My guidebook described it as "the ideal mosque in Las Vegas." This odd statement motivated me to visit Sayyida Zeinab's shrine in southern Damascus. Immediately, I understood what the travel writer meant; the stunning shrine with its golden dome and blue tiles, its spectacular design and elaborate architecture and the happy, animated crowd were simply overwhelming. Yes, it was like a pious version of what we might find in Las Vegas, minus the black garments and religious services. Shiites are always elaborate in their happiness as well as in their sadness; their attitudes, mosques, core theology and historical narrative differentiate them from their fellow Sunnis. These differences are as old as Islam and have fueled a centuries-old conflict that was often bloody and ruthless. Egypt luckily had not experienced what countries like Iraq have endured for years; alas, the barbaric mob attack against Shiites on June 23 — which left four dead in the town of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Giza governorate, south of Cairo — has brought the ugly Shiite-Sunni sectarianism to Egypt in an undisputed way.
My travels to Syria, Lebanon and later to Iran gave me my first introduction to the deep and occasionally hidden tension that has always been part of the Levant. It also brought home to me how ignorant we Egyptians are about Shiite Islam. The successive governments of the most populous Arab nation have never bothered to educate its people about a section of its minority, its history and many historic aspects of its religion. Our history books describe events in a very dry, abstract and carefully phrased way. For example, books accurately describe that Al-Azhar mosque was founded in 970 by Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah, but neglect to highlight that the highest seat of Sunni religious authority was originally a Shiite place of worship — and it was closed for 10 years by Saladin to wean it from Shiism and reintroduce it as a Sunni university. Such whitewashing of history has nurtured the chronic ignorance that was later exploited and led to the persecution of the Shiites in Egypt. It also gave Egyptians a false sense that they are somehow immune from intersect sectarianism.
What’s more ironic is how the Shiite traditions have survived in Egypt, but without the conscious realization that they are indeed Shiite practices; the 10th-century Shiite Fatimad rule of Egypt left a deep legacy that has failed to vanish; from Ramadan lanterns to the various sweets designed for each Muslim feast and the "Moulid," a sort of mystical birthday carnival celebration that Egyptians perform annually for many religious figures, including family members of the prophet such as Al-Hussain and Sayyida Zeinab. Even in the mourning of the dead, the marking of the 40 days after burial known as "Arbayeen" is a common Egyptian custom. In fact, one might best describe Egyptian Islam as a Sunni doctrine with a distinctive Shiite flavor.
In contemporary Egypt, Shiism has essentially experienced three phases:
First, the tolerance phase of Shiism. Intersect marriages took place, just as they did in Lebanon and Iraq. The most famous was the marriage of King Farouk’s sister Fawzyia to the Shah of Iran; no one in Egypt, including religious scholars, expressed reservation about the marriage — the marriage failed, but certainly not because of religious reasons.
Second, the indifference phase, in which Shiites were not necessarily persecuted but like many minorities were expected to suppress their identity in favor of the government-sponsored Arab nationalism identity.
Third, discrimination and persecution. The rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, together with the resurgence of Wahhabi Islam in the Gulf has led to a growing polarization and prejudice in society against Shiites. Former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime fed into the prejudice, and it arrested and persecuted Shiites. It was part of a broader carrot-and-stick approach to radical Sunni Islamists — to turn a blind eye away from their sectarian hatred and extreme views, even arrest their “enemies,” but also as a ruthlessly crackdown on Sunni Islamists when they challenge authority. Shiites, just like Copts and other minorities, were the pig trapped between the anvil of the Islamists and the hammer of the state.
The January 2011 revolution did not bring about better treatment for the Shiites; in fact, it compounded their misery. At least Mubarak kept a strong grip on the security of the country and did not allow religious channels to air hatred speech and sectarian materials. The revolution has brought the worst possible anti-minority combination; independent religious media that spread hatred and inaccurate information, a collapse of law and order and a rise of anti-Shiite rhetoric. In late April, dozens of Islamists protested against an Egyptian Shiite activist. Last May, a Salafi Nour Party MP argued that Iranian tourism to Egypt threatens national security and will undermine the country's Sunni doctrine.
However, the most crucial factor that ultimately led to Sunday’s horrific attack is the Muslim Brotherhood’s public incitement against Shiites. Last April, Mohamed Wahdan, a member of the guidance office of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that Shiites have no place in Egypt. The initial warm relationship with Iran and the efforts to negotiate a settlement amid the Syrian conflict was short-lived and followed by a U-turn by President Mohammed Morsi; on May 15, a number of Salafis insulted Shiites during a pro-Syria rally attended by Morsi, "who listened silently while remaining impassive." It is no surprise that many took this reaction as a license to lynch Shiites, considered by many radical Islamists as heretics.
In Iran, it is common to see water fountains in the middle of mosques, a legacy of how Islam has switched off the Zoroastrian fire. If Morsi and his ruling party really want to flame down sectarianism, they must do more than just dole out verbal condemnation; ignorance and anti-Shiite incitement must be ratified. Egypt’s Islamist regime that claims renaissance as a manifesto should neither sustain pre-Islamic tribalism and savage backwardness nor resurrect the tragic chapter of inter-Islamic war. We should be proud of our Shiite heritage, embrace our Shiite brothers and revive tolerance — the best part of our faith.
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