The Middle East Channel

The language of anti-Shiism

The recent wave of anti-Shiite rhetoric and sectarian polarization has caused profound concerns across the Middle East. Sectarian tensions are not new, of course, but the vocabulary of anti-Shiism in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Shiites who used to be accused of ethnic otherness are now being cast as outside the Muslim community itself. Exclusion on doctrinal grounds was a mostly Saudi exception in the framing of Shiism. It is now increasingly becoming the regional rule.

Prior to 2003, anti-Shiism in Iraq was perhaps best encapsulated in the term ajam. Ajam (singular ajmi) is an Arabic phrase meaning non-Arab; however, in the modern Middle Eastern vernacular, particularly in Iraq, "the ajam" is usually understood as "the Iranians." Throughout the 20th century this term was used to discredit Shiite activists and political opponents by casting doubt on their national loyalty and Arab pedigree. Sectarian otherness was framed in distinctly national and ethnic terms with scant, if any, reference to sectarian dogma, doctrine, or beliefs. In other words, prior to 2003, Middle Eastern Sunni-Shiite dynamics were more often manifestations of nationalistic and ethnic rather than religious expression. 

Ethnic markers mattered, of course, in an age dominated by anti-colonialism, "progressive revolutionary" ideologies and above all by pan-Arabism. Arab conceptions of "us and them" in most of the 20th century elevated Arab identity to the prime marker of belonging. As such, Shiite opposition in Iraq -- from Mahdi al Khalisi in the 1920s to exiled oppositionists in the early 21st century -- was discredited by successive governments on ethnic grounds of national inclusion rather than religious ones. Iraqi Shiite oppositionists -- even violent Shiite militants such as those of the 1970s -- were attacked for being allegedly pro-Iranian or even for being Iranian themselves -- ajam. Few bothered, for example, with their somewhat ambivalent views toward Aisha or the first three caliphs -- rafidha. Even the Iraqi regime's denunciation of the 1991 southern uprising largely stuck to the prism of ethnicity and only gingerly approached elements of faith, ritual, and doctrine.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein changed all that. Since 2003, ajam, a term that was ubiquitous in what was regarded as anti-Shiite sentiment in Iraq and beyond, has all but disappeared from public usage. In its place has emerged a style of anti-Shiism that was largely the preserve of clerical circles of the Saudi Arabian variant. This is a discourse of exclusion primarily based on religious otherness that is embodied by the word rafidha. This new form of sectarian animosity frames the Shiites as suspect not because of the allegedly ambiguous national loyalties of some nor because of the so-called "ethnic impurity" of others but because of the beliefs that define the sect as a whole.

There is a qualitative difference between stigmatizing the Shiites as ajam and stigmatizing them as rafidha. Its potential repercussions on stability and social cohesion explain why authoritarian regimes in Iraq and elsewhere employed the former and repressed the latter. Multi-sectarian states like Iraq need a convincing veneer of inclusivity to survive. Iraq can afford to treat its miniscule Baha'i community the way Saudi Arabia treats its religious minorities, but its internal stability is hardly served by the explicit, unabashed, and ideological exclusion of culturally or demographically competitive sections of the population such as the Sunnis or Shiites. In dealing with Shiite opposition, ajam was a far more useful tool than rafidha for successive Iraqi regimes, as it allowed for selective exclusion: the state line throughout the 20th century was that some Shiites may be ajam but that does not detract from "our brothers" the "noble Arab Shiite tribes." This starkly contrasts with exclusion on the basis of doctrine which would place all Shiites beyond redemption until they renounce their beliefs and their adherence to Shiism.

The shift in how sectarian discourse is framed and the effect that authoritarianism had in shaping public discourse can be easily gleaned by comparing pre and post-2003 Iraqi Salafi discourse. In pre-war Iraq, even the most ardently anti-Shiite Salafis had to navigate their message within the state's red lines that seemed to forbid any explicit wholesale condemnation of Shiites. Come 2003 and the removal of state restrictions and the accelerated politicization of sectarian identities, those same Salafis modified their message and adopted previously restricted frames of reference -- a shift that was immediately noticeable in the vocabulary used. The most notable change was the adoption of rafidha at the expense of ajam and the use of more wholesale doctrinal issues rather than just ethnic ones to condemn and exclude all Shiites. Needless to say it can scarcely be doubted that this discrepancy reflects the changing pressures of state rather than changes in beliefs or changes in a preacher's views regarding Shiites and Shiism.

