Conflict update: January 24 2017


With everybody’s eyes on the peace conference in Kazakhstan, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has made a big move to consolidate its control of the rebellion in Idlib:

Heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria on Tuesday between a powerful jihadist organization and more moderate rebel groups, threatening to further weaken the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in its biggest territorial stronghold.

Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, some of which attended peace talks in Kazakhstan, accused the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham of launching a surprise attack on their positions.

Fateh al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, issued a statement which said it had been forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it. The group accused rebels attending the Kazakhstan talks of conspiring against it, but did not refer to Tuesday’s fighting directly.

JFS’s statement also accused the rebels who were participating in Astana of trying to “divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation” with Bashar al-Assad.

On Sunday, Hassan Hassan wrote a piece in which he talked about the possibility that Ahrar al-Sham “will soon rip itself into pieces.” The reason is that Ahrar al-Sham has been trying to serve as the bridge between JFS and the Free Syrian Army–refusing, for example, to go along with any effort to isolate JFS–at a time when it’s becoming impossible to maintain that bridge. JFS has begun targeting rebel militias for elimination, and there are signs that it’s even starting to pick Ahrar al-Sham apart by encouraging its more extremist fighters to defect. Now there are some elements of Ahrar al-Sham that are reportedly trying to intercede to stop JFS but other elements that are reportedly helping JFS, which suggests that the group really is starting to rip itself into pieces.

Speaking of the Astana talks, they seem to have ended about as I thought they would, with Russia, Turkey, and Iran declaring a very esoteric victory, pledging their commitment to upholding the ceasefire, and closing up shop. The rebels attending the talks refused to sign on to the Russia-Turkey-Iran pledge and instead complained about Iran’s admittedly conflicting roles as Assad’s biggest supporter and as one of the supposedly neutral brokers in the talks (Damascus made similar and also well-founded complaints about Turkey). There were no direct talks between the Syrian government and the rebels, which seems like kind of a bad sign.


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Muhammad’s birthday mob

Today (actually beginning at sundown yesterday) is, on the Islamic calendar, the date traditionally identified as Muhammad’s birthday, or Mawlid al-Nabi. While your immediate assumption might be to equate Mawlid with Christmas, they’re really not analogous (just as Muhammad’s role in Islam is not analogous to Jesus’s role in Christianity), and Mawlid is not a major holiday for Muslims. Many, particularly fundamentalists, don’t celebrate it at all, while for many other Muslims it’s usually a day for small gift giving. And then there are the folks in Pakistan who decided to honor Muhammad’s birthday like this:

Thousands of protestors stormed a mosque belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect in Pakistan’s Punjab province on Monday, firing at worshipers and wounding several before police dispersed the attackers, police and an Ahmadi spokesman said.

A procession of around two thousand Sunni Muslims marking the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad entered the Ahmadi mosque despite resistance by police, hurling stones and bricks and firing weapons.

The Ahmadi minority holds that a prophet followed the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam. But that view runs counter to the Muslim religion’s central belief that Mohammad was the last of God’s messengers.

In 1974, a Pakistani law declared Ahmadis non-Muslims and in 1984, a new law made it possible to jail Ahmadis for “posing as a Muslim” or “offending a Muslim’s feelings”.

To be fair, it’s likely that the mob wasn’t honoring Muhammad’s birthday so much as it was trying to prevent the Ahmadis from doing so. Many fundamentalists, the kind of folks who will threaten people who dare to practice a different variety of the faith, believe that celebrating Muhammad’s birthday crosses a line into worshiping Muhammad, which is blasphemous.

I’m not sure we’ve ever talked about the Ahmadiyah, but if you’re not familiar then it’s worth taking a minute or so to fill in some details. Continue reading

Arbaʿeen: bigger than ever

Arbaʿeen, for those who aren’t familiar, is the second Shiʿa holy day that is centered on the Battle of Karbala, and thus the death of the early Shiʿa leader Husayn b. Ali, in 680. The first, Ashura, is commemorated on the day (per the Islamic calendar) of the battle, while Arbaʿeen (Arabic for “forty”) occurs on the fortieth day after the battle, the end of the traditional mourning period per Islam (and Orthodox Christianity, for what it’s worth).

