History Unhinged

Brian Hicks

Updated January 30, 2007

On Monday, in an interview with Juan Williams of National Public Radio, President Bush expressed his just concern over Iran’s recent Holocaust denial spree, saying they were "rewriting history – the history of the past."

Isn’t history, by definition, of the past?

But let’s assume that he was making some sort of sideways comment on our ability to make history, in the grandiose and utopian neo-conservative tradition.

In this approach, disparate groups can be corralled and made to coalesce in accordance with the American dictates of freedom. 

Despite Bush’s best confused musings, this understanding of history promises only failure for his own designs.

Ashura is a date, an event, and an unwritten article of faith all in one.

Unsure on Ashura

Ashura means "tenth," the day of the Islamic month of Muharram on which one of the most important battles in history took place. Fifty years after his death, Muhammad’s followers and family were locked in strife over who had the right to continue the Prophet’s work of spreading Islam.

This year’s Ashura, always the same in the Islamic calendar, falls on Tuesday, January 30.

Muhammad’s cousin Ali had married his daughter, Fatima, establishing the line of imams (religious leaders) to whom Shi’ite Muslims are loyal. Shi’a, the community’s name, is actually an Arabic contraction of shi’at Ali, "the faction of Ali."

In the Islamic year 61 (680 a.d./c.e.), an epic battle unfolded at Karbala, in what is now Iraq.

When the dust settled, 72 members of Muhammad’s family, Banu Hashim, were dead. Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad’s grandson, was decapitated and his body mutilated. This was unequivocal civil war.

This may be ancient history, but it makes it that much more difficult for foreigners or, more importantly, those who would meddle without even a passing awareness of sectarian nuance, to sort out the disordered state of Iraq since 2003.

Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Shi’ites recommenced their annual treks to Karbala, and Sunnis seized the opportunity to inflict maximum carnage, killing scores during Ashura in 2004. This was perhaps the first major indication of the internecine horror that would rear its head in the post-Ba’athist period.

Ahead of this year’s Ashura, heavy fighting erupted on Sunday in Najaf, where Iraqi forces have been in charge of security since December 20. A Sunni insurgent group was thought to be entrenched there along the road to Karbala, aiming to attack processions of Shi’ite pilgrims on their way to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Instead, it emerged on Monday that the group was actually a Shi’ite doomsday cult led by a man claiming to be the Mahdi ("guided one"), an Elijah-like personage in Islam expected to usher in a perfect world before the End of Days. He planned to do this by destroying the leadership of what is ostensibly his own community.

"Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala"

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the militant political organization Hizbullah in Lebanon, voiced the Shi’ite refrain, "Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala" in reference to his own warfare with Israel.

Nasrallah also promised victory over his enemies on behalf of all Arabs and all of Islam. But would all Arabs or all Muslims accept him as defender of the faith? Certainly not.

There is also the issue of Ashura as the most prominent precedent of martyrdom in Shi’a Islam. Comprising only 15% of the ummah, as the Islamic community is known, Shi’ites have endured oppression in nearly every country where they are a minority-and even in some, like Iraq and Bahrain, where they are a majority.

Did the Shi’a forge an identity despite or because of their tribulations starting at Karbala? Would victory have diluted their faith or decentralized their leadership? Those questions may be up for reevaluation in modern times, with the ascendant power of the Shi’ite state of Iran and their factional strength in Lebanon and Iraq.

Eschatology notwithstanding, martyrdom is worldly defeat. Long-downtrodden Shi’ites are now tasting their first hint of victory, and they will crave more. The Sunni establishment is visibly rattled by this thought. A leading Saudi cleric, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, issued a fatwa (religious edict) in late December condemning Shi’ites as "more dangerous than Jews or Christians."

Such resounding defamations within Islam indicate more turning points in history’s current course. While the neo-conservatives and Bush have been too focused on making history reflect the past, a succession of daily events reminds us that what is thought to be finished is seldom, if ever, forgotten.



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