“The Middle East is abuzz with talk of ‘Shiitization,'” by Andrew Tabler

Catalytic Converters By ANDREW TABLER 
New York Times Magazine
April 29, 2007
The Middle East is abuzz with talk of “Shiitization.” Since the war in Lebanon last summer, newspapers, TV news channels and Web sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have reported that Sunnis, taken with Hezbollah’s charismatic Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah and his group’s “resistance” to Israel, were converting to Shiite Islam. When I recently visited the semi-arid plains of eastern Syria, known as the Jazeera, Sunni tribal leaders whispered stories of Iranians roaming the Syrian countryside handing out bags of cash and macaroni to convert families and even entire villages to Shiite Islam.

Much of the buzz is surely propaganda from the region’s Sunni governments, which are known to whip up fears of Shiite plots when it suits them. But there are signs in Syria of a possible shift. Over time, could this predominantly Sunni country change its religious orientation — solidifying its ties to Iran and creating strong repercussions throughout the Middle East? Pinning down facts is complicated not just by Syria’s restrictions on the press but also by growing Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq, which has made normally hospitable Syrians wary of prying questions about sectarian issues. Furthermore, Syria is an authoritarian state that strictly enforces Ba’athism — a secular ideology that subsumes sect and religion under a pan-Arab identity. In most of the Arab world, meddling in sectarian issues is discouraged. In Syria, it is illegal.

Although the regime of President Bashar al-Assad hails from an obscure offshoot of Shiism — the Alawites — Syria is nearly three-quarters Sunni, with Alawites, members of other Muslim sects and a considerable number of Christians making up the rest. The country’s leading Islamic institutions reflect conventional Sunni beliefs and traditions. Over the last five years, however, Iranian donors have financed the restoration of half a dozen Shiite tombs and shrines in Syria and built at least one Shiite religious school near Damascus; the school is named after Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, Iran and the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq now sponsor a number of Arabic-language Internet portals as well as satellite TV stations broadcasting Shiite religious programming into Syria.

Direct inquiries into Shiite numbers in Syria raise more questions than answers, as the sensitive topic gives observers complex incentives to round up or down. When I asked Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, leader of Syria’s Shiite community, to estimate the size of his flock, he put it at less than 1 percent of the population of 19 million. Asked the same question, the leader of Syria’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, replied carefully; he said that 6 to 8 percent of Syrians now adhere to the “Jaafari school,” the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by mainstream Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.

It was only when I met an actual convert that the mufti’s words began to make sense. Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam. He changed the wording of his prayers and his posture while praying, holding his arms at his sides instead of before him, and during Ramadan he followed Shiite customs on breaking the fast. In many Middle Eastern countries, his conversion wouldn’t be possible — it would be considered apostasy. The Syrian regime restricts its people’s political liberties, but unlike most other ruling dynasties in the Arab world, it allows freedom of religion. “In Saudi Arabia, they ban books on other faiths,” Louay said. “In Syria, I can buy whatever book on religion I want, and no one can say a word.”

Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.

For Louay, the difference is immense. “Take the Internet. Some conservative Sunni sheiks say the Internet is haram,” or illegal, he said. “If I go back to Jaafar al-Sadiq” — the eighth-century founder of the Jaafari school — “I will not find a ruling on it. So instead I use my mind to sort it out. On the Internet, some things are positive, some negative. I choose the positive for myself.”

Americans might find it surprising that the man Louay looks to for more current and oftentimes liberal guidance on controversial issues is Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. For four decades, Syrians had to rely on advice from the local Sunni clerics who appeared in state-owned media. With the advent of satellite television and the Internet, however, Louay said he is now able to keep up with his favorite scholars across the Islamic world. You could easily draw a comparison with the way Protestants in Europe were able to follow the likes of Martin Luther after the introduction of movable type.

Even if Shiitization is at this point as much a rumor as a confirmed fact, the subject is highly charged. It is part of a much larger discussion among Washington’s Sunni allies about the rise of a “Shiite Crescent” — an Iranian-backed alliance stretching westward from Iran to Syria to Lebanon that could challenge the traditional power of Sunni elites. With its Sunni masses and minority Tehran-backed regime, Syria is the weak link in the chain. Many Syrians say they are worried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria; the execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, infuriated many. The conversion of Syrians to Shiism could create still more conflict.