A most illustrative example can be found in Iraq's most well known anti-Shiite Salafi polemicist, Taha al Dulaimi, a man whose vitriol is such that he recently advocated the formation of a Sunni region in Anbar on the upper Euphrates -- as it is, "free from Shiite filth," -- and contemplated this proposed region's ability to cut the Euphrates' water flow in order to, "kill the [Shiite] south." Dulaimi's endeavors almost exclusively revolve around anti-Shiism; however, prior to 2003, and in line with Iraqi and, to many extents, regional trends, his pre-war public preaching framed the issue in terms of ethnicity with anti-Iranianism thinly cloaking doctrinal hatred. In essence, his undoubtedly genuine anti-Iranianism provided a vehicle through which to express sectarian Salafi beliefs by wedding Arab-nationalist chauvinism to sectarian bigotry without crossing the censor's red lines.

For example, in a sermon from 1998, Dulaimi launched into a tirade against central tenets of Shiite practice, ritualm and belief; however, this otherwise standard Salafi sectarian discourse was peculiar in that it was done as part of an expose of Iranian enmity toward Arabs rather than Shiite enmity toward Muslims. In other words, the problem is the ajam not the rafidha who remain unmentioned throughout. As such, Dulaimi presented the khums as a form of jizya exacted from Arabs by Iranians; turbans as a Persian displacement of Arab identity (incidentally, so too for some reason is the ancient book of fables Kalilah wa Dimnah); temporary marriage (mut'ah) as nothing more than a Persian attack on Arab honor; even the word sayyid as not an Arab word but an Iranian word signifying the first Persian state; and so forth. The anti-Shiism was palpable but due to state restrictions, and perhaps due to pre-2003 boundaries of political correctness, never once were the Shiites condemned for being Shiites; on the contrary, the sermon, and others from the 1990s, were filled with hollow obligatory disclaimers such as, "Iran bears no relation to original Shiism ... the original Arab Shiism is innocent of Iran."

This chimes with the ambivalent, even confused, view of many Arabs regarding Shiism prior to 2003: that there is essentially a bad Shiism and a good one with emotional and intellectual proximity to Iran being the arbiter differentiating between the two. This allowed the myth of a non-sectarian Arab world, in addition to myths of unity and uniformity, to be perpetuated and which allowed for a selective rather than wholesale exclusion of Shiites. In Dulaimi's pre-2003 words: "There is a difference between noble and true Shiites who have a noble and true Shiism and that alien Shiism. We are not talking about ... our dear brothers. These are our dear brothers ... beware the infiltrating ajmi." As is obvious in his voluminous writings since 2003, there is no doubt that the concluding sentiment would today be rephrased as the infiltrating Shiite or rafidhi.

These pre-2003 niceties, superfluous as they might seem to most Shiites, have long since been discarded. While Shiites' Arab pedigrees continue to be questioned, anti-Shiite discourse today is overwhelmingly concerned with religious otherness. It is the post-2003 sectarian landscape and the inflammation of a religiously inspired sectarian entrenchment that has shaped the sectarianization of Syria's civil war in stark contrast to how the Hama massacre of 1982 was framed. Likewise, it is this new sectarian landscape that is facilitating Hezbollah's unabashedly Shiite posture of late. Just as it is the post-2003 environment that has led to the spread of Sunni-Shiite tension beyond its usual geographic hotspots -- who could have predicted the public lynching of Shiites in Egypt of all places? Most strikingly perhaps the new sectarian landscape is illustrated by openly sectarian acts of violence and the genocidal rhetoric often accompanying them. Prior to 2003 seldom, if ever, was sectarian identity in and of itself the explicit rationale of discrimination or violence be it the deportation of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites in the 1970s and 1980s or the Hama massacre or even the violence of the Lebanese civil war.

Today it is no longer shocking to see violence framed and justified in terms of sectarian identity in and of itself as part of a wholesale condemnation and exclusion of the other. In such cases, ajam seems antiquated and hardly up to the task of vilifying the sectarian other. Sectarian extremists no longer pay lip service to the idea of unity and uniformity and state control has lost the ability -- and in some cases the interest -- to enforce the more selective and ambivalent sectarian discourse of the 20th century. Since 2003, a sectarian discourse marinated in religious dogma has emerged that leaves little room for compromise and even less room for "good Shiites" as was previously the case. The ajam were the "bad Shiites" whose ethnic impurities nevertheless potentially implicated the whole; however, the portrayal of Shiites as rafidha is a religious condemnation of all Shiite s for the fact that they are Shiites.