Arbaʿeen begins (began) at sundown this evening, so let me extend holiday wishes to any Shiʿa readers out there. There is an annual Arbaʿeen pilgrimage to Husayn’s shrine in Karbala that is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, drawing multiple times the number of people who make the Hajj. There is a Hindu festival called Kumbh Mela that draws more pilgrims than even Arbaʿeen, but that festival is celebrated every three years, hence my “annual” qualifier above. It also rotates between four different sites, so each site only hosts a pilgrimage once every 12 years, where Karbala hosts its pilgrims every year.


The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala (Wikimedia | Tasnim News)

This year, as ever, millions of people (that link says 22 million but I’ve seen estimates much higher than that) are expected to make the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage–primarily Shiʿa, but also Sunnis, Christians, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and adherents of other faiths. This is a huge logistical challenge for the Iraqi government, particularly when a large crowd of defenseless, mostly Shiʿa pilgrims makes an inviting target for ISIS–which, though it’s obviously got some major problems to deal with right now, has still shown itself capable of launching terror attacks throughout Iraq. The reason for the massive crowd is mostly simple population growth–the pilgrimage gets bigger every year–but this year there’s speculation about another reason why so many will gather in Karbala.

If you’ll recall, Iran and Saudi Arabia failed to come to terms on an agreement for Iranian pilgrims to make the Hajj this year. In the long tradition of political conflict mucking up everybody’s pilgrimage plans, there have been rumors that Iranian religious authorities have been suggesting to people who were denied the chance to go on Hajj this year that they could make the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage in its place. The Iranians deny that anyone has made such a suggestion and there’s really no evidence to suggest they have.

Saudi Wahhabi authorities–who reject Arbaʿeen in particular and Shiʿism in general, and also get mad at anything that might threaten the billions of dollars they make annually from hosting the Hajj–often use the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage, which most Sunnis don’t make, as a chance to “show” that Shiʿa aren’t “real Muslims.” This year, thanks to the rumors about the Iranians suggesting a pilgrimage swap, the Saudi sentiment about Arbaʿeen has been especially toxic–in September, for example, a Saudi-owned TV station tweeted “Muslims go to Mecca, Safavids go to Karbala.” That many Shiʿa wanted to go to Mecca this year but couldn’t, because they weren’t sure they’d make it out alive, is, presumably, not a detail the Saudis would like anybody to mention. Shiʿa religious scholars (political leaders are a different story) have consistently maintained, going back centuries, that the Hajj is “mandatory” while pilgrimage to Karbala, or to any other Shiʿa site, is merely “recommended.” But for the Saudis, any excuse to try to paint Shiʿa as unbelievers is always too good to pass up.


Too many Lamas

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, is 81 years old. Even for somebody living well, as he seems to be, that’s a long time to be alive, and when any major religious or political figure makes it into old age it’s natural to talk about succession. But the question of whether there will even be a 15th Dalai Lama, and who will identify him or her (it hasn’t happened yet, but it could) if there is, has all the makings of a major international incident.


The current Dalai Lama with Barack Obama–hey, that rhymes–in 2014 (Wikimedia | White House)

Presumably we all know the basics about the Dalai Lama, but let’s review a couple of things. The Dalai Lama is the preeminent figure in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered to be a reincarnation (well, successive reincarnations) of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara. Owing in large part to a political alliance with the Mongols, the Gelug school starting in the 16th century began to gain political control over Tibet, and starting in the 1640s the 5th Dalai Lama came to rule Tibet. That state of affairs continued (though, to be clear, Tibet existed for most of this time as an autonomous region under some larger power’s protection–like the Mongols, the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Britain) until the People’s Republic of China, fresh off of winning the Chinese Civil War, outright annexed Tibet in 1950. The current Dalai Lama took office in 1950, under Chinese control, but fled to India in 1959 and has been the leading figure in the Tibetan independence movement ever since.

