Signs of Shia courage

Despite the latest wave of suicide attacks in Iraq, millions of Shia Muslim pilgrims continue to flood to the shrine of Hussein in Karbala.

Several years ago, I met an Australian man who had converted to Islam (and, specifically, to Shia Islam). He told me that, in 2003, he had been watching the news one evening and was astonished by scenes of two million Iraqis streaming towards the holy city of Karbala, chanting: "Hussein, Hussein." For the first time in three decades, in a globally televised event, the world had caught a glimpse of Shia Iraq from the inside.

With the Sunni Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein toppled, Australians, like everyone else, were eager to see how Shia Iraqis would respond to a new era of freedom. "Where is Karbala, and why is everyone heading in its direction?" he recalls asking himself. "Isn't Baghdad the capital of the country? Isn't that where all 'the action' is? Who is this Hussein who motivates these people?"

They were the first in a long line of questions that eventually led him to relinquish his Roman Catholic faith and instead embrace Shia Islam.

What he witnessed in that single, 60-second television news report was especially moving because the imagery was unlike any he had seen before. There was something intense about the commotion. A fervent sense of connection turned human pilgrims into iron filings, automatically aligning with each other as they drew closer to what could only be described as Karbala's powerful magnetic field. It was more than intriguing; it was astonishing and inspiring.

Long trek

In 2007, I travelled to Karbala, my own ancestral home, to find out for myself why such scenes are so captivating. What I witnessed proved to me that even the widest-angle camera lens is too narrow to capture the spirit of this tumultuous, annual Shia ritual.

Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children -- but mostly black-veiled women -- filled the eye from one end of the horizon to the other.The crowds were so huge that they caused a blockade for hundreds of miles. I had the privilege of being driven to Karbala in armoured vehicles with a police escort throughout the nine-hour journey. But the road was overflowing with pilgrims on foot.

The 425-kilometre distance between the southern port city of Basra and Karbala is a long journey by any measure, and must be unimaginably arduous on foot. It takes pilgrims a full two weeks to complete the walk. Some push their parents in wheelchairs. People of all age groups trudge in the scorching heat of the sun during the day and in the bone-chilling cold at night.

They travel across rough terrain, down uneven roads, through terrorist strongholds and dangerous marshlands. Without even them most basic amenities or any travel gear, the pilgrims carry little besides their burning love for "The Master" -- their imam, Hussein. Flags and banners remind them, and the world, of the purpose of their journey.

One banner I saw on my journey read:

O self, you are worthless after Hussein.                                            
My life and death are one and the same,                                                  
So be it if you call me insane!                                                                

The message recalled words said to have been uttered by Abbas, Hussein's half-brother, who was also killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680AD while trying to fetch water for his thirst-stricken nieces and nephews.

Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is adored by all Shias. Millions of Sunnis also revere him, as Sayyid ash Shuhada, the "prince of martyrs". He was killed in Karbala on Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, having refused to pledge allegiance to the corrupt and tyrannical Ummayad caliph, Yazid.

He and his family and friends were isolated in the desert, starved of food and water and then beheaded. Their bodies were mutilated. In the words of the English historian Edward Gibbon: "In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader."

Shias have since mourned the death of Hussein each year, in particular on the days of Ashura and Arba'een. The latter is the Shia holy day of religious observation that occurs 40 days after the day of Ashura. Forty days is the usual length of mourning in many Muslim (and Middle Eastern) cultures. This year, Arba'een falls on Friday 5 February.

Care and devotion

The horrific bomb blasts of late January and early February in Baghdad and Karbala, which killed dozens and wounded hundreds, illustrate the dangers facing Shias living in Iraq, and the insecurity that continues to plague parts of the country after the war. So it is striking to see so many people -- young and old, Iraqis and foreigners -- making the dangerous journey to Karbala.

And it is far from easy to understand what inspires these people. On my own trip, I saw a woman carrying two children in her arms, old men in wheelchairs, a man on crutches, a blind boy holding a walking stick.

I met a 46-year-old man who had travelled all the way from Basra with his disabled son. The 12-year-old had cerebral palsy and could not walk unassisted. For most of the trip, the father put the boy's feet on top of his own and held him by the armpits as they walked. It is the kind of story out of which Oscar-winning films are made, but no Hollywood director or screenwriter dares venture into Iraq these days.

One image that never failed to grab my attention was the sight of thousands of tents, with makeshift kitchens and medical clinics set up by the local villagers who live around the pilgrims' path. The tents (called mawkeb, or "caravan") are the only places where pilgrims can find a space to rest from the exhausting journey.