The newly invigorated emphasis on doctrinal as opposed to ethnic otherness has been internalized by some Shiite groups. In these circles, the term rafidha has been adopted and turned into a badge of honor. One group of activists proudly calls themselves al shabab al rafidhi (the rafidha youth) and publicly revel in those elements of Shiism that are most offensive to Sunnis. Similar Shiite groups compose poetry and anthems in which they refer to themselves as rafidha in an aggressive assertion of a very belligerent Shiite identity heavily infused with sectarian dogma. While this phenomenon remains relatively limited, it is reminiscent of the evolution of the "N"-word's usage over the 20th century. Also stricking is the contrast between such forms of Shiite expression and the more apologetic, low-profile Shiism that was more prevalent in the Arab world prior to 2003. 

These changes speak volumes about Middle Eastern states and societies and how they have been transformed by the changes and pressures of the past 10 years. Far from being an issue of mere semantics, the disappearance of ajam and the ubiquity of rafidha in sectarian discourse reflects profoundly consequential transformations in how sectarian relations, the nation-state and the criteria for inclusion are viewed in the post-2003 Middle East. While the long-term ramifications and trajectories of these changes cannot be predicted with certainty, developments thus far raise serious concern for sectarian relations in the immediate future.

Throughout the 20th century sectarian relations in Iraq -- and to varying degrees in Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain as well -- were framed through the prisms of the nation-state, ethnicity and national rather than religious inclusion or exclusion. A glaring exception, as already mentioned, was Saudi Arabia where sectarian identity and sectarian exclusion has always been, first and foremost, an issue of religion and religious doctrine.

Since 2003 however, the "Saudi exception" seems to be increasingly turning into the Middle Eastern rule. Today sectarian otherness in the Middle East is no longer framed in primarily ethnic or national terms but in starkly religious ones: where previously an Arab nationalist-influenced anti-Shiite discourse questioned the Shiites' ethnic and nationalist pedigree by referring to them as ajam, today a Salafi-influenced discourse questions Shiites' doctrines, religious beliefs, and ultimately their belonging to the Islamic world by referring to them as rafidha. This shift from ethnic or national exclusion to religious exclusion can potentially turn sectarian competition -- never pleasant even at the best of times -- into something far more divisive and intractable than anything witnessed in the history of the Arab nation-state.

Fanar Haddad is Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He has published widely on identity, identity politics, and modern Iraqi social history. He is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (London: Hurst & Co/New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). This essay is part of a special series on Islam in the Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.


The Middle East Channel

External support and the Syrian insurgency

Would arming moderate Syrian rebels reduce the influence of their radical counterparts? This question, which has been extensively debated by proponents and opponents of indirect military involvement in Syria, has perhaps become obsolete: backing the most pragmatic insurgent groups is what Saudi Arabia has been doing for months now, and it seems to work.

In the autumn of 2011, anti-regime demonstrators across Syria were praising a "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) whose leaders were predominantly defector officers. Although sometimes bearing Islamic names and using religious formulas in their statements, the FSA battalions were hardly putting forward any "Islamist" agenda at that time. By late 2012, however, the situation had profoundly changed. Use of the FSA label was increasingly rare among armed groups, many of which were abandoning the Syrian national flag in favor of the black banner of the Prophet. The rise of hardline Salafi factions like the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) led by Ahrar al-Sham, a faction with strong roots among Syrian veteran fighters of the Iraq war, was apparently irresistible, as FSA-affiliated battalions played the second roles in the rebels' major conquests at the time (Taftanaz, al-Jirah, Raqqa). 

The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric. In particular, although rejecting the Syrian flag, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) increasingly emphasized the Syrian, rather than global, character of their jihad. When in April the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, revealed that he was behind the creation of JN and announced the fusion of the two organizations into an "Islamic State of Iraq and Sham" (ISIS), he was rebuked by JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who insisted on the need to preserve the "Syrian specificity" of his group, a stance that received the support of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Other major insurgent groups, including Ahrar al-Sham denounced both al-Baghdadi's decision and al-Julani's pledge of allegiance to Zawahri. Although this rejection was partly driven by the fear of rejoining JN/ISIS on the U.S. terrorist list, it also suggests that transnational Jihad had little currency among the popular base of the rebellion.