Because each successive Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, succession is always a bit complicated. It’s not as though a sitting Dalai Lama can appoint a successor, because his/her rightful successor technically can’t even be born until the current Dalai Lama passes. Then you have to identify the new incarnation, which is a process that involves a lot of meditation, visions, and then testing the candidate(s). One of the final tests involves earning the recognition of the second most-important figure in the Gelug school, the Panchen Lama, and this is where things are pretty dicey at the moment. The Panchen Lama (we’re currently on the 11th) is believed to be the reincarnation of another bodhisattva, named Amitābha, and his recognition (as in he must “recognize” that the candidate is actually the new incarnation of Avalokiteśvara) is necessary for a new Dalai Lama to be named. This also works in the other direction–the sitting Dalai Lama must recognize a new Panchen Lama–or, well, it’s supposed to work that way.

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That time of year

The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, is one of four months that, in addition to Ramadan, are explicitly identified as sacred months in the Qurʾan. This is probably an extension of a pre-Islamic Arabian tradition wherein certain months were set aside to be free from violence. The tenth day of Muharram, Ashura (ashr is the Arabic word for “ten”) is observed by both Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims, but for different reasons. For Sunnis, this is believed to be the day when God parted the Red Sea to allow Moses and the Israelites to flee the oncoming Egyptian army, and it’s also a day of atonement similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur (and, since the Jewish and Hijri new years fell on the same Gregorian date this year, Ashura and Yom Kippur will also fall on the same date, October 12).

For Shiʿa Muslims, Ashura is the day when, in the year 61 AH (680 CE if you’re on the Gregorian calendar) the third imam, Husayn, was killed (martyred if you prefer) at the Battle of Karbala. Ashura commemorations involve prayer, battle reenactments, marching, chanting, self-mortification (in extreme cases), and, in particular, a large (though not as large as the one that happens 40 days later) pilgrimage to Husayn’s shrine at Karbala. It is the climax of a ten day period of mourning, beginning on the first day of Muharram (i.e., today).

Unfortunately, the modern world being what it is, this large gathering of Shiʿa pilgrims has been roughly handled for many years now, first by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which mistreated its Shiʿa population in general, and in more recent years by ISIS (in all of its incarnations), which will take advantage of any chance it gets to murder large numbers of Shiʿa. Since 2004 some kind of violence has attended the Ashura pilgrimage every year, and this year, with the Iraqi army and its allies nearly ready to begin their offensive to drive ISIS out of Mosul but with ISIS still quite capable of striking viciously inside Shiʿa-controlled parts of Iraq, it seems the violence has already begun:

A bomber targeted a market in the Amil neighbourhood of southern Baghdad on Monday, killing at least six people and wounding 16.

A similar attack hit a procession in the eastern Mashtal district, killing five and wounding 18, the sources added.

Ali al-Fraiji, an Iraqi journalist, told Al Jazeera from Baghdad that a third attack also took place that killed three people and injured seven others.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), claimed responsibility for the blasts that took place at events commemorating Ashoura, which marks the killing of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, by the army of Caliph Yazid in 680 AD.

Since the more ISIS loses on the battlefield the more violent its terrorist response usually gets, this has the potential to be a tragically violent Ashura. The effectiveness of Iraqi security forces will be tested over the next nine days, and what happens will tell us a lot about ISIS’s remaining capacity to dish out pain and suffering.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that sectarian violence doesn’t just accompany Ashura in Iraq. Over the past few years there have been attacks against Ashura gatherings in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia as well. This is, sadly, that time of year.


More sectarian fun

At LobeLog, Georgetown’s Shireen Hunter took a deeper dive into the Saudi Grand Mufti’s declaration that Iranians are not Muslim. Of course, there’s no deep theology behind the mufti’s pronouncement; it’s simple anti-Shiʿa bigotry:

This belief is neither new nor limited to the Saudis or the Wahhabis. However, as far as I can recall, no significant Muslim religious leader had openly called them non-Muslims, although some secular leaders had done so before. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein regularly referred to the Iranians as Majus, and even worse, as insects that should be sprayed with pesticides. Indeed, he did just that by using chemical weapons against them.

This widely held Arab belief that Iranians are not real Muslims is based on the premise that they never fully converted to Islam. Instead, they developed Shiʿism, which is allegedly nothing more than their old religion with a thin guise of Islam. Moreover, Arabs believe that the Iranians did so in order to subvert and undermine their true and pure Islam. In a Cairo bookshop near Al-Azhar several years ago, I saw a book for sale entitled Shia Conspiracy Against Islam. Since then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, along with religious figures such as the Egypt-born resident of Qatar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, have sponsored many more books on Shiʿism’s threat to Islam and Iran’s plans to convert Sunnis to Shiʿism.

