It would be easy to dismiss such assertions as simply the celebration of a folk myth, but the saga of the martyrs has preserved a potent philosophy at the core of the Shiite faith. “Shiites regard the opposing of injustice and tyranny and fighting against an unjust ruler as a supreme religious duty,” explained Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist, devout Shiite and lifelong rebel, as we sat in the Karbala office of the humanitarian relief group he founded and directs. He cited the great national uprising of 1920 (his father’s first cousin was one of its leaders) against the British, who occupied Iraq between 1917 and 1932—and effectively controlled it until 1958. Although both Shiites and Sunnis joined the revolt, Shiite religious and tribal leaders played the major role. Politically, the failed rebellion proved disastrous for the Shiites, since the British thereafter relied exclusively on the Sunni elite to govern Iraq. But, says Shahristani, Shiites “couldn’t do anything else. It might be politically better to just go along with the master, but for us that’s impossible.”
Shahristani speaks with authority on the topic of dissent. In September 1979 he told Saddam Hussein to his face that building a nuclear weapon was wrong and refused to work on the project. He was tortured and spent 11 years behind bars, 10 in solitary confinement. During the Gulf War in 1991, he made a daring escape—he stole a guard’s uniform and drove out the prison’s main gate. Afterward, he declined a comfortable exile in the West in favor of organizing humanitarian aid for both Iraqi refugees in Iran and anti-Saddam resistance in Iraq.
I found Shahristani’s views echoed by religious authorities, who made it clear that this obligation to resist applies even to the American-led occupation, of which the Shiites are increasingly resentful. In a modest house in the center of Karbala, Sheik Abdul Mehdi Salami, who leads the Friday prayers at the Hussein shrine (an immensely prestigious position), said that “fighting injustice is the principal duty for all Shia.” “For the meantime,” he added, his people were using “peaceful means” to assert their rights from the coalition and that Shiites do not like “killing and blood.” But if they must, they will “sacrifice everything to get their rights.”
Compared with what they endured in Saddam Hussein’s time, the Shiites today appear to have little cause for complaint. Saddam not only had banned all public religious processions but, according to worshipers I spoke to, particularly disliked the notion of a 12th Imam who would return to overthrow tyrants. As a result, anyone who attended the birthday festival during Saddam’s rule was risking his life. Strolling with me through the crowd on the eve of the festival, Ala’a Baqir recalled how celebrants would evade Saddam’s security forces on the main roads by sneaking through fields and palm groves. “We would go out and leave food and put down little lights to guide them,” said Baqir.
This year, for the first time in decades, there was no need for surreptitious measures, and the plaza was alive with light and the noise of declaiming preachers and chanting marchers—“we are the Shia . . .”—against the background noise of several hundred thousand people. Above us, party balloons soared up past the golden dome of the Abbas shrine.
Yet even this happy atmosphere harbored ominous undercurrents. A coffin was carried around the Hussein shrine—a traditional Shiite rite—but this one contained the body of a man killed the night before in a firefight with American soldiers in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad. I began noticing how many young men in the crowd were wearing white burial shrouds over their shoulders, a symbol of their willingness to die as martyrs, an attitude much favored by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30- year-old extremist whose men had ambushed and killed two American soldiers in that firefight.
For centuries, Karbala and its sister shrine city, Najaf, had been islands of Shiism, well connected to the international Shiite community but with few ties to the nomadic Bedouin tribes roaming the desert just beyond the cities’ gates. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the clergy of Karbala and Najaf begin to convert the desert tribes, partly because they needed muscle to defend against increasing attacks by fanatical Wahhabi Sunni sweeping across the desert from what is now Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Shiite clerical leaders decided that only the most learned among them should be allowed to issue fatwas, religious rulings on matters of law or common concern. These few senior figures became known as “sources of emulation.” One hot day in late September I sat in on a class at Najaf’s 900-year-old religious university conducted by one of four such living sources of emulation, the Pakistan-born Ayatollah Bashir al-Najri. My classmates were turbaned, graywhiskered elders. We sat respectfully on the floor while our revered teacher expounded at some length on the requirements of women to perform ritual ablutions. Some parts of the syllabus, I felt, had probably not changed over the centuries.
The Shiite religious leadership gained power and influence in the last years of Ottoman rule, just before World War I, then fell on harder times during the British occupation and the succeeding Sunni monarchy installed in 1921. “The first Shia prime minister was appointed in 1947,” Adil Mehdi said bitterly. “That was nearly 28 years after the founding of the state. Though the Shia represented 60 percent of the population, we only ever had 20 percent of the cabinet posts.”
In hopes of bettering their lot in the 1950s and early ’60s, many Shiites were drawn to radical organizations, principally the Communist Party but also the Arab nationalist Baath Party. Thus, when the monarchy was swept away by a leftist revolution in 1958, the Shiites were at last represented in the radical military government that assumed power. But that regime was overthrown in another coup five years later, and the Shiites’ brief moment in the sun came to an end.