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What is Washington's problem with Shi'a Muslims?
Western policy circles have come to accept a certain level of anti-Shi'a bigotry, and downplay its murderous consequences.
American think-tanker Mike Doran wrote on Thursday, in a social media response to columnist Sohrab Ahmari, that “that while you can take the Shiite out of the Persian and Catholicize him, you cannot extirpate the Shahname,1 and its fear of Turks, from his heart.” The two were arguing about the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, and Doran implied that Ahmari — a Catholic convert from Shi’a Islam — was still speaking out of loyalty to Iran. Ahmari called the accusation “laughable and insane,” as he himself is half Azeri.
American foreign policy circles like to pride themselves on being inclusive, diverse, and free of bigoted isms. But there is a lot of acceptable bigotry against Shi’a Muslims just below the surface. Washington tends to view Shi’a Islam not as a world religion with roots everywhere from New Delhi to New York, but as one part of U.S. competition with Iran. Sectarianism or racism against Shi’a is seen as a political position rather than a moral failing.
And disdain for Shi’a power is one piece of common ground uniting all the important backers of hawkish U.S. policy in the region: War on Terror dead-enders, Sunni Arab petrostates, Israeli security elites, and the secular Iranian nationalist opposition. These groups all fund or participate in Washington’s think tank scene, setting the tone of U.S. foreign policy discussions. American policy figures often walk right up to the line of open anti-Shi’a bigotry. Somethings they jump over that line, without professional consequences.
During an October 2020 panel discussion, then State Department official Joel Rayburn said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are “masters” at “fake crying.” In a parody of Shi’a mourning rituals, he covered his face while bobbing up and down, then pretended to wipe away tears. In case viewers thought he was talking about the Iranian government rather than Shi’a as a whole, Rayburn added that “Iraqi Shi’a militants and Hezbollah” do the same.
It’s worth noting that Rayburn was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Levant Affairs, overseeing U.S. policy for a region where millions of Shi’a Arabs live. Apart from a (now-deleted) critical tweet by one of his co-panelists, there was little pushback and no news coverage of Rayburn’s performance. One can imagine the reaction if the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mocked the “fake piety” of Israeli army officers while imitating Jewish prayers.
A larger part of the anti-Shi’a bias involves laundering the sectarianism of local partners. With the Abraham Accords and the broader growth of Israeli-Arab ties, Israel has joined Saudi Arabia in promoting anti-Shi’a rhetoric. In recent years, Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee has tried to convince Arab audiences that Shi’a are “fundamentally hypocrites and liars who invent falsehoods to ruin Islam.” Adraee has received glowing media coverage for “getting under Gazans’ skin” and “going head to head with Hezbollah,” without much mention of his incitement against a religious minority.
Washington think tanks have worked to make sectarian rhetoric sound more respectable. The Middle East Media Research Institute, which often exposes (and sometimes exaggerates) hateful content on Middle Eastern television, has also promoted the idea that public Shi’a rituals are a sinister sign, part of “Shi’itization.” After Nigeria’s small Shi’a community was subjected to blood-curdling repression by government forces, the Washington Institute published a paper calling the Nigerian Shi’a part of “Iran’s threat network” and playing up Nigerian reports about the Shi’a community’s Iranian ties.
Secular Iranian and Arab exiles help give the anti-Shi’a rhetoric a veneer of non-racist credibility. Some even complain that Western leftists are too reluctant to criticize (Shi’a) Islam for fear of racism. Of course, someone who grew up in a Shi’a-majority society and was oppressed by a Shi’a government is speaking from a very different place (and has much more of a right to resent Shi’a Islam) than a Saudi cleric, Israeli analyst, or American xenophobe ranting about minorities.
Even so, some exile activism involves punching down at more oppressed people and spreading bigoted tropes. During the past Ashura mourning season, Iranian diaspora activists protested against Shi’a processions in Western cities. Those Ashura processions were filled with Pakistani and Afghan immigrants, many of whom had faced threats for being Shi’a in their own homelands. While an Iranian-German politician accused Shi’a in Germany of being Islamist fanatics, Shi’a in Afghanistan were being shot by the Taliban.
U.S. government funds once helped to launder foreign anti-Shi’a rhetoric. Two years ago, an Israeli think tank put out a dubious report on the “civilian infrastructures” responsible for “spreading [Iranian] terrorism.” The report, using strange leaps of logic and blanket accusations against Shi’a Islam, fingered Al-Khoei Foundation, a London-based Shi’a diaspora charity. Al-Hurra, the U.S. government’s official Arabic broadcaster, promoted the report.
The U.S. State Department disavowed Al-Hurra’s reporting. Al-Khoei Foundation is associated with a faction of clerics2 opposed to the Iranian government’s ideology, some of whom worked with U.S. forces in Iraq. Washington has softened its tone on Shi’a Islam when Shi’a-Shi’a rifts present an opportunity to undermine Iran’s power. Protests by pious Iraqi Shi’a in 2019, and by pious Iranian Shi’a this year, opened the floodgates to sympathetic media and think-tank coverage of Shi’a Muslim believers.
Indeed, Washington’s view of Shi’a and Sunni Islam often swings back and forth depending on political considerations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the halls of power listened while Lebanese-American academic Fouad Ajami promoted Lebanese Shi’a as a counterbalance to Palestinians. During the Iraq War, the United States overthrew the old Sunni-dominated minority regime — and replaced it with explicitly sectarian parties from the Shi’a majority.
As Iraq imploded and the Iranian government asserted its power over the region, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Rather than concluding that the sectarian approach to the region had been a mistake, Washington began looking for “moderate Sunni” clients to favor instead. At the same time, the Obama administration was pursuing diplomacy with Iran; the reaction forged a new coalition of American, Israeli, Arab, and Iranian opposition hawks.
It’s another case of the empire eating away at the republic. In theory, America is supposed to be a nation above Old World sectarian disputes, where members of all religions can find freedom and safety. In practice, the thirty-year-long U.S. dominance of the Middle East has put Americans in the position of colonial overlords, choosing which ethnicities and sects to promote or demote.
Left out of the conversation is the existence of Muslim-Americans. Policy circles treat “Sunni” and “Shi’a” as entirely foreign concepts. But Ashura is commemorated in New York and Detroit, just like it is commemorated in Baghdad and Karachi. Those believers are as much a part of the American tapestry as Jews or Buddhists are. They should be kept in mind the next time an American official sneers at or mocks their beliefs.
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The Book of Kings, a classic epic of Persian literature.
The followers of Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to be specific.