Of course, as Hunter points out and you readers already know, the idea that Iranians “developed Shiʿism” is entirely ahistorical. The leaders around whom the early Shiʿa community rallied were as Arab as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and in fact were descended from Muhammad himself. The Battle of Karbala, the inflection point for the initial break between Sunni and Shiʿa, took place in 680, when the conquest of Iran was far too new and far too incomplete for Iranians to do anything so bold as to develop their own strain of a religion that was still taking shape at the time. In fact, you have to go all the way to 1501, when the Safavid dynasty took over Iran and began, ah, “strongly encouraging” the Iranian populace to convert en masse to Twelver Shiʿism, to find the point at which Iran stopped being mostly Sunni–even the Safavid family itself began as a family of Sunni-minded Sufis before converting to Shiʿism in the mid-15th century. Yes, there were historical affinities between Shiʿism and Iranian resistance movements, and a lot of Shiʿa dynasties came to rule parts of Iran as a result, but Iranian culture permeated the entire caliphate irrespective of sect and, again, the majority of Iranians were Sunni until the Safavids came along.

The accusation that devious Shiʿa villains are plotting to turn your nice Sunni kids gay Shiʿa has deep roots in every authoritarian Sunni regime going back to the caliphate–it’s the kind of narrative that oppressors keep telling everybody to justify their oppression. (To be fair, the Iranian argument that the Saudis are not fit custodians of Mecca and Medina–and therefore of the Hajj–is also a rehash of a historical slur against whichever political entity happened to control the Hejaz at any given point in time.) When Iran converted, and then again after 1979, tales of Shiʿa plotting were grafted on to the traditional Arab-Iranian rivalry and the two narratives began to feed on one another. But as Sanam Anderlini notes, there’s no upside to Iran picking a fight on sectarian grounds–nor is there much evidence that they have: Continue reading

The Saudi-Iran feud gets more ridiculous

I hope you’ll forgive the light posting the past couple of days. I’m back at it, but “back at it” has meant writing for LobeLog instead of here. For example, as you know, the annual Hajj took place over the weekend. This year, contrary to most years, there weren’t any Iranians making the pilgrimage (at least not officially), because Iran opted to boycott the Hajj as part of its long-running and incredibly destructive (though not to either of the principals) spat with Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the Iranians are upset about the terrible stampede that took place during last year’s Hajj, in which somewhere in the neighborhood of 2400 pilgrims were killed, many of them Iranian (the Saudis will only allow that about 700 pilgrims were killed, but nobody believes them).


Abdulaziz b. Abdullah Al al-Shaykh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia

On the eve of the Hajj, Iranian officials started sniping at the Saudis over last year’s disaster, in particular pushing the idea that management of the Hajj should be taken out of the Saudis’ hands and internationalized. In response, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia declared that, well, he declared that Iranians aren’t Muslim (later, the Saudis engaged in what I have to admit was a pretty clever bit of trolling by making Persian-language TV broadcasts from the Hajj, to let would-be Iranian pilgrims know what they were missing). At LobeLog I picked up from there, and managed by the mufti’s own standards to determine that there actually are no Muslims:

The theological implications of the mufti’s pronouncement are enormous and, presumably, escaped him. If Iranian Shi‘a cannot be Muslim because they descend from Zoroastrians, then by the same token Iranian Sunnis (descended from the same Zoroastrians), Turks (largely descended from shamanists), Indians and Pakistanis (Hindus), Pashtun (Buddhists), and, indeed, Arabs (polytheists, Jews, and Christians) don’t qualify as “Muslims” either. It’s also worth noting the commonalities between the mufti’s declaration, a classic example of takfir (the principle by which certain Muslim groups claim the right to declare that self-professed Muslims are actually unbelievers), and the ideology that animates the Islamic State, which is takfiri to its core.

Indonesia, the country with more Muslims than any other country on the planet, used to be predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, so you can rule Indonesians out of the faith as well. This takfir business can take you to some strange places.