More surprising were the people asking pilgrims to join them for food and drink. They intercept the pilgrims' paths to invite them, plead with them and eventually prevail on them to take a short break by the side of the road, without asking for payment. They would say: "Please honour us with your presence. Our masters, bless us by accepting our offerings."

Entire towns in Iraq seemed to shut down as millions converged on the holy city. One local tribal leader -- who, in keeping with Iraqi tribal traditions, bows to no one and is treated by his followers as a king -- was standing on the road, calling out through a loudspeaker: "Welcome, o pilgrims of Hussein. I'll kiss the soles of your shoes. May I be sacrificed for you!"

Sacrifice for truth

Just looking at the crowds leaves you breathless. What adds to the peculiarity of the phenomenon is that, as the security conditions get worse, even more people are motivated, it seems, to challenge the terrorist threats and march in defiance to Karbala.

When, days before Arba'een, a female suicide bomber blew herself up after inviting pilgrims to eat in her tent in Alexandria, 45 kilometres south of Baghdad, the crowds turned out in even greater numbers. They chanted in unison:

If they sever our legs and hands,                                                               
We shall crawl to the Holy Lands.                                                               

And it is not just peasants who take part in this multimillion-man march. There are doctors, engineers, teachers, academics, as well as wealthy entrepreneurs and leading politicians, all of whom participate in what is today one of the biggest annual mass demonstrations in the world. They journey from all over the globe -- Iran, India, Pakistan, Britain, Canada, the United States.

This year, the total number of pilgrims visiting Karbala for Arba'een is officially estimated to have reached ten million. Some say that as security improves in Iraq the figure may one day top 20 million.

Seeing the crowds and joining the procession of pilgrims, I was reminded of the questions that my Australian friend had asked himself when he witnessed the Arba'een procession of 2003: "Who is Hussein? And how does he continue to inspire so many people, over 13 centuries after his martyrdom?"

For Shias, Hussein is the ultimate moral exemplar: a man who refused to bow in the face of tyranny and despotism. Shias see his martyrdom as the greatest victory of good over evil, right over wrong, truth over falsehood. In the words of the Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal: "Imam Hussein uprooted despotism for ever till the Day of Resurrection. He watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, and indeed he awakened the sleeping Muslim nation . . . Hussein weltered in blood and dust for the sake of truth."

Holy of holies

But why would all these people walk for hundreds of miles to remember a painful event that took place over 13 centuries ago? Visitors to the shrine of Hussein and his brother Abbas in Karbala are not driven by emotion alone. They cry because they make a conscious decision to be reminded of the atrocious nature of the loss and, in doing so, they reaffirm their pledge to everything that is virtuous and holy.

The first thing that pilgrims do on facing his shrine is recite the Ziyara, a sacred text addressing Hussein with due respect for his status, position and lineage. In it, the Shia imams who followed him after the massacre in Karbala instruct their followers to begin the address by calling Hussein the "inheritor" and "heir" of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

There is something profound in making this proclamation. It shows that Hussein's message of truth and freedom is viewed as an inseparable extension of that list of divinely appointed prophets.

Pilgrims go to Karbala not to admire its physical beauty, or to shop, or to be entertained, or to visit ancient historical sites. They go there to cry. They go to mourn. They go to join the angels in their grief. They enter the sacred shrine weeping and lamenting.

It is as though every person has established a personal relationship with the Imam. They talk to him and call out his name; they grip the cage surrounding his tomb; they kiss the floor leading into the shrine; they touch its walls and doors in the way one touches the face of a long-lost friend. It is a picturesque vista, on epic proportions. What motivates these people is something that requires an understanding of the character and status of Imam Hussein and the spiritual relationship that Shias, and in particular Shia Iraqis, have developed with his living legend.

"Who is this Hussein"? For millions of Shia pilgrims, questions this profound, which can cause a man to relinquish his religion for another, can be answered only when you have marched to the shrine of Hussein for 14 days on foot. The verses of a Shia friend of mine sum it up:

The closer I get and when you I'll be seeing,                               
My emotions take control, with love I begin to shake.                              
I look at you now and my life has new meaning.                              
From you some painful beauty with me I must take.                              

O Karbala, I feel what you're feeling,                              
O land of loving sorrow, O land of heartbreak,                              
O land where my leader does rest,                              
Welcome me as a pilgrim, please make me your guest.                              

Sayed Mahdi Al-Modaressi is a Shia cleric and chief executive of Ahlulbayt Television Network.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear