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.

Photo: Getty
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What to look out for in the 2017 local elections on 4 May

Your guide to the important results, through the night and into Friday evening. 

Voters in England, Scotland and Wales will elect councillors and county councillors on 4 May, in the first major indicator of party strength since the referendum contest. The snap election on 8 June gives the contest an added edge. Here's what to look out for as the night unfolds. 

22:00:  Polls close, and the New Statesman liveblog opens. Parties will start their spin operations, which will give us an idea how well or badly they think they’ve done.

Remember the historic trajectory is for the opposition parties to do better at local elections than general elections, as voters use them to send a message to the boss. That even holds true for the elections in 1983 and 1987, which occurred in May before a June election, where the Conservatives made gains, unusually for a governing party when locals are not held on the same day as general election. So both the Liberal Democrats and Labour will want to post big results in anticipation of doing worse on 8 June than they will on 4 May.

We will also be electing the new combined authority mayors. These use the instant run-off system, which means that if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off. This is one reason why the Conservatives will struggle to win any of these elections other than Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

There will, I imagine, be some on-the-whistle polls, though these should not be considered “exit polls” in the sense of the big one on general election nights.

Well, British exit polls aren’t measuring voting intention – they don’t give us much of a sense of what the percentage of the vote will be, for instance – but change. Although there are many more Labour voters in Hackney than there are in Harrogate, for instance, for the most part, if there is a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Hackney, there will be a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Harrogate – and, more importantly, in Harlow, a marginal seat.

This is very expensive however, so broadcasters will not be shelling out for an exit poll for the local elections. Instead, we’ll just get ordinary polls.

Hopefully they’ll be interesting, because we won’t have much to talk about until…

02:00: Results come in from the Isle of Wight, which, thanks to its large number of independents, won’t tell us all that much unless the Liberal Democrats are on course for a fantastic night. More interesting is Swansea, the first Welsh council due to declare.  Labour hold 49 of the seats here, but the Liberal Democrats went from 23 seats here to just 12 last time, so they will hope to make gains.

These results won’t disprove anything – Labour could hold on in Swansea and the Isle of Wight could continue to be a bit odd and the Liberal Democrat revival could be on, but it’s also possible that we will see that they are really starting to get back to their pre-coalition position.

Also keep a look out for how the Conservatives do in the wards that make up Gower, a Labour seat from 1906 until the 2015 election, where Byron Davies is defending a wafer-thin majority on 8 June.

02:30: Wrexham will declare. Wrexham has been in no overall control since ten Labour councillors, including the council leader, resigned the whip in protest at interference from regional officers. As a result, we won’t get as good an idea as we’d like what this result means for Ian Lucas’s chances of holding onto to Wrexham, which narrowly stayed Labour in 2015.

03:00:  It’s raining Welsh councils. Cardiff (Labour controlled, Liberal Democrats looking to recover lost ground in a council they ran until 2012) , Flintshire (Labour in coalition with independents facing Liberal Democrats), Merthyr Tydfil (Labour controlled having been run by a Liberal coalition with Indepedents from 2008 to 2012), and the improbably-named Neath Port Talbot  (Labour hegemony).

In terms of general election battles, look at how the Conservatives do in the wards making up Cardiff North, which they are defending, and Cardiffs West and South, which they hope to take. Look out for how the Labour-Liberal Democrat battle works out in Cardiff Central, too. In Flintshire, keep an eye out for the results in Delyn and Alyn and Deeside, where Labour’s Mark Tami and David Hanson face tough re-election bids against the Tories.

The great unknown is how well Ukip will do. Ukip have performed strongly in Wales but the last time these seats were up, in 2012, the party hadn’t enjoyed its 2013-4 surge and now it is in institutional crisis. They are standing fewer candidates though some former Kippers may do well as independents.

Then the English mainland finally gets on the act, as county councils in Dorset (narrow Conservative majority) , Essex, Gloucestershire (narrow Conservative majority) and Lincolnshire (Conservatives in coalition with Liberal Democrats and independents), Somerset (Conservative majority), Warwickshire (no overall control) declare.

In Dorset, watch out how the Liberal Democrats do, particularly in the wards of Mid Dorset and Poole,  which they held until 2015 and then lost on a massive swing. We’d expect a reversion to the mean for the Liberal Democrats on 8 June as they come off the back of their very bad losses in the 2015 general election. So look out for signs of that here. For Labour, their best hope comes within South Dorset, a seat they held until 2010, though unfavorable boundary changes since then make it a safe seat for Richard Drax.  