During their "golden age" that is, before the JN/ISIS split, Syrian Jihadis were thus abandoning part of their ideological specificity. They were therefore converging with FSA-affiliated insurgents, which at the same moment were undergoing a process of Islamization. The quasi-general rejection of JN's November 2012 statement against the Syrian National Coalition was much less rooted in some disagreement about the Islamic character of the post-revolutionary state (be it called "civilian" by the moderates) than in diverging views about the exiled opposition and its state supporters. The recruitment by JN of a large number of Syrians, which by early this year vastly outnumbered foreign volunteers within the organization, also resulted in a more flexible approach to the enforcement of Islamic rules in the public space. As for anti-Alawite/anti-Shiite discourse, it was far from a Jihadi monopoly, as it was also gaining ground among mainstream rebel groups as a result of the increasingly sectarian character of the war. In that respect, it is interesting to note that the strongholds of hardline Salafi groups in Syria, namely the north and the east, are very predominantly Sunni areas where the sectarian issue is far less salient than in Homs and Damascus.

The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities. Contrary to the common wisdom, militant Islamists were not funded by Gulf states, which at that time were providing only limited quantities of material help in an erratic and overly selective fashion, but rather by private donors.

The identity of JN's silent partners remains totally obscure to this day, but the idea that Gulf monarchs may support the franchise of an organization -- i.e. al Qaeda -- that brands them as apostates and waged an armed insurgency on Saudi soil a decade ago does not make sense. As for Ahrar al-Sham, it has been funded from the onset by the politicized wing of the Kuwaiti Salafi movement. The latter's ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri holds views that are particularly abhorrent to Saudi rulers, namely a curious mixture of political liberalism, Jihadi-like anti-Westernism, and hostility to Gulf regimes. Saudi authorities, which have banned private fund-raising campaigns in favor of Syrian insurgents, have also actively opposed attempts by politicized Kuwaiti Salafis at using their relatively liberal homeland as a hub for Saudi donations to their favorite armed factions in Syria

The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, a more pragmatic, FSA-affiliated Islamist alliance, benefitted from the fund-raising efforts of another foe of the House of Saud: Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin, an Amman-based Syrian veteran activist who inspired the Sahwa ("Awakening") movement that challenged the Saudi monarchy in the early 1990s. Attempts by the Muslim Brothers at co-opting certain groups through umbrella organizations like the Committee for the Protection of Civilians and the Committee of the Shields of the Revolution have made the Islamist insurgent scene even more repulsive in the eyes of Saudi rulers.

Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy. Saudi policies are not driven by religious doctrines, as is too often assumed, but by concerns for the stability of the kingdom, which translate into support for political forces that are inherently conservative or hostile to Islamist movements: these forces can be apolitical Salafis aligned with the Saudi religious establishment (the Ahl al-Athar Battalions in Syria, funded from Kuwait by the quietist Heritage Association), but first and foremost non-religious forces such as the secular intellectuals and tribal chiefs Riyadh has recently backed against the Muslim Brothers and Qatar within the Syrian National Coalition. Of course, in Syria like in Egypt, these politically conservative forces also include the military. Riyadh has been the driving force behind several initiatives aimed at organizing the insurgency under the aegis of defector officers rather than of the civilian volunteers that run most Islamist groups: General Mustafa al-Sheikh's Revolutionary Military Council, General Hussein al-Hajj Ali's Syrian National Army, the Joint Command of the Military Councils, and General Salim Idriss's Headquarters of the Free Syrian Army. Revealingly, Saudi-aligned Syrian Salafi preacher Adnan al-Ar‘ur enthusiastically promoted these initiatives and was invited as a guest-speaker at the establishment of the Joint Command.

Given this preference for the least Islamist component of the rebellion, the marked increase in Saudi involvement in the conflict over the last months has translated into a revival of the mainstream insurgency, and a decline in the relative weight of hardline Salafis. This pattern has been particularly clear in the southern province of Dara'a, where Croatian weapons purchased with Saudi money were delivered by the Jordanian intelligence starting in November 2012. Although some of these weapons ended up in the hands of militant Islamists, they overwhelmingly empowered FSA-affiliates such as the Yarmuk Brigade, the Fajr al-Islam Brigade (not to be confused with the SIF-affiliated al-Fajr Islamic Movement), and the Omari Brigade. Albeit outdated, Croatian rocket-launchers and recoilless rifles have allowed insurgents to make significant inroads into an agricultural plain, which had hitherto been easily defended by the regime. After the setback they suffered in Khirbet Ghazale last May, the rebels resumed their advance and recently seized important loyalist positions in Inkhil, Nawa, and Dara'a.

