My commentary in Lebanon’s Executive Magazine this month talks about why Shiitization is taking place in eastern Syria more than elsewhere in the country.
The Shiitization of Syria?
By Andrew Tabler
The latest conspiracy theory to grip the Middle East is the Shiite Crescent – an emerging Iranian-backed Shiite alliance stretching westward from Iran to Lebanon that threatens America’s Sunni allies in the region. In the arch’s keystone, Syria, many say a Shiite takeover is in the works. Syria is majority Sunni Muslim, but it is ruled by the Assad regime, which hails from the Alawite Shiite Muslim sect. A key part of Tehran’s alleged regional coup are rumors of “Shiitization” – the conversion of Sunnis to Shiite Islam.
Many if not most of the gaggle of growing Syria experts deny Shiitization is happening, but their contradictory statements indicate otherwise. Syrian Parliamentarian Mohammed Habash, head of Damascus’ Islamic Studies Center and a major source on Islam in Syria for foreign journalists, told me following last summer’s war in Lebanon that talk of conversions was “Wahabbi propaganda” – a reference to the conservative version of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival and America’s chief ally. He added that Shiitization was a “phenomena,” however, “especially in the Jazeera” – the area of Eastern Syria between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.
Shiite converts I have interviewed in Syria over the last few months say that many Sunni Jazeerite families aren’t really converting, but rather returning to their Shiite roots. Shiites recently celebrated Ashura, the commemoration of the slaying of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein bin Ali, in 680 CE by forces loyal to the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliph Yazid bin Muawiya at Karbala in present day Iraq. A “Sunni” or traditional leader from outside Mohammed’s family, Yazid ordered Hussein’s decapitation, mounted his dome on a pike and paraded it alongside surviving members of his family throughout the Umayyad Empire. After brief stops in Kufa and Mosul, the procession headed through the Jazeera to Aleppo, then south towards the Syrian cities of Idlib and Homs before ending the journey in Damascus.
The spectacle backfired, however, turning Hussein’s cause into a local crusade. Small Shiite communities sprouted along the procession’s route, who were later joined by Sunni tribes from southern Iraq familiar with Shiite customs. Some built “maqaam” or shrines. Other Shiite communities in Syria gathered around Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet Mohammed) tombs in Syria. During the Ottoman Caliphate (1415-1918), many Shiites in these communities converted to the dominant Sunni Islam to avoid harassment.
Hundreds of years later, Shiite converts say that innovations such as satellite TV and the internet are helping Jazeerites understand Shiite Islam. They also help converts keep in touch with marjaa’iyat, or Shiite “Sources of Emulation” worldwide, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Shiite religious satellite TV programming has been growing for decades, but converts say the man who moved it to prime time in the region was Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. His calm and collected televised addresses, even as Israel attempted to bomb Lebanon “back 20 years” last summer, led Sunnis to take a second look at Shiite Islam.
“Hizbullah’s victory broke the ice wall between Sunnis and Shiites,” one convert told me. “Many Syrians hosted Lebanese Shiite families in their homes during the war. This opened people’s eyes and humanized Shiites.”
Teachers in hauzas – Shiite religious schools – say the recent restoration of shrines and tombs in Syria and the building of more hauzas are paving the way for a Shiite revival. It is here that Iranians have entered the Shiitization fray over the last few years by financing the renovation of tombs of Sayida Sukaina near Damascus and Ammar bin Yasser, a close companion of Mohammed, in the Euphrates Valley city of Raqqa. Iranians support a Shiite school as well, the Damascus-based Hauza of the Supreme Leader.
Before a Shiite crescent moon rises in your mind, Shiite converts admonish that the alliance’s religious base is fragmented. The zealots of the Islamic Republic and Hizbullah await the return of “Al-Mahdi” – the 12th Imam Mohammed ibn Hasan. The Assads are Alawites, however, a secular Shiite Muslim sect that reveres the 11th Shiite Imam, Hassan al-Askari. Protecting Syrian Shiite converts’ right to choose a new faith isn’t Shiite brotherhood, but, ironically, the Assad regime’s use of Ba’athism – secular, pan-
Arab ideology that has guaranteed freedom of religion for Syrians of all faiths for over 44 years.
There are signs that a Shiite Crescent might not be in the region’s political stars as well. Many Syrians say they are worried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria, especially after the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. Inside the Iranian-Syrian alliance, Damascus is reportedly unhappy over Iran’s recent dialogue with Sunni Saudi Arabia to end the stalemate in Lebanon between Hizbullah and the Siniora government. Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recent peace overtures with Israel. Both sides denied the rift during Assad’s visit to Tehran in February. But only days after Assad’s return, a group of Syrian intellectuals and parliamentarians lambasted Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mohammadi in a closed-door (but widely reported) dialogue session. The point of contention? Iranian support for Shiitization in Syria.