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Friday, February 18, 2005



posted by praktike at Friday, February 18, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
Aziz P. writes:

I have noticed a disturbing tendency at both kos and mydd to accuse the Shia government in Iraq of being an "Iranian ally". This is presumably a talking point against Bush's foreign policy. Unfortunately it demonizes both Iran and Iraq unfairly and obscures the legitimate security concerns related to both countries. Plus it also subtly damages the image of Islam itself - because the implication is that voting for muslim values is a fundamentalist rather than a socially conservative act.

I have to admit that I myself have been wary of the Iraqi Shi'ites. If I have verged into demonization, I apologize. I can't speak for MyDD's or Kos's commenters.

[UPDATE (Aziz) - see my discussion with Jerome at myDD. ]

Read on below.
Let me say first that I do believe in secular government in general, because I believe that public policy ought to be based on public reason. At the same time, however, I recognize that secularism that is percieved as anti-religious can provoke a radical backlash, as I believe it has done in the United States and also in Turkey to some extent. For instance, when the ACLU goes after ticky-tack things like little crosses on municipal seals, they only makes Christian conservatives feel like their religion itself is being threatened. And religious Americans clearly resent the secularism of the media. When the New York Times, for instance, discusses Christianity, it usually treats it as somewhat quaint rather than as an integral part of most American's lives. Obviously, the Muslim world and it's traditions are somewhat different, so I don't expect Iraq's government to keep such a bright line between mosque and state, and they've already recognized Islam's importance in the TAL (after much wrangling over the wording).

There's a difference between being concerned about conservative Shi'ism and being concerned about the influence of radical elements or intelligence assests of the Iranian regime or radical Shi'a such as Moqtada Sadr. It's the last two bits that are legitimate worries, in my view.

As for Iranians, I like them; I think their culture and history are beautiful and fascinating. I like Iranian films; I like Iranian poems. I like Iranian architecture. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Isfahan, for instance.

But I think the Iranian regime is deplorable. As for the legitimate security concerns of Iranians, I wish that the Iranian regime would tone down its rhetoric, which is often cartoonish and embarrassing. I watched Khamenei's recent address to Air Force personnel, and I found it hyperbolic and bigoted. I wish the Iranian government would stop funding terrorism and stop funnelling weapons to Palestinian rejectionists. I wish the Iranian government would stop arresting liberal dissidents, murdering political opponents, and stifling clerical critics such as Ayatollah Hoseyn 'Ali Montazeri. I wish the Iranian government would recognize that its youth just want to enjoy life. I wish they would let anyone run for office who met certain minimal conditions. I wish they would crack down on corruption and introduce transparency to the bonyads. I wish the Iranian government had been capable of accepting the Clinton administration's genuine peace overtures and (cautious) apologies for past American mistakes. I wish Khatami and the reformists' challenge to the regime hadn't fizzled.

I'm excited for the Iraqi Shi'a. So far, they've generally absorbed enormous provocations of murderous anti-Shi'a fanatics with great stoicism. They deserve a real chance after 1400 years of exclusion and especially the last decade of Saddam's cruelty. They've seen how the majority of Iranians have become disillusioned with the regime, and I don't think they want to repeat Iran's mistakes. Their courageously purple fingers on January 30th were truly inspiring. I hope they govern in the interests of all Iraqis rather than on a sectarian basis. They're making a lot of the right noises. But I hope they will act with wisdom, patience, and pragmatism as they deal with the Sunni insurgency, the volatile situation in Kirkuk, and the concerns of Iraq's smaller minority groups such as the Turkomen, Yazidis, and Assyrians.

Is that too much to ask?

slightly edited for clarity


well...a few points

1) i think you are seeing a politically tinged lens at work here. during the 1999 bombings of kosovo only a few diehard neocons supported the clinton administration. during the 2003 iraq invasion only a few died hard paleocons rejected the bush administration. pessimism and optimism seem proportional to the party promoting internationalism & interventionism.

2) there are salient points about the iranian regime which i assumed was common knowledge on the left. the iranian regime is actually considerably more democratic and "socially liberal" than many of our "allies" in the gulf, and to some extent egypt "moderate" allies like egypt. women vote, they sit in gov., there is a proactive population control policy, a vibrant civil society, and ethnic harmony (only 60% of iranians are persian speakers, and the 25% who are azeri-turk are at least as prominent, if not more, than the persians in the national culture).

