The background for the big news in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan on Saturday and Sunday is the Shiite mourning season. Saturday was the 9th of the month of Muharram and Sunday is the 10th. These ritual dates in the Shiite calendar commemorate the surrounding and then killing of Husayn b. Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala in Iraq in 680 by the armies of the Umayyad caliph Yazid. During Muharram Shiites tell the story of the passion of Imam Husayn, the martyr, which many feel is redemptive rather as Christians believe they are saved by the sacrifice made by Jesus.
With the spread of Shiism in the past decades, Ashura is commemorated widely in the world. Abbas Djavadi remembers when these religious ceremonies, involving sermons, poetry, story-telling, public processions and in extreme cases bloody self-flagellation, were largely apolitical.
But with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and then decades later the rise of the Shiite crescent after the Bush administration overthrew secular Arab nationalism in Iraq and presided over the rise of fundamentalist Shiism, Ashura is highly politicized. It is politicized in two ways. It is a marker of Sunni-Shiite conflict, and it is an arena for contention over its meaning among competing factions of Shiites.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims walked to the holy city of Karbala under strict security. In recent years, Sunni Arab guerrillas have targeted Shiite processions with bombs. Even with good security and bomb-sniffing dogs this year, a few bombers targeted pilgrims in Baghdad on Saturday, killing a handful and wounding more. On Friday, pilgrims had been killed in East Baghdad and in Karbala. The guerrillas are targeting Shiite pilgrims to protest the Shiite take-over of Iraq under Washington’s auspices.
In the cities of Isfahan, Kermanshah and Shiraz in Iran, the political opposition used the 9th of Muharram processions to protest what they called the tyranny of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Some chanted against the very principle of clerical rule. They were cracked down on by police and paramilitary basij forces. pro-regime elements also interrupted the sermon of former president Mohammad Khatami. Sunday things are set for a clash between reformists and the regime.
In Pakistan, the federal army was deployed throughout the country to protect Shiites on the 10th. The Pakistani Taliban against whom the current government is fighting are extremely anti-Shiite. A low-intensity bomb was set off at a Muharram procession in Karachi on Saturday, wounding 13 persons. Presumably the culprits were radical Sunni extremists.
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