Meanwhile, the regional politics are becoming ever more delicate. Damascus is reportedly unhappy about Iran’s recent dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the future of Lebanon; Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recent peace overtures toward Israel. Both sides denied a rift when Assad visited Tehran in February. But only days later, a group of Syrian intellectuals and parliamentarians loyal to Assad lambasted an Iranian deputy foreign minister in scripted fashion in a closed-door (but widely reported) session. The point of contention? Their unhappiness with what they saw as Iranian support for the Shiitization of Syria.

Andrew Tabler is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs and the editor in chief of Syria Today magazine.

Comments (71)


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51. Ford Prefect said:

YoungSyria,
I am sorry about a name that I have not invented and not sure where it came from – but believe me there is hardly any meat at that place. It is all vegetarian, and it is quite good!

Noodles anywhere in Southeast Asia are yummy too, enjoy. I am going now to Leiscester Square to find some. Thanks for the reminder. ;-)

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May 1st, 2007, 10:36 am

 

52. Akbar Palace said:

Holocaust!!! The entrance plaque at Auschwitz state that 80,000+ or – persons perished. That was the biggest concentration camp. Out of this number count how many Gypsies, Poles Slaves and other Nationalities, also how many under this WWII environment died of deceases and injury, natural death, stress etc. What would you do with millions of corpses that died, you keep them exposed? No one have time for burial ceremony, they found way to control the situation. Six million!!! Even reputable Jews at that time ridiculed it. I don’t have time for all that.

Ahmad –

Here is a picture of the entrance to Auschwitz. It says: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will set you free”). If 80,000 wasn’t enough for you, rest assured those that died here number over 1 million. Mostly Jews, but certainly not just.

http://www.travelpod.com/travel-photo/andrewy/euroasia-2004/1099784880/dscf0188.jpg/tpod.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp

Look Ahmad, I wouldn’t wish this type of tragedy on my worst enemy, and I certainly don’t believe using the Holocaust as a hammer against any criticism of Israel is productive.

OTOH, I think you need to do a little reading, open your eyes a bit, and see the world from a different vantage point. I hope you are not indicative of the average Arab person, but I fear you are. I hope one day we’ll be able to face Life’s challenges together, Arab and Jew, instead of spilling blood in a pool of bigotry and intolerance.

I am optimistic.

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May 1st, 2007, 12:30 pm

 

53. Mo said:

FP,

The issue is much more controversial, I will await more info before commenting..
No one disagrees with you on Bouz el-Jidi though! The one near the British Council is excellent as well!
Cheers….

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May 1st, 2007, 2:32 pm

 

54. Innocent_Criminal said:

Ahmad and Imad Makhlouf where the same person = Metaz/SSRP. he keeps slipping through the cracks.

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May 1st, 2007, 3:11 pm

 

55. majedkhaldoun said:

Turkish court declares president election invalid

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May 1st, 2007, 3:54 pm

 

56. why-discuss said:

What a big fuss.. what is wrong if a sunni becomes a Shia, he is still a moslem. Imagine if the christians would become hysterical if a catholic becomes greek orthodox or protestant.. I find this issue out of proporion. If you remove the political context, it’s absurd.

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May 1st, 2007, 5:23 pm

 

57. Eli Winstein said:

Thank you, what a relief to have a decent moderator here. Peace from Israel to you all.

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May 1st, 2007, 5:59 pm

 

58. Webloggin - Blog Archive » Al-Masri Killed By Sunni Tribesmen said:

[…] There’s talk of the “Shiitization” of the Middle East, Sunnis converting to Shiites, something new, something true, go read it. The Sunni tribesman who killed al-Masri might take exception to this news. […]

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May 1st, 2007, 6:09 pm

 

59. Omar said:

Really, What a big fuss.. why not Shiaa becomes Sunni. he is still a Moslem
why their is not such a things that Shiaa becomes Sunni.
some people are absurd.

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May 1st, 2007, 7:47 pm

 

60. ausamaa said:

Why Discuss,

Come on, this is a VERY IMPORTANT issue! We should spend as much time as we can exploring it. Then, perhaps we should move to the issue wether Napoleon converted to Sheit or Sunni Islam when he arrived in Egypt. He converted to Islam as some believed then. Right?

