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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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.