In Gloucestershire, the Liberal Democrats will be looking for a big performance in the wards of Cheltenham, another 2015 loss, while Labour will hope to build on their 2012 gains in the city of Gloucester itself. Seats in the Cotswolds constituency will give us a good clue as to whether or not the Liberal Democrats’ push into affluent Conservative areas that voted Remain is bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Labour have two marginals to defend, while the Tories have three at a parliamentary level in Lincolnshire. The Tories will hope to defend LincolnBrigg and Goole and Cleethorpes in June, while Labour’s Melanie Onn and Nic Dakin are protecting narrow majorities in Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe respectively.

In Somerset, look out for the scale of the Liberal Democrat revival, particularly in Taunton Deane and Wells where Rebecca Pow and James Heappey are hoping to head off Liberal revivals. Remain-voting Bath in particular is worth keeping an eye on.

Warwickshire is all-blue at a Westminster level, though it contains the marginal seats of Nuneaton, North Warwickshire, and Rugby, which despite its 10,000 vote majority is the emblematic seat Labour would need to win to secure a parliamentary majority. As with all three of those seats, the council race should be a straightforward Tory-Labour battle.

04:00: Look for how Ukip or Ukippers-turned-independent can do in Blaenau Gwent, while the Conservatives hope to take Bridgend – held by Madeleine Moon at Westminster and crucially, Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones at the Assembly level – in June. A good Labour performance here would indicate that the Tories will face a harder time in Wales than the polls suggest.

In Newport, Labour regained their majority – lost in 2008 – in 2012, and the Liberal Democrats and Tories will both hope to eat into it. If the polls are to be believed, both Newport seats are at risk from the Conservatives, so look out for how they do here.

English county councils in Hampshire (Conservative) and Northumberland (no overall control) will declare. In Hampshire, the Liberal Democrats are looking for gains, particularly in Portsmouth South and Eastleigh, both lost in 2015.

04:30: Ceredigion, one of just eight Liberal Democrat defences, is up, but unfortunately, the local council is run by independents and Plaid Cymru so it's unlikely to tell us much unless the Welsh nationalists have an astonishingly good result, in which case, we won’t know much about what these means for Mark Williams’ re-election hopes.

05:00: CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge is scheduled to make his “O” face as the first ever combined authority mayoral result for the West of England comes in. (More accurately, it’s the Bristol-Bath-South Gloucestershire-and-North-East-Somerset mayoralty but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. Irritate a Bath resident and call it the “Greater Bristol” mayor. 

I am v. sceptical that this will come in at the advertised time as Bristol famously counts its results very, very slowly. But this is the only genuine three-way marginal of the mayoralties, though thanks to the form of run-off voting used, I expect there will be a lot of wasted transfers. (If you are a Green voter, it’s not at all clear whether you should put Labour or the Liberal Democrats as your second preference to stop the Tories, for instance.)  

That the Liberal Democrats are standing their still-popular former Bristol MP Stephen Williams as their candidate increases their chances here.

Monmouthshire (Conservative-Liberal coalition), will declare. Labour will hope to become the largest party and take control. Monmouth constituency has a formidable Tory majority of 10,000 despite being Labour until 2005, but is, again, in the ballpark of seats Labour must compete in if it wishes to govern alone. 

05:30: Doncaster mayoralty. Ukip used to talk a big game about taking this kind of thing. Not so much now.

07:00: Vale of Glamorgan will declare. Conservative at Westminster, but run by a minority Labour administration since 2012, Labour must take control and take control comfortably if they are to take the seat back on 8 June.

08:00:  Cumbria, where Labour runs a minority administration, to declare. Look out for how the party performs in the wards of Copeland and Barrow, both of which the party hopes to hold onto from 2015. The Welsh council of Torfaen, a Labour stronghold at both Westminster and local level, will also declare.

08:00-11:00: Sleep.

11:00: The first Scottish result comes in. Unfortunately, it’s from the Orkney Islands, where only independents stand at a local level, so we will learn….not a lot.

Scotlad elects councillors under the single transferable vote system so most of the councils are coalitions. In terms of stress-testing the polls, there are two things to look out for: the first is a general Conservative vote increase. The second is the emergence of what you might call the Unionist front: that is, people voting on constitutional lines across left-right lines. If that happens, the SNP may underperform their voteshare significantly as far as council seats go.

The nightmare for Labour: a massive increase in the Tory vote but no emergence of Unionist tactical voting. That would suggest that not only are the polls showing the Tories up to 30 per cent in Scotland are true, but that there is no electoral dividend for Labour there at all. (This would also be in contrast to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, where Labour lost votes but their vote became more effective thanks to tactical Unionist votes.)