Arms deliveries from Jordan have also enabled the rebels to withstand the pressure of loyalist forces around Damascus. In that region too, hardline Salafis are minor players, with the insurgent scene dominated by FSA-affiliates like the Maghawir Forces, the Shuhada al-Islam Brigade, the Sufi-leaning al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigade, and the Salafi al-Islam Brigade. A member of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, the latter has secured Saudi support despite its links with the aforementioned Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin, probably as a result of its considerable military weight in Damascus's eastern suburbs.

Mainstream insurgents have also been on the rise in the north, where the sieges of the air bases of Abu al-Zuhur (Idlib), Minakh and Kwayris (Aleppo) have been dominated by groups like Ahfad al-Rasul, Shuhada Suriyya, the al-Fath Brigade, the Asifat al-Shamal Brigade, the Nur al-Din Zanki Battalions and the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade. Although members of the ISIS led the final assault on Minakh in early August, what brought the nine-month siege to an end was the destruction of the tanks defending the base with Chinese HJ-8 guided missiles provided by Saudi Arabia to moderate factions. The missiles, which are now also deployed in Dara'a, had been introduced in the north in June following the fall of Qusayr and signs of an imminent loyalist-Hezbollah offensive west of Aleppo. The new weaponry allowed insurgents to neutralize the regime's armored units in the region and to launch a successful offensive on Khan al-Asal, a strategic location that commands the entrance of the regime-held part of Aleppo. Most of the battle for Khan al-Asal was conducted by the 9th and 19th divisions of the FSA, which are part of a nationwide order of battle which so far also includes the 1st, 2nd and 4th divisions in Damascus, the 3rd, 4th (bis) and 5th in Deir al-Zour, the 6th in Hama, the 11th in Raqqa, and the 13th in Idlib.

Other major recipients of Saudi-funded weaponry in the area are the Nur al-Din Zanki Battalions, whose successive affiliations illustrate the capacity of Saudi state funding to extract rebel factions out of the Jihadi nexus. The group was established as a branch of the radical al-Fajr Movement (now part of Ahrar al-Sham), then it rallied to the Tawhid brigade, and eventually affiliated with the Front for Authenticity and Development (FAD). The latter is a pro-Saudi coalition of early defector officers (Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, Ammar al-Wawi), tribal-based groups (Basha'ir al-Nasr in Deir al-Zour), and apolitical Salafis (Ahl al-Athar). The FAD's political platform is strikingly unambitious and presents no distinctly Islamist feature. Tellingly, this coalition is regarded with suspicion among Jihadi circles, which have described it as a Syrian version of the Sahwa councils set up by U.S. troops in Iraq in order to fight al Qaeda.

Hardline Salafis certainly remain important players in Syria, as recently illustrated by their role in the capture of a dozen Alawite villages in the province of Latakia, but they are now faced with unprecedented difficulties. When JN was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in December 2012, it was defended by a broad spectrum of opponents on the basis of its military prowess and well-managed relief activities. Following the April JN-ISIS split, however, the "Iraqi" branch of the organization has been viewed with growing suspicion among Syrians. As the ISIS's very name indicates, the problem fundamentally lies in its idiosyncratic project of state-building -- the leader Baghdadi modestly bears the title of "Commander of the Faithful." Focalization on this project has resulted in an unimpressive record of military confrontation with the regime, rigid and at times brutal implementation of an Islamic lifestyle upon the population, and increasingly tense relations with the proponents of competing projects of state-building, namely the FSA and Kurdish nationalists. By August, the ISIS was faced with hostile demonstrations in several towns, strong tensions with the FSA after the assassination of the latter's commander in Latakia Kamal Hamami by an ISIS member, and a full-fledged war with Kurdish parties in the northeast.

These developments have left the SIF as the most credible hardline Salafi opponent to the regime. The group seems to have benefitted from increasingly warm relations with Qatar recently, probably as a reaction to Saudi Arabia's success in buying FSA-aligned factions like Ahfad al-Rasul out of Doha's sphere of influence. In Idlib province, Ahrar al-Sham and its (loosely) FSA-affiliated Salafi partner Suqur al-Sham have made intensive use of Russian-made Konkurs, antitank missiles purchased in Libya by Qatar. Yet Ahrar al-Sham should probably be wary that the emirate is an unreliable partner characterized by inherently inconsistent policies, occasional receptivity to U.S. pressures, and chronic drive to mend relations with Saudi Arabia.

In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.

Thomas Pierret is lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh. He recently published a book titled Religion and State in Syria. The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution at Cambridge University Press.