There is a point of agreement between Arab researchers and intellectuals on the failure of the nation-state—the “postcolonial” state—to build healthy and proper relationships with its citizens, individually and collectively, based on equal, active citizenship. Arab Shiites have been among the social groups most vulnerable to marginalization and discrimination, often on religious, sectarian, or nationalistic grounds.
Arab Shiites have been among the social groups most vulnerable to marginalization and discrimination, often on religious, sectarian, or nationalistic grounds.
This is a truth practically absent in the political and intellectual discourse of the Levant, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Yemen—areas where Shiites are present en masse. Governments and prevailing regimes are in a state of denial, while the sectarian divide that split the region in its entirety, as a result of the regional axis struggle, obscures the lessons and facts learned in those years and decades.
At the Lowest Rung of the Social Ladder
In Lebanon, Arab Shiites became known for being disenfranchised and, from Lebanese Independence in 1943 until the 1970s, hung onto the bottom rung of Lebanon’s social ladder. They did not enjoy health and educational services, job opportunities, nor representation commensurate with their “citizenship” and their percentage of the country’s population.
A handful of families accounted for the lion’s share of the Shiite slice in the cake of Lebanese authority, which is distributed among sects. Even the movement launched in 1974 by one of their most prominent figures, Imam Musa al-Sadr, carried a name reflective of this – Movement of the Deprived – before it became known as the Amal Movement, headed today by Nabih Berri.
Shiites in Iraq were thrown in similar waters after the Kingdom of Iraq’s collapse and especially after Saddam Hussein took power and the outbreak of the war with Iran a year after the victory of the Islamic Revolution there. The first and largest Shiite revolts against the ruling Ba’ath party in the southern provinces of Iraq in 1991 would be met with the most violent campaigns of abuse and repression, and the Shiites of Iraq would thereafter become subjected to a new wave of exclusion and discrimination.
The first and largest Shiite revolts against the ruling Ba’ath party in the southern provinces of Iraq in 1991 would be met with the most violent campaigns of abuse and repression.
In the Arabian Peninsula, and especially in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Shiites are second class citizens. Saudi Arabia has turned Wahhabism and all that it preaches – its sheikhs’ fatwas, and its casting of Shiites as “rejectors” or rawafid – into government policy., The effects of this exclusionary approach extended in varying degrees to other Gulf and Arab countries. Discrimination reached unprecedented levels in Bahrain but remained at much lower levels in Kuwait and Oman.
As for Yemen, it’s enough to recall six wars, waged by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Houthis in the mountains of Saada and ‘Amran —actively supported by Saudi Arabia, with a suspicious use of Al-Qaeda and Salafi movements— in order to realize the extent of the discrimination and exclusion that this Yemeni sect was subjected to. At the time it was not related in any way to Iran and its links to the Shiite doctrine had not been as evident as they are today.
In Syria, Alawites have always been relegated to a low position in the social hierarchy; their regions have always suffered from poverty, marginalization, discrimination, and lack of services.
It is true that Alawites are a sect separate from Shiism, without an ideological connection to it. Yet the requirements of politics, starting with the Syrian intervention in Lebanon and the relationship with the Shiite Amal Movement through the outbreak of the Syrian crisis eight years ago, prompted some to issue fatwas requiring the Alawites to be lumped under the same umbrella as Shiites.
The First Revolution
The Arab Shiites—as with other minority ethnic and religious sects disenfranchised by corrupt tyrannies, military regimes, and autocrats—could not continue as they were. In Lebanon, they found hope in the Palestinian resistance’s alliance and the Lebanese left—a gateway to the disenfranchised revolting.
The Arab Shiites—as with other minority ethnic and religious sects disenfranchised by corrupt tyrannies, military regimes, and autocrats—could not continue as they were.
In Syria, the Corrective Movement in 1970 came to knock over the social ladder. The American occupation of Iraq contributed to transferring power to the Shiite majority, after the outbreak of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 gave many Arab Shiite minorities a glimmer of hope to survive the bonds of isolation, marginalization, and discrimination. It is true that most attempts to free Arab Shiites met dead ends, and came within sectarian systems and movements, but these were the first real attempts at regaining some rights since the advent of national independence.
The Arab Spring, with its revolutions and uprisings, will play a major role in mobilizing opposition movements among Shiite demographics in Bahrain, the Gulf, and Yemen.
The Iranian revolution will succeed in winning the sympathy of large segments of Iranians in light of the continued state of denial by many Arab governments and regimes regarding their continued insistence on implementing the same discriminatory policies. This will even turn Shiites in a number of Arab countries into a “security threat” requiring caution and security measures. It will call for dealing with these citizens, while describing them as “communities,” “heads of communications with Iran,” and its “fifth column.”
Whenever Arab governments disenfranchise their citizens for sectarian reasons, the more these citizens seek support and solidarity from Iran, and the more Tehran finds its way laying the groundwork for its regional influence, sneaking in between the cracks of the deep imbalance existing between the state and its citizens.
And if Tehran has adopted a “sectarian policy” to expand its regional influence in the Shia Crescent, its opponents among Arab governments have adopted the same sort of policy to counter Iran’s influence and limit its ambitions. This resulted in the “seismic fault” that split the region in two and is still splitting it into warring camps.
The Second Revolution
Today, a decade or two since the Iranian influence plateaued in a number of countries in the region and its communities, the tide is turning upside down.
This time, starting in Iraq and Lebanon, Arab Shiites have joined hundreds of thousands if not millions in the streets and squares, demanding the removal of corrupt and autocratic rulers.
This time, starting in Iraq and Lebanon, Arab Shiites have joined hundreds of thousands if not millions in the streets and squares, demanding the removal of corrupt and autocratic rulers, most of whom are Shiite and supported by Iran.
In Yemen, whispers speak of divisions in the House of Houthi, mainly on the nature of the relationship with Iran, and whether it should be strengthened or if “the Shiite center” should be distanced from. In the Arabian Peninsula, many Shiites are involved in opposition movements, wearing their national caps and not their sectarian ones. The end of the war in and on Syria will put the Alawite sect, which has paid the highest price, before the same crucial questions.
And then there is ongoing debate among Arab Shiites, mostly centered on the relationship with Iran, and whether this group of citizens should reposition itself in the ranks of national change and reparation or continue to search for “communal salvation” away from corruption and autocracy.
Numerous Shiite religious and political bodies are discussing what’s become known as the “minority alliance” theory in the region. Just as broad segments of eastern Christianity concluded that there is no Christian solution to the Christians’ problem in the east, many Shiites today, having seen their aspirations towards liberty crashing against the wall of Iranian hegemony, have concluded that there is no Shiite solution to the Shiites’ problem in the region.
They have realized that the antidote they had long awaited from Iran would come to them only from Iraq and Lebanon, and from within their countries via their involvement in the broad national struggle for freedom, dignity, and a decent life and against corruption, autocracy, and mainstream parties.
Salvation for our peoples and countries is either patriotic or it isn’t, and it is either democratic and civil or it isn’t, and it is either inclusive of all without exception or it is for no one.