Arab Shiites must reclaim religious authority from Iran

Will Arab Shiites liberate the Shiite sect from Iran’s grip?

Mohammed al-Sulami
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It's well-known that Iraq is the origin and base of Shiite authority in the Middle East. It was first Baghdad then Najaf, and this lasted for centuries. Iran's Qom however did not emerge as a religious center until the first quarter of the 20th Century, and it did not emerge as a reference for Shiites until the Iranian revolution erupted and the mullahs seized power in Tehran. In other words, Arabs, and not the Persians, have throughout history been the leaders and references of the Shiite sect. After the Iranian revolution, Iran worked on a strategy to market itself as a leader and embracer of Shiites across the world, particularly within its geographic surroundings. It assigned itself as defender of the Shiites to the extent that it included an item in the constitution that stipulates defending what Tehran calls "the vulnerable," a term that means Shiite and Shiism but with an embellished touch.

Through its "umm al-qura" (mother of villages) theory, Iran has sought to replace the capital of the Islamic world, Makkah, with Qom. But Iran miserably failed, so it worked on turning Qom into the capital of the Shiite sect and thus replacing Najaf. It worked on attracting some Arab Shiite clerics and provided support through seminaries which are taught in Arabic in that small city. It also offered scholarships to Shiite youths, of whom many were recruited in Iran and returned home to become part of Iran's cells in the Arab world. This is how Iran’s Velayat-e Faqih ideology and principles, which are characterized with an extremist Persian touch, were exported to Shiite communities in the Arab world. However, Iran's major aim will not just be achieved by focusing on Qom and making it stand out. Iran has reached a conviction that it won't achieve its aims unless by marginalizing and weakening the Arab Shiite authority in the region. It has therefore resorted to using the carrot and stick approach and demonizing its rivals, fabricating accusations against them or assassinating them. It has also warned of certain Shiite figures who are well-aware of the Iranian project which does not care about the Shiite sect itself as much as it cares about possessing all the means to achieve its nationalistic and political aims in the region. Among these Shiite symbols that were targeted or marginalized in Iraq and Lebanon are al-Hasani, al-Waeli, al-Khoei, al-Sarkhi, al-Husseini, al-Amin and others.

Will Arab Shiites liberate the Shiite sect from Iran’s grip?

Mohammad al-Sulami

Transferring the Shiite authority from Iraq to Iran and the "Persianization" of the sect also means Tehran's seizure of the funds collected from Khums tax and Nadhrs vows. I believe Iran would use these funds to support its political and sectarian agenda in the region as it has military wings and militias in many countries where there are Shiites - militias who operate in Iran's favor and against their countries' interests. Therefore, there's an urgent need to issue decisions and legislations that criminalize exporting these Khums and Nadhrs funds to other countries and to make sure they're spent on the poor.

Iran does not represent all Shiites

Given all this, we must ask the question of whether Iran is the only party to blame for this. Objectively speaking, I think it's inaccurate to say Iran is the only one to blame as some Arabs have directly or indirectly contributed to leading Shiites into Iran's arms. Viewing Iran and Shiites as two sides of the same coin is a huge mistake. Not all the Shiites imitate Khamenei or believe in Velayat-e Faqih or believe in the sectarian extremism which contaminated the sect over five centuries ago, which was revived following the 1979 revolution.

I've always said that Iran does not represent all Shiites and vice versa. Iran is not 100% Shiite; Sunnis constitute about 10% of the population. The Iranian population is also made up of several other religions and sects. Logically speaking, we must not consider that all Shiites are linked to Iran. There are Shiite patriots who are loyal to their countries and who are well-aware of the Iranian threat. Yes, many of them do not clearly show this out of fear that Iran's proxies will harm them, harass them or fabricate false accusations against them. However this does not mean they are not out there.

Bringing Arab Shiites who admire Iran back to the Arab embrace and keeping them away from Iran can be achieved through several steps which Arab Shiites themselves can do before others. Restoring the Shiite authority to Najaf is also a pan-Arab necessity. It's also important that Shiites in Arab Gulf countries establish references for their sect in their countries - references which are linked to them and which they can give their Khums and Nadhrs funds to. This will prevent Iran from infiltrating their countries and societies. It will also help them see how non-Persian Shiites are being treated in Iran and how Tehran persecutes minorities in Ahaz, Azerbaijan and other areas. Arabs, Azeris and Turks in Iran are unjustly treated by the ruling power in Tehran despite the fact that they belong to the Shiite sect. So in what way do you expect Iran to treat Shiites who are outside its borders?

In brief, the Iranian regime's major aim of alleging to support and defend Shiites in the region can only be seen within the context of serving the Iranian political project in the region. Iran wants to use Shiite minorities to serve this project. Are those fooled by Iran aware of this truth? And more importantly, will Arab Shiites liberate the Shiite sect from Iran’s grip?

This article was first published in al-Watan newspaper on Jan. 28, 2016.

Saudi columnist Mohammad al-Sulami is an expert on Iranian political affairs and has received a PhD in the field of Iranian studies. He tweets: @mohalsulami

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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