The US targeted assassination, via drone strike, of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, apart from a torrent of crucial geopolitical ramifications, once again propels to center stage a quite inconvenient truth: the congenital incapacity of so-called US elites to even attempt to understand Shi’ism – thus 24/7 demonization, demeaning not only Shi’as by also Shi’a-led governments.
Washington had been deploying a Long War even before the concept was popularized by the Pentagon in 2001, immediately after 9/11: it’s a Long War against Iran. It started via the coup against the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh in 1953, replaced by the Shah’s dictatorship. The whole process was turbo-charged over 40 years ago when the Islamic Revolution smashed those good old Cold War days when the Shah reigned as the privileged American “gendarme of the (Persian) Gulf”.
Yet this extends far beyond geopolitics. There is absolutely no way whatsoever for anyone to be capable of grasping the complexities and popular appeal of Shi’ism without some serious academic research, complemented with visits to selected sacred sites across Southwest Asia: Najaf, Karbala, Mashhad, Qom and the Sayyida Zeinab shrine near Damascus. Personally, I have traveled this road of knowledge since the late 1990s – and I still remain just a humble student.
In the spirit of a first approach – to start an informed East-West debate on a crucial cultural issue totally sidelined in the West or drowned by tsunamis of propaganda, I initially asked three outstanding scholars for their first impressions.
They are: Prof. Mohammad Marandi, of the University of Tehran, expert on Orientalism; Arash Najaf-Zadeh, who writes under the nom de guerre Blake Archer Williams and who is an expert on Shi’a theology; and the extraordinary Princess Vittoria Alliata from Sicily, top Italian Islamologist and author, among others, of books such as the mesmerizing Harem – which details her travels across Arab lands.
Two weeks ago, I was a guest of Princess Vittoria at Villa Valguarnera in Sicily. We were immersed in a long, engrossing geopolitical discussion – of which one of the key themes was US-Iran – only a few hours before a drone strike at Baghdad airport killed the two foremost Shi’a fighters in the real war on terror against ISIS/Daesh and al-Qaeda/al-Nusra: Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Martyrdom vs. cultural relativism
Prof. Marandi offers a synthetic explanation: “The American irrational hatred of Shi’ism stems from its strong sense of resisting injustice – the story of Karbala and Imam Hussein and the Shi’a stress on protecting the oppressed, defending the oppressed and standing up against the oppressor. That is something that the United States and the hegemonic Western powers simply cannot tolerate.”
Blake Archer Williams sent me a reply that has now been published as a stand-alone piece. This passage, extending on the power of the sacred, clearly underlines the abyss separating the Shi’a notion of martyrdom from Western cultural relativism:
“There is nothing more glorious for a Moslem than attaining to martyrdom while fighting in the Way of God. General Qāsem Soleymānī fought for many years for the objective of waking the Iraqi people up to the point where they would want to take the helm of the destiny of their own country in their own hands. The vote of the Iraqi parliament showed that his objective has been achieved. His body was taken away from us, but his spirit was amplified a thousand fold, and his martyrdom has ensured that shards of its blessed light will be embedded in the hearts and minds of every Moslem man, woman, and child, inoculating them all from the zombie-cancer of the Satanic Novus Ordo Seclorum cultural relativists.”
[a point of contention: Novus Ordo Seclorum, or Saeculorum, means “new order of the ages”, and derives from a famous poem by Virgil which, in the Middle Ages, was regarded by Christians as a prophecy of the coming of Christ. To this point, Williams responded that “while that etymological sense of the phrase is true and still stands, the phrase was hijacked by one George Bush The Younger as representative of the New Worldly Order globalist cabal, and it is in this sense that is currently predominant.”]
Enslaved by Wahhabism
Princess Vittoria would rather frame the debate around the unquestioning American attitude towards Wahhabism: “I do not think all this has anything to do with hating Shi’ism or ignoring it. After all the Aga Khan is super embedded in US security, a sort of Dalai Lama of the Islamic world. I believe the satanic influence is from Wahhabism, and the Saudi family, who are much more heretic than the Shi’a to all Sunnis of the world, but have been the only contact to Islam for the US rulers. The Saudis have paid for most of the murders and wars by the Islamic Brothers first, then by the other forms of Salafism, all of them invented on a Wahhabi base.”
So, for Princess Vittoria, “I would not try so much to explain Shi’ism, but to explain Wahhabism and its devastating consequences: it has given birth to all extremisms as well as to revisionism, atheism, destruction of shrines and Sufi leaders all over the Islamic world. And of course Wahhabism is so close to Zionism. There are even researchers who have come up with documents which seem to prove that the House of Saud is a Dunmeh tribe of converted Jews expelled from Medina by the Prophet after they tried to murder him despite having signed a peace treaty.”
Princess Vittoria also emphasizes the fact that “ the Iranian revolution and Shi’a groups in the Middle East are today the only successful force of resistance to the US, and that causes them to be hated more than others. But only after all other Sunni opponents had been disposed of, killed, terrified (just think of Algeria, but there are dozens of other examples) or corrupted. This is of course not only my position, but that of most Islamologists today.”
The profane against the sacred
Knowing of Williams’ immense knowledge of Shi’a theology, and his expertise in Western philosophy, I prodded him to, literally, “go for the jugular”. And he delivered: “The question as to why American politicians are incapable of understanding Shi’a Islam (or Islam in general for that matter) is a simple one: unrestrained neoliberal capitalism engenders oligarchy, and the oligarchs “select” candidates that represent their interests before they are “elected” by the ignorant masses. Populist exceptions such as Trump occasionally slip through (or don’t, as in the case of Ross Perot, who pulled out under duress), but even Trump is then controlled by the oligarchs through threats of impeachment, etc. So the role of the politician in democracies seems not to be to try to understand anything but simply carry out the agenda of the elites who own them.”