The other thing to watch out for: if people, particularly Green-aligned voters, use these elections to punish the SNP government, which is sort of what we’d expect in regular times, or if they too vote tactically for pro-Yes candidates.

12:00: Stirling, the first Scottish local authority which may tell us anything at all about how the general election is going to play out, reports. The SNP are the largest party but they are in opposition, as a combined Labour-Conservative coalition run the show.

12:30: Clackmannanshire, currently run by the SNP but no overall control. Formerly held by Labour at Westminster and now represented by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Meanwhile, in Wales, Denbighshire will declare. The polls suggest that Labour’s Susan Jones will be out of a job come 9 June. If Labour are going to hold the seat at the general, they will want to take control of the council in May. (It is presently a hung council with Labour the largest party.)

13:00: The Shetland Islands, which like Orkney elect independents, will declare. More interesting for the general will be Angus, where the SNP are the largest party by a distance. If the Tories are going to make gains of the kind forecast in the polls in Scotland, they need to at least be becoming the official opposition in places like Angus.

In England, Devon and Hertfordshire will declare. Devon is a straight Tory-Liberal battle. Hertfordshire is more complex. The Liberal Democrats will want a good result in the wards of Three Rivers while Watford is a three-way marginal. If Labour are to defy the polls and form a government, they should expect to gain seats in the wards making up Stevenage.

 14:00:  In England, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex all declare. Cambridgeshire is the one to watch – if the #LibDemfightback is a thing, we’ll feel it there, in the wards of the city itself in particular.

In Wales, Caerphilly, Conwy, Gwynedd, and Pembrokeshire all declare. Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire and Conwy have large numbers of independents so may not tell us very much about how the general election will pan out.  Caerphily is a straight party battle: it’s a Labour vs Plaid Cymru but it won’t tell us much about how things will play out in the parliamentary seats, where Labour are miles ahead and their opponent is Ukip.

And in Scotland, Dumfries & Galloway, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Inverclyde, Moray, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire all declare. The big one to watch is the Borders – the Conservatives are the largest party but are in opposition to an SNP-Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition. Getting good results in places like this will give us an idea how much the Conservative revival in Scotland will pay dividends in terms of gaining seats.

14:30: Aberdeenshire, East Lothian, and Renfrewshire all declare. Aberdeenshire is the fun one: the SNP are the largest party by a distance at the council and they of course hold the seats at Westminster. But it voted to stay in the United Kingdom by a heavy margin and the Scottish Conservatives won the Holyrood seat last year. If the Tories can become the largest party here, they are headed for a great result in Scotland in June.

15:00: Liverpool City Region will declare. Given my dubiousness about Bristol’s counting proccesses, I reckon Steve Rotheram is in with a chance of being the first person elected to these new combined authorities.

In England, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Surrey and West Sussex declare. Cornwall is run by a Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition, and if there is to be a Liberal revival in that part of the world, it will surely be felt in the council elections. 

In Scotland, Aberdeen, East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, North Ayrshire and West Lothian declare. East Dunbartonshire may give us a hint about Jo Swinson’s chances of taking back the parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats.

 16:00: A little bit of history will likely be made when Labour lose control of Glasgow Council.

The combined authority of Tees Valley should be a routine Labour win. Worry about June if it’s not. Norma Redfern is running for re-election as Labour’s mayor inn North Tyneside, which she ought to win easily.

In England, Labour should consolidate their position in Derbyshire, and win a majority in Lancashire, where they are currently no overall control. If they don’t – and if they slip back in both or either – that will be further evidence that Labour’s dire polling is correct.

17:00: In England, Labour will hope to make gains in Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire. Elsewhere, it’s a Conservative-Liberal fight.

It is very, very, very unlikely that anyone but the Tories will win the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough combined mayoralty. If the Liberal Democrats do it, expect a lot of Conservative MPs to start worrying.   

In Scotland, Edinburgh will declare. Who comes out on top there will be a fascinating pointer as to where Scottish politics is going: the city returned candidates from the SNP, Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats last year. At a council ward-level, it really is anyone’s game.

17:30: The Tories won seats at a clip in the Scottish Parliament last year, including Eastwood. See how they do in East Renfrewshire to see if they have a chance of doing the same to its Westminster equivalent.

18:00: Who will win the Greater Manchester mayoralty? Hint: rhymes with Andy Burnham.  More interesting is the West Midlands mayoralty, where Labour’s Sion Simon faces a strong challenge from the Conservatives’ Andy Street. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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