What other things do you suggest we discuss with the same zeal? The Winograd Committee report and the ongoing upheavel in Israel? The coming Sharm El Shiekh conference? The escalating “Peace” in Iraq? The material shift inside the US on issues relating to Iraq War? Larijani’s visit to Sistani? The crisis in Turkey?

Come on, really, those are small issues. Let us shelve them and concentrate on those frightening Shiiat Corps who are trying to overrun the small 270 million-strong Sunni enclave in the Arab World.

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May 1st, 2007, 8:15 pm

 

61. Atassi said:

Press freedom around the world in decline: watchdog

1 May 2007
Agence France Presse
English
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007 All reproduction and presentation rights reserved.

NEW YORK, May 1, 2007 (AFP) –

Press freedom around the world deteriorated last year due to coups, attempts to stifle political opposition and regulate use of the Internet, a leading watchdog said in a report Tuesday.

US-based Freedom House outlined what it said were particularly troubling trends in Asia, the former Soviet Union and Latin America, in a report that warned that democracy as a whole would likely suffer.

“Press freedom is like the canary in the coal mine,” the group’s executive director Jennifer Windsor said in a statement.

“Assaults on the media are inevitably followed by assaults on other democratic institutions. The fact that press freedom is in retreat is a deeply troubling sign that democracy itself will come under further assault.”

The report, released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, said that coups, insurgency and states of emergency in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines and Fiji had all taken their toll on press freedom.

And while Asia had two of the world’s most restrictive governments in North Korea and Myanmar, Freedom House pointed to recent improvements in Nepal, Cambodia and Indonesia.

China, Vietnam and Iran were meanwhile continuing to jail journalists and cyber-dissidents, while Russia was aggressively trying to marginalize the independent media and planning to regulate use of the Internet, it said.

The study, entitled Freedom of the Press 2007, also noted a deterioration in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil either due to state action or deteriorating security environments.

“The records of Venezuela and Russia are appalling, all the more so because of those countries’ impact on their regions,” Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the press freedom survey, said in a statement.

The group blamed the decline on coups, drives to neutralize political opposition, violence against journalists and laws brought in to enable governments to punish the press for critical reports.

The group also expressed alarm about the situation in the Middle East, where recent progress had stagnated, it said. Libya, Syria, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority were singled out for their “extremely restricted” media.

But the organization also noted improvements in countries including Italy, Nepal, Colombia and Haiti, due to greater overall political openness and an improved security environment.

The survey, which first appeared in 1980, gives countries a score out of 100 to reflect restrictions on their media. Iceland and Finland shared the top spot with nine points, while North Korea came last with 97.

The survey gave 74 countries out of the 195 included the “free” rating and 63 the “not free” label. The remainder were considered “partly free.”

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May 1st, 2007, 8:19 pm

 

62. youngsyria said:

Ford Prefect;
I know what Bous-al Jidi is, and I ate “tasyyaee” there. speaking of food. the best tasyyee-aleppo-style is at a restaurant near as-sabeel park. forgot the name but they have more than one shop next to each other. WARNING: high cholesterol content, can couse instant heartattack.

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May 1st, 2007, 9:02 pm

 

63. ausamaa said:

On another similarily important subject, is it bouZ al Jidi or bouS al Jidi?
Who the hell wants to “bous” a “Jidi”?

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May 1st, 2007, 9:18 pm

 

64. majedkhaldoun said:

what has been said in this forum about sofiism and salafist, completely surprise me,my understanding of sofi as people who believe in mystical power, psychological ideas, make them do things that take their mind to different level,they believe it make them close to God,salafist they deal with reality,physical life

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May 2nd, 2007, 2:57 am

 

65. Ford Prefect said:

Ausamaa,
Excellent catch, thanks! It is BouZ al Jidi (BouZ as in “mouth”). The last thing anyone wants to do is to “bous” a goat before or after Tisiiyee!

Youngsyria, when in Syria, should I care about cholesterol? The only remedy needed is Peptobismol!

BTW, if I am in Halab, it will be impossible to choose anything as a favorite. I usually order everything they have! Even the plates are edible. Aleppo is a city that knows something about good food. Not to be missed and thanks for the tip.