3) the term "shia" needs to be qualified. iraqis and iranians are ithna ashari (twelver) shia. aziz is a daudi bohra ismaili. the iranian mullahs based out of qom are firmly of the "usuli" faction of the twelver movement, while the iraqis (arabs) in najaf and along much of the gulf are more influenced by the more quietest and "conservative" akbari movement. i'm going to sound like a peculiar pedant, but people, on both the left and the right, need to do a lot more study about these sort of nuances before they let their political biases cut through complex textured regional realities with a battle-axe.


Thanks for your comments, Razib. I agree that the Gulf countries are more conservative. All I'm saying, though, is that there is in fact a groundswell of discontent with the Iranian gov't as it stands today.

Your point about "Shi'a" requiring an adjective in front is a good one. But what do the usuli v. akbari differences mean in terms of politics?


the usuli tend to have much more theoretical support for and historical amenability to "rule by mullahs." the akbari take an older line where they stay out of politics. that is probably relevant, no?


Educate me!

My understanding was that Khomeneism was not very well grounded in Iranian history ... but are you saying that velayet-e-faqih has deep roots in usuli Shi'ism?


but are you saying that velayet-e-faqih has deep roots in usuli Shi'ism?i'm not expert, and i'm not a muslim, and the muslims in my family who are religious professionals are all hanafi sunni...but with that, my impression is that "khomeinism" is revolutionary and innovative, but, it is far more plausible and predictable as an outgrowth of the iranian clerical culture of the usuli school around qom that congealed in the 19th century. in contrast, the wahabbi "clerics" that rubber stamp the saudi monarchy are rather faceless individuals. from what i know the akbaris did not eliminate usulism from iraq, but they are far more numerous there than in iran, and political quietism has tended to be a feature of their outlook because they rejected many innovations in organization and purview which the usulis forwarded.


my real point of course is that "shia fundamentalist" doesn't offer us the granularity we need at this point. just because two groups term themselves shia, for example, does not necessarily mean that they will automatically align with each other. for example, i would be curious if aziz could comment how his ismaili group is treated by the zaydi shia of yemen vs. the sunnis of yemen. the zaydis are probably the "most sunni" of all the shia, and in yemen zaydis and sunnis pray in the same mosques quite often.

of course the shia of iran and iraq are closer than the zaydis and daudi bohra ismailis...but, when it comes to political involvement, one could argue that the shia of iraq are equidistant in practice between the sunnis of iraq and the shia of iran.


if aziz could comment how his ismaili group is treated by the zaydi shia of yemen vs. the sunnis of yemenFrom my visit to Yemen, it was the sunni ho were the most in our face; the sunni population has been heavily infiltrated by wahabist elements so we Bohras have a tough time with them, especially when we try to pay respects at tombs of past leaders of the community buried in remote outposts, now surrounded by hostile sunni villages. I havent actually seen any zaydis myself, but from what ive heard anecdotally they tend to be isolated themselves. I dont know enough to comment abouyt it, but I have some friends my age in Yemen (born in the US, doing volunteer work there) who I can ask. Ill see what they say about Zaydi-Ismaili relations.


All of these distinctions between the Arab, akbari Shi'a of Iraq and the Iranian, usuli Shi'a of Iran are less important, however, if the folks who are taking over Iraq turn out to be actual Iranian intelligence assets. So, for instance, if the SCIRI guys take over the Interior Ministry and are paid Iranian assets, that's a problem even if doctrinal differences beteen Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a preclude the kind of formal alliance that Shi'aphobes worry about.


So, for instance, if the SCIRI guys take over the Interior Ministry and are paid Iranian assets, that's a problem even if doctrinal differences beteen Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a preclude the kind of formal alliance that Shi'aphobes worry about.sure, this is a specific problem, i think what aziz was finding troubling was the implication of essential inevitability and improper characterization.


exactly, razib - especially by those on the left who seem to think that its a good issue to whack Bush with, without troubling themselves tow onder how true it is or not.

My discussion with Jerome is relevant here, he isnt arguing in bad faith, but still seems reluctant to acknowledge that there could be positive developments from anything Bush touches.


I think we're mostly in agreement, now that we understand one another better.

Aziz, based on your discussion w/ Jerome you may be interested in this piece by Khaled Abou El-Fadl and the attendant OnPoint radio show.

El-Fadl makes the case for Islamic values underpinning democracy.


agreed, prak, el-Fadl is definitely on my list of muslim voices that are instrumental in shaping the new dialog (see my latest post at City of Brass, violating my hiatus). I have read only parts of Speaking in God's Name but I have invoked Fadl as an authority for some of my assertions before - see this post. The link your provided was excellent, i hadnt seen itm and theres a lot of good stuff in there, i just wish i had time to blog everything :)


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.