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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Modern Age

Written by: Anna Akasoy

This turn of events, which went along with the brutal suppression of opponents, led to the formation of opposition groups in exile, among them the People's Mujahidin who have older roots and who combined Shiite and Marxist elements and supported Iraq in the war against Iran. They remain a vocal critic of Iran's human rights record, but have been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. and until recently the EU. Since the death of Khomeini in 1989, the opposition in Iran has become more outspoken and reforms have been expected from and associated with President Khatami (reg. 1997-2005). More recently, the 'Green Revolution' in support of candidate Mousavi following the presidential election of 2009 has led to expectations of further reform, although this movement has been suppressed.

Active political forms of Shiism also exist in Lebanon. The rise of the Shiites as a political force took place against the backdrop of the conflicts of the 1970s, which included internal confrontations as well as proxy or direct wars of Israel, Palestinians, Syria, and increasingly Iran. The strength of Shiites in south Lebanon increased following the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization there. Shiites are represented by the militias and political parties Amal and Hizbullah and have further strongholds in the Bekaa valley and south Beirut. Amal was founded in 1975 by the religious scholar Musa al-Sadr who mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Libya in 1978. Hizbullah was formed a few years later and has been receiving Iranian support since then.

Like the revolutionaries in Iran, these Shiite movements use the religious language of suffering and resisting injustice to put the socio-economic disadvantages of the Shiite areas of Lebanon on the agenda. The principle of confessional balance and integration in the political system guides the division of power in Lebanon as manifest in the composition of parliament and the government. The positions of the Speaker of the Parliament and the Minister of Agriculture are reserved for Shiites. The former position is currently occupied by Nabih Berri, who also leads Amal. Due to demographic developments, Shiites are underrepresented; with an estimated 30 percent or more they probably constitute the largest community. (Population figures are controversial and estimates differ widely.)

Much of the situation of Shiites in Iraq in the last decades has been determined by their marginalization under the Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein as well as the war against Iran, the Gulf War following the invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991), the embargo, the invasion of 2003, and the ongoing violence. During the war against Iran, national identities prevailed and the Iraqi Shiites did not support Iran. The Shiite uprising following the 1991 Gulf War, encouraged by the United States, ended in a disaster for the Shiites. Estimates suggest that approximately 100,000 Shiites were killed by Saddam's forces. Since 2003, Shiite groups have become more powerful. The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and other key members of the government are Shiites.

In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of Iran as well as in more recent times, policy-makers in the West and Sunnis have expressed fears that a Shiite crescent could join the Shiites of Lebanon with those in Iraq and Iran, with further groups beyond the two ends, in East Africa, and in Afghanistan, and the subcontinent. A particularly vulnerable area could be the Gulf region with its Shiite communities. Such a united Shiite movement, however, seems unlikely since these communities live under very different circumstances. While the Shiites in Kuwait belong to different denominations and enjoy political representation, those of Bahrain are more disenfranchised. Since the end of Saddam Hussein, Iran has become the leading power in the Middle East to oppose Western influence, but this has not increased the appeal of Shiism among Sunnis.

Study Questions:
1.     In what countries are Shiites a majority, and where do they have the most influence?
2.     Explain the political developments in Iran and how they have impacted the Shiite community there.
3.     How did the Gulf War affect the Shiite community in Iran?


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