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May 2nd, 2007, 9:21 am

 

66. Ford Prefect said:

Majedkhaldoun,
What you indicated regarding Sufis and Salfis is correct but only part of the picture. The whole picture is much more complicated as both movements have social and political dimensions as well. I

I dare to say that Syria’s Sunnis are more Sufis, in practice than Salafis. Syrian Sunnis love their Sufi rituals and they tend to be more drawn to mystical beliefs (Nidr to “have a boy newborn”, healings by visitng a maqaam, Lailat al quadr, etc.) than say the Saudi Sunnis. If and when Salafis flare up, it is usually in response to an external radical event such as women liberation.

Islamist movements, such as the MBs and HA, along with their militant offshoots, are usually more inclined to be composed of Salafis than Sufis. But remember that even Khomeni was a Sufi before he turned into an Islamist.

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May 2nd, 2007, 9:54 am

 

67. bakri said:

Ford Perfect ,the overwhelming majority of syrian muslim brotherhood members are not salafis.
And their leader ,Ali al Bayanuni belong to Tariqa al Naqshbandiya ,Isa al Bayanuni was one of the most important sufi sheikhs of Aleppo and friend of Sheikh Abu al Nasr.

In an interview Ali Sadreddin al Bayanuni confirm that the sufis trend represent the majority in Syria.

MA: How powerful are the Salafis inside Syria?

AB: Their influence is limited. Salafism has weak foundations in Syria, as the majority of Sunni Muslims subscribe to Sufism.

http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2369769

In general sufism is a sunni matter but gnosticism of Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi,who were sunnis have influenced persian shi’aism specially since the 17 th century with Mir Damad and Sadreddin al Shirazi…Iran before the 16 th century was a sunni country and some of the most important sufi sheikhs were from Bilad Faress as Omar and Shihabeddin Suhrawardi,Mawlana Jalaleddin al Rumi,Shamseddin al Tabrizi,Attar,al Halaj ,Abu Hamed al Ghazali,Abdelkader al Gilani,Abu Yazid al Bistami….
As for Sheikh al Islam Ibn Taymiyya he praised the first generations of Sufis as Hasan al Basri, Al Bistami,Al Gilani and he was then praised by Sufis. some have argued that he was himself a Qadiri.Btw the first sheikhs of sufism are Hanbalis the same mazhab of Sheikh al Islam and amongst them is the famous sufi Mansur Hussayn Al Hallaj.

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May 2nd, 2007, 3:02 pm

 

68. bakri said:

In addition to what i said above…the Ottoman sultans greatly revered Ibn Arabi and it was Sultan Selim who rehabilitated his name and ordered the construction of the complex that we see today in Salhiyeh after this date any sheikh who dared to attack Ibn Arabi was severely punished.

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May 2nd, 2007, 5:47 pm

 

69. Ford Prefect said:

Bakri,
Sorry for the late reply. I appreciate your feedback above. Your facts regarding Sheik Muhiddine are accurate.
Regarding the MBs, like you said earlier in a previous post, the line between Salfis and Sufis in Syria (and particularly in Syria) is hard to delineate. All Salafis in Syria have their roots as Sufis.

The issue I am trying to highlight, however, is of a slightly different nature regarding the Brothers. It is the issue of their political (and some time military) activism, not the religious orientation of its members.

Sufis esoteric beliefs stand at diametrically opposed end from the exoteric activism of the Salafis. Studying the MBs political activism, one can find more active Salafi elements (and not people) than Sufi ones.

Otherwise, I am in agreement with your analysis above. Thanks.

More on Ibn Taymeyya later when Dr. Landis revisits this important topic. It is my favorite.

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May 4th, 2007, 1:49 am

 

70. bakri said:

Ford Perfect,

The idea that sufis are politically indifferent is not accurate.

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May 4th, 2007, 9:10 am

 

71. SyriaComment » Archives » “The Difference Between Wahhabis and Muslim Brothers,” by David Commins said:

[…] This is the first part in a series of articles I will post on the relationship between Salafism and Sufism in Syria. The idea to commission different experts to write on this subject is a result of the questions raised by commentators on this earlier post on Islam in Syria, here (read the last 15 comments of the post). […]

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May 8th, 2007, 11:10 pm

 

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