What would the Mahdi do?

youngbasijiEvery now and then, editors really need to bite the bullet and tell their troops, “OK, this is just getting too complicated. We are going to have to make room for a sidebar that lets our readers know what in the heckfire we are talking about.”

Most mainstream editors, of course, would not say “heckfire.”

However, this course of action also assumes that someone in the newsroom actually know what is going on and can write that all-important sidebar.

I realize that I have been saying this for several days now, but it’s about time for people in our big newsrooms to start writing about the religious tensions that surround President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that are helping to fuel those marches in Tehran (and, maybe, elsewhere in Iran). The Los Angeles Times ran a “news analysis” the other day — a sidebar, plus interpretative material — that opened the door. Check this out this passage:

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who lost to Ahmadinejad in an election his green-clad supporters regard as fraudulent, has asked backers to go to local mosques to pay tribute to those killed in the protests. Within a culture steeped in the Shiite Muslim mystique of martyrdom, each death may motivate rather than discourage activists.

Whether or not Ahmadinejad won a majority of votes in the election, a large segment of the population rejects his vision and leadership. Critics complain that he is popular among only a limited swath of Iranians of a certain religious and social background, the pious lower-middle class who continue to treasure their rural roots.

Once again, there is a hint of a piety gap. Only, in this story, signs of piety appear on the other side of this divide, as well.

Clearly, the protesters were — at mid-week — going out of their way to appeal to, and not offend, the nation’s highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As of this morning, it appears that they have failed, since he has now spoken out in praise of Ahmadinejad. But that doesn’t mean that readers don’t need to understand the doctrinal territory that was — and is — at stake.

Later in that Los Angeles Times story we read:

Protesters have tailored their message to make sure no one makes blanket calls against the Islamic Republic. Such rhetoric would not only provoke the authorities, but alienate segments of a budding movement that includes a huge cross-section of the nation: emergency room physicians and pious, working-class women who cover all but their faces in black chadors; factory owners and factory workers; and a wide range of political groups whose agendas converge in opposition to Ahmadinejad.

Posters held aloft Wednesday urged demonstrators to stop their march at a certain point and call out praise for the prophet Muhammad. Then, witnesses said, protesters were instructed to remain silent for 10 minutes in honor of those killed so far in the unrest, disperse and go home.

Big rallies held Tuesday and Wednesday were largely silent, devoid of slogans altogether, except for the occasional salavats — blessings for the prophet and his descendants — which served to both refresh the crowd as it walked along in the late spring heat and make older, pious protesters feel welcome as they worked their prayer beads.

Now, clearly we are going to need to know more about Shiite emphasis on martyrdom and how that has, to this point, been a key part of the mystique surrounding Ahmadinejad and the powerful militia that surround him — the Basiji. For starters, if will help to flash back to that outstanding 2006 New Republic cover story entitled “Ahmadinejad’s Demons — A Child of the Revolution Takes Over.” Here is a sample:

During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them. …

These children who rolled to their deaths were part of the Basiji, a mass movement created by Khomeini in 1979 and militarized after the war started in order to supplement his beleaguered army. … The sacrifice of the Basiji was ghastly. And yet, today, it is a source not of national shame, but of growing pride. Since the end of hostilities against Iraq in 1988, the Basiji have grown both in numbers and influence. They have been deployed, above all, as a vice squad to enforce religious law in Iran, and their elite “special units” have been used as shock troops against anti-government forces. In both 1999 and 2003, for instance, the Basiji were used to suppress student unrest. And, last year, they formed the potent core of the political base that propelled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a man who reportedly served as a Basij instructor during the Iran-Iraq War — to the presidency.

imamaliNow, the leaders of the anti-Ahmadinejad rallies are pausing to pray for their own martyrs, those who are dying in the name of freedom from — what?

You see, that’s the crucial question because the martyrs have to be dying in some context that is tied to the worldview of the Shiites for this image to have lasting power.

We are, literally, dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios here, as far as Ahmadinejad is concerned. He has made that clear, time and time again. Why? Because he has claimed that the ultimate symbol of martyrdom in his faith is on his side and has risked the anger of the ayatollah by saying so. Click here for a New York Times piece on that angle, and here for a Commentary piece that kicks all of this up to a higher, apocalyptic level.

