that matter - choose to wrap themselves in religious justification for their essentially political causes, then they must be forced to discover that the mantle of religion has thorns of responsibility.

Sadr has likened the occupation forces to Yazid, the tyrannical caliph who ruled Damascus and upon whose orders Imam Husain AS was martyred. Sadr was very quick to adopt the rhetoric of Husain's AS martyrdom - now he must be held to that standard.

There has been a lot of critique against Ayatollah Sistani for not doing enough, but I detect his hand in the message above. The point here is that Sistani at all costs wants to avoid the fate of the earlier British imperial adventure in Iraq, where the Shi'a rose up in religious war and ultimately lost any influence over its governance, ensuring decades of oppression under the Ba'ath. Diana Moon has argued that Sistani wants the same outcome as Sadr, namely a theocratic state on the model of Iran, but that's just not accurate. Sistani has consistently moved to support the cause of direct democracy, and criticized the CPA and Bremer for not moving quickly enough. Direct democracy is incompatible with the Iranian model, as we saw last year with the full-scale boycott of the Iranian elections by the reformers. Sistani does not want that path, and has supported the constitutional process. Sadr is the one who sees democracy as a threat, and he is rightly the one who needs to be marginalized. In doing so, however, lies great risk, and only Sistani's behind-the-scenes maneuvering can prevent Sadr from achieving the notoriety he desires.

UPDATE: There are some Shi'a in Najaf willing to take up arms against those who wrap themselves in the flag of Islam, unjustly:

In a deadly expression of feelings that until now were kept quiet, a group representing local residents is said to have killed at least five militiamen in the last four days.

The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadr’s presence and come amid simmering discontent at the havoc their lawless presence has wreaked.

The group calls itself the Thulfiqar Army, after a twin-bladed sword said to be used by the Shiite martyr Imam Ali, to whom Najaf’s vast central mosque is dedicated.

Residents say leaflets bearing that name have been circulated in the city in the last week, urging Sadr’s al-Mahdi army to leave immediately or face imminent death.

The name Thulfikar is very significant indeed, to a Shi'a. This is the highest form of jihad I have seen, because they fight not against non-muslims doing their duty, but against pseudo-muslims who try to subvert the faith. I've engaged in a verbal form of jihad against the same enemy myself. Sadr's little blasphemy is also triggerring a larger, non-violent backlash that has yet to crest.

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April 25, 2004

Occupation hinges on Najaf.

I daresay that war supporters will agree with me on the headline, but not the specifics. But George W. Bush is the one who ultimately will make the final decision about whether to invade Najaf or not. On that decision, the fate of Iraq rests.

I have long argued that jihad is primarily seen as a non-violent duty by the majority of the world's muslims. That simple truth is proved daily by the failure of one billion muslims rising up across the world in violence. But there IS a legitimate violent interpretation of jihad - the defense of faith.

If the US enters Najaf, then there will be a legitimate jihad. The cause of resistance to an invasion of Najaf will be a just one.

It will break my heart.

I don't want a single hair on a single soldier harmed. They are my American brothers, this is my nation, and they are not my enemy. But Najaf is the city of Ali AS. I cannot and will not fault those who live there from taking up arms to defend the holy shrine. There is no cause to invade Najaf - none. The responsibility for the decision will lie upon one man - George W. Bush - but its consequences will lie upon the soldiers of my nation, and he will escape judgement for the time being.

Events once set in motion often cannot be undone. Invading Najaf is a nexus point. Remember it, for history will pay great attention to it in hindsight.

I may have to cease blogging entirely, cease reading entirely, cease doing any political analysis entirely, if this happens. I cannot bear it.

UPDATE: Andrew writes with a good question about my attitude towards Muqtada Sadr and his claim to the mantle of a defender of the faith:

I just read your last entry and was wondering whether as a Shi'ite you would see Sadr as a defender of the Shi'ite holy places or as an interloper who seized control of them from the rightful religious hierarchy without any authority save that of his own aggrandizement.

Absolutely not - I agree with the assessment of Sadr as a craven opportunist. However, the sentiment to which he has attached himself, parasitically, is a valid one. I see an assault on Najaf (unlike the liberation of Najaf last year) as being legitimately interpreted as an assault on faith, and anyone who fights to defend it as having a legitimate claim to performing true jihad (unlike suicide terrorists attacking innocent Jews).

I should also clarify that I myself do NOT think an assault on Najaf would be an assault on Islam, but that is my personal feeling and interpretation based on my own bias as an American ans other biases from being Bohra which are not relevant here. But to the Shi'a living in Najaf, I cannot fault them from drawing such a conclusion any more than I can fault those Americans who think 9-11 symbolized an assault upon Western ideals.

As usual, I find myself on both sides, paralyzed utterly.

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Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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