BAGHDAD — As Shi’ite Muslims take center stage in the politics of the new Iraq, the ripples of their sudden and dramatic empowerment are beginning to be felt beyond the country’s borders.
These stirrings seem, for the most part, unthreatening to the established order. But in an Arab world resistant to change, even faint stirrings pose a challenge, especially when it comes to Islam’s bitter 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shi’ite divide.
Throughout the Arab world, Sunnis predominate. Iraq and Bahrain are the only Arab states with Shi’ite majorities. Shi’ite Iran, Iraq’s neighbor, is ruled by Shi’ite clerics, but its population is Persian, not Arab.
Lebanon’s delicate religious makeup of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze and Christians is so sensitive that successive governments for 72 years have refrained from conducting a census. But Shi’ites are the largest religious group.
“Maybe this new Iraq will have a psychological, political and legal effect on other Arab states that have populations of different sects,” Lebanon’s top Shi’ite cleric, Iraqi-born Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, said in an interview.
The Sunni-Shi’ite schism is rooted in a fight over the leadership succession that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632.
Shi’ite empowerment raises concern in Arab nations with large Shi’ite communities. Few have forgotten the Shi’ite revolution in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, and the violence it exported to some Arab countries.
In Bahrain, Shi’ites won significant concessions from the island nation’s Sunni rulers after a wave of unrest in the mid-1990s. The change in Iraq could reinvigorate the campaign.
In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, performing Shi’ite rituals in public is banned, the small community doesn’t have its own mosques, and it keeps a low profile. But in January its leaders suddenly spoke up, appealing to the government for recognition as a religious sect, which would give them more rights under the constitution.
In March, Kuwaiti Shi’ites, about 30 percent of the population of about 900,000, performed self-flagellation rituals in public for the first time in years. Muhammad Baqer al-Mehri, a senior Shi’ite cleric, said the empowerment of Iraq’s Shi’ites “has caused an awakening among Shi’ites and created a feeling of contentment.”
Saudi Arabia, whose Islamic creed is deeply hostile to Shi’ism, also is seeing stirrings among its Shi’ite minority, which is 15 percent to 20 percent of the population. Some Shi’ites are speaking out, and Shi’ite cleric Sheik Hassan al-Saffar said in September that authorities were relaxing some restrictions.
Calls for reform by Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, are directed in part at the Shi’ite community. In May 2003, he received a petition signed by 400 persons, including Sheik al-Saffar, seeking a greater social and political role for Shi’ites.
“Sunni hegemony over Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia is unfair,” said Ali al-Seif, member of a leading Shi’ite family in the kingdom. “They want us to remain marginalized.”
Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a political science professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University, predicts difficulties. “This will cause trouble, especially in Saudi Arabia, because the situation will not remain as it was in the past,” he said.
As Iraq’s majority Shi’ites emerge from a history of brutal repression under Saddam Hussein, free at last to speak their minds and practice their religion in public, observers are busy assessing the impact.
“Iraq seems to me now to be creating the first officially multicultural country in the Arab world,” said Juan R. Cole of the University of Michigan, an American specialist on Iraqi Shi’ites.
“It will be the first Arab country to have an elected Shi’ite majority in parliament … if things work out as planned,” he said.
Sunni Arabs and Kurds, however, point to what they see as sectarian behavior by some Shi’ite politicians. Shi’ites are divided among themselves and lack a unified leadership. The more secular among them worry that the clergy could turn Iraq into an Iranian-style theocracy. Iranian clerical influence is felt keenly in the Shi’ite south of Iraq.
“If the empowerment goes relatively smoothly and the Shi’ites handle their new power and more significant role well, it can be a source of both the reassertion of Iraqi Shi’ism’s leadership role and a source of pride for many Shi’ites, especially those in the Gulf,” said John L. Esposito of Georgetown University.
The maturity of the Shi’ite leadership has been tested repeatedly by bombings at their holy places that have killed hundreds of people.
The attacks provoked a wave of tit-for-tat murders of Shi’ite and Sunni clerics, but the Shi’ite leadership showed striking restraint, urging its people not to fall for provocations.
They know that if the U.S. vision of a democratic Iraq comes true, their numbers assure them of victory in the election that is to be held by Jan. 31. In a country believed to be about 60 percent Shi’ite, majority rule inevitably means Shi’ite rule.
But the more they speak of majority rule, the more non-Shi’ites worry about their rights.
“We acknowledge that we are heading toward the rule of the majority, but the rights of minorities must be protected,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd who served on Iraq’s Governing Council.
“Not everyone gets what he wants in a democracy,” said Ayatollah Hadi al-Modaresi, a senior Shi’ite cleric. “But we should not do away with lesson number one in democracy: The majority rules.”
AP reporters Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Diana Elias in Kuwait and Rawya Rageh in Dubai contributed to this report.