Are you ready for some reading and the Shiite concept of a “second coming” of the Mahdi? This block quote is longer than I like, but crucial.

So why should an intra-Shia debate over the Mahdi and his return matter to us? Because Ahmadinejad’s policies are driven by his religious worldview — and that worldview can have enormous ramifications. To understand his cast of mind a bit better, a brief historical overview of Shia Islam may be helpful.

Those of the Shia faith believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that the wrong person would be chosen.

The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad’s death, however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or Tradition of the Prophet. … The assembly elected as Muhammad’s successor Abu Baker, a close companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or successor, of God’s messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned “imam,” or male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali’s son Hussein, who led an uprising against the “illegitimate” caliph. “For the Shia, Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny,” according to Masood Farivar. “His martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety.” The end of Muhammad’s line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the “Twelfth Imam” — or Mahdi (“the one who guides”) — who disappeared as a child at the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari. Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from view and will one day return from his “occultation” to rid the world of evil.

So does it matter that the cornerstone of Ahmadinejad’s regime is his claim that his policies will “hasten the emergence” of the Mahdi?

Does it matter that the crowds now rallying against him are praying for the blessings of the “prophet and his descendants”?

Does it matter if their are martyrs on both sides of this political debate for the soul of Iran?

Can the demonstrators defeat the Basiji? Or do they have to win them over with their shed blood?

Yes, I think it’s time for a sidebar, or two.

Images: A young Basiji militia volunteer. A devotional picture of Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • amac

    The belief for al-Mahdi to come, and to help him conduct jihad against the world is very intense in Shiism. However, mainstream Sunnis also believe in the coming of al-Mahdi. While they differ on the actual identity of al-Mahdi (Shiis believe that he is the 12th Imam who will return one day, Sunnis believe that he can be any Muslim that Allah has prepared), Sunnis and Shiis have more or less the same expectations. The article http://al-mahdi.atspace.com/al-mahdi.html goes into many details of this character, what he will do, and what it wil mean for non-Muslims.

  • Jerry

    The intersection of religion and politics in Iran is fascinating to me. I was very interested in Juan Cole’s piece the other day which discussed the religious background of the tactics Mousavi and his supporters are using.

    http://www.juancole.com/2009/06/day-of-mourning-protests-called-by.html

    Mourning the martyr is as central to Iranian Shiite religious culture as it was to strains of medieval Catholicism in Europe, and Mousavi’s camp is tapping into a powerful set of images and myths here…

    Today’s protesters are wearing green, which symbolizes Mousavi’s descent from the Prophet Muhammad. (Mousavi’s family name refers to the Seventh Imam… The repertoires of protest the reformists are using echo those of the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution– they are chanting “God is Great,” mourning pious fallen martyrs, etc.– another sign that this movement is not just alienated secularized elites.

  • Julia

    the pious lower-middle class who continue to treasure their rural roots.

    pious, working-class women who cover all but their faces in black chadors

    make older, pious protesters feel welcome as they worked their prayer beads

    .

    Perhaps the new MSM equation is fundamentalist = pious ?

    “His [Hussein] martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety.”

    Doesn’t this make all Shia pious?

  • Jerry

    amac has posted one view of the Mahdi. There are others. As this blog posting points out, Islam is no more a monolith than any other religion.

    Those who feel the guidance of God as revealed through the Quran are protesting for freedom and political representation. And the people savagely beating those protesters also feel the guidance of God as revealed through the Quran.

    You would think we could accept this complexity, since we have seen it so many times in American history: As Dr. King’s faith led to him being jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, my mother heard from the pulpit that segregation was God’s will.

    http://www.sparksflyup.com/2009/06/end-of-one-islam-lie.php

  • Yaqub

    It is true that Islam is not monolithic. In fact, Islam had its factions even during the time of Muhammad himself. During his time in Medina, he did have to deal with the different clans that continue to jostle for his attention and power struggles.

    That did not stop Islam from expanding in all directions, even with the Sunni-Shii split.

    However, what non-Muslims don’t understand is the devotion to their prophet. As and when a Mahdi is declared, things will be very different. Of course, some will still resist, but they will be put down easily. Even Muslims themselves know that.

    And I’m pretty sure even when al-Mahdi is here, Islam will still not be monolithic. However, since Muhammad already told them to obey him no matter what, most Muslims will follow. The rest will be put down.

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