The latest conspiracy theory to grip the Middle East is theShiite Crescent – an emerging Iranian-backed Shiite alliancestretching westward from Iran to Lebanon that threatensAmerica’s Sunni allies in the region. In the arch’skeystone, Syria, many say a Shiite takeover is in the works.Syria is majority Sunni Muslim, but it is ruled by the Assadregime, which hails from the Alawite Shiite Muslim sect. Akey part of Tehran’s alleged regional coup are rumors of“Shiitization” – the conversion of Sunnis to Shiite Islam.
Many if not most of the gaggle of growing Syria experts denyShiitization is happening, but their contradictorystatements indicate otherwise. Syrian ParliamentarianMohammed Habash, head of Damascus’ Islamic Studies Centerand a major source on Islam in Syria for foreignjournalists, told me following last summer’s war in Lebanonthat talk of conversions was “Wahabbi propaganda” – areference to the conservative version of Sunni Islampracticed in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival andAmerica’s chief ally. He added that Shiitization was a“phenomena,” however, “especially in the Jazeera” – the areaof Eastern Syria between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.
Shiite converts I have interviewed in Syria over the lastfew months say that many Sunni Jazeerite families aren’treally converting, but rather returning to their Shiiteroots. Shiites recently celebrated Ashura, the commemorationof the slaying of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Husseinbin Ali, in 680 CE by forces loyal to the Damascus-basedUmayyad Caliph Yazid bin Muawiya at Karbala in present dayIraq. A “Sunni” or traditional leader from outsideMohammed’s family, Yazid ordered Hussein’s decapitation,mounted his dome on a pike and paraded it alongsidesurviving members of his family throughout the UmayyadEmpire. After brief stops in Kufa and Mosul, the processionheaded through the Jazeera to Aleppo, then south towards theSyrian cities of Idlib and Homs before ending the journey inDamascus.
The spectacle backfired, however, turning Hussein’s causeinto a local crusade. Small Shiite communities sproutedalong the procession’s route, who were later joined by Sunnitribes from southern Iraq familiar with Shiite customs. Somebuilt “maqaam” or shrines. Other Shiite communities in Syriagathered around Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet Mohammed)tombs in Syria. During the Ottoman Caliphate (1415-1918),many Shiites in these communities converted to the dominantSunni Islam to avoid harassment.
Hundreds of years later, Shiite converts say thatinnovations such as satellite TV and the internet arehelping Jazeerites understand Shiite Islam. They also helpconverts keep in touch with marjaa’iyat, or Shiite “Sourcesof Emulation” worldwide, including Iran’s Supreme Leader AliKhamanei and Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Shiite religious satellite TV programming has been growingfor decades, but converts say the man who moved it to primetime in the region was Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah.His calm and collected televised addresses, even as Israelattempted to bomb Lebanon “back 20 years” last summer, ledSunnis to take a second look at Shiite Islam.
“Hizbullah’s victory broke the ice wall between Sunnis andShiites,” one convert told me. “Many Syrians hosted LebaneseShiite families in their homes during the war. This openedpeople’s eyes and humanized Shiites.”
Teachers in hauzas – Shiite religious schools – say therecent restoration of shrines and tombs in Syria and thebuilding of more hauzas are paving the way for a Shiiterevival. It is here that Iranians have entered theShiitization fray over the last few years by financing therenovation of tombs of Sayida Sukaina near Damascus andAmmar bin Yasser, a close companion of Mohammed, in theEuphrates Valley city of Raqqa. Iranians support a Shiiteschool as well, the Damascus-based Hauza of the SupremeLeader.
Before a Shiite crescent moon rises in your mind, Shiiteconverts admonish that the alliance’s religious base isfragmented. The zealots of the Islamic Republic andHizbullah await the return of “Al-Mahdi” – the 12th ImamMohammed ibn Hasan. The Assads are Alawites, however, asecular Shiite Muslim sect that reveres the 11th ShiiteImam, Hassan al-Askari. Protecting Syrian Shiite converts’right to choose a new faith isn’t Shiite brotherhood, but,ironically, the Assad regime’s use of Ba’athism – secular, pan-Arab ideology that has guaranteed freedom of religion forSyrians of all faiths for over 44 years.
There are signs that a Shiite Crescent might not be in theregion’s political stars as well. Many Syrians say they areworried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria,especially after the execution of former Iraqi PresidentSaddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’sShiite-dominated government. Inside the Iranian-Syrianalliance, Damascus is reportedly unhappy over Iran’s recentdialogue with Sunni Saudi Arabia to end the stalemate inLebanon between Hizbullah and the Siniora government.Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recentpeace overtures with Israel. Both sides denied the riftduring Assad’s visit to Tehran in February. But only daysafter Assad’s return, a group of Syrian intellectuals andparliamentarians lambasted Deputy Iranian Foreign MinisterManouchehr Mohammadi in a closed-door (but widely reported)dialogue session. The point of contention? Iranian supportfor Shiitization in Syria.