Mahdis Birthday Celebrated By 1 Million

Mahdi’s Birthday Celebrated by 1 Million Shiites in Iraq; Muqtada promises shadow government

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million and a half Shiite worshippers crowded into the shrine city of Karbala on Saturday, to begin commemorating the birth of the Twelfth Imam (in the Western calendar it was 2 August 869 AD). The Polish commander of the region expects as many as three million on Sunday. Iraqi police and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Army of the Mahdi were providing security, according to al-Hayat newspaper.

Shiite Muslims believe that the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi (a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) went into a supernatural and invisible realm as a small child, from which he secretly rules the world, and that he will one day return to restore the world to justice. (The belief is similar to Christian ideas about the ascent and ultimate return of Christ). Pious Shiites interpret the recent Iraq war not as a victory of American arms but as the expression of the divine wrath with Saddam Hussein’s wicked government.

That young Shiite sectarian leader Muqtada al-Sadr has chosen this anniversary to announce that he will form an Iraqi government points to the millenarian beliefs of the Sadrists. (Milleniarian movements typically believe that the world as we know it is about to end through divine intervention.) Many Iraqis assume that the bewildering events of the past 6 months indicate that the return of the Mahdi is near. Some may think that Muqtada is the Mahdi. Mahdist movements in Islam have often turned violent, and several have fought against Western imperialism. Most Americans have heard of the Sudanese Mahdi, if only via the film Khartoum, who opposed British expansion into Egypt and the Sudan. But there were millenarian overtones to some Algerian revolts against the French, and among Muslims who revolted against the British in India in 1857. Also the Shiites produced the Babi movement, which threw Iran into turmoil in the 1840s and 1850s and had an anti-Western cast. Some of Khomeini’s following was from millenarian Shiites.

The Sadrists don’t need millenarian ideas to be militantly anti-Western, but such beliefs can bolster reckless violence. After all, if the world as we know it is about to be turned upside down by God, then what have we got to lose? Muqtada has instructed his followers to organize marches and processions in Baghdad and other cities in support of the new “government” once it is announced, according to al-Hayat.

As it is, hundreds of believers came out on Saturday in Najaf for Muqtada’s announcement (-AFP).

The Western press keeps saying that the extent of Muqtada’s influence is unknown. I’d guess he has about 2 million followers in Iraq. It is a guess, but an educated one. The reporters are confused that they are told by mainstream Shiites that Muqtada is too young and inexperienced to have such influence. But he leads a sectarian movement, not a mainstream one. In American terms, Muqtada is more like David Koreish, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is more like an Episcopalian bishop. Except that Muqtada has a huge following compared to any American sect I know of.

Muqtada’s forces clashed with US troops Thursday night, producing casualties on both sides. A spokesman for Muqtada in Baghdad announced Saturday that the US military command had apologized to the Sadrists for the incident and expressed regret for the loss of life (two Iraqis had died, as well as two US troops). (-AFP)

Muqtada al-Sadr’s proposed cabinet, according to Abdul Hadi Daraji, will include a ministry for the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.” (- Washington Post). This is the same sort of ministry that was in charge of so much repression by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“You know very well that there is a connection between the military and the political,” said Daraji, who called the United States “a terrorist organization” during Friday prayers outside Sadr’s headquarters in Baghdad. “The imam’s army is the military side,” Daraji said, “and the cabinet is the political side.” (WP)

Muqtada also plans to name ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance, etc. He calls on his followers to support this ‘government’ with “peaceful” demonstrations. Al-Hayat newspaper says that Muqtada has claimed that his government would represent the Iraqi people, whereas the Interim Governing Council was merely appointed by a foreign power, the US, and was not elected in accordance with Muslim law. (Muqtada doesn’t seem to realize the irony that his own proposed government is also appointed, only by him, rather than elected; though perhaps there has been informal consultation (shura) with his lieutenants).

A cyber-friend wrote me of Iraq,

“I talked to a friend at a 15th of Sha’ban celebration today and he said he was going to pick up his in-laws at the airport tomorrow who are returning from ziarat to Karbala and Najaf. He claimed that seven million people had attended 15th of Sha’ban in Karbala! Surely an exaggeration but indicative that a lot of people were there, and that people from all over the world were pouring into Iraq for religious observance. One wonders who is controlling the border, issuing visas and what not. Also, there was very little notice of this in any media that I perused. But people translates to money, and increased power for the Hawza [Shiite religious establishment in Najaf].

The Hawza doesn’t need to back a guerilla war, as they’ve got people power. Khomeini certainly didn’t need a guerilla war. Unless the U.S. military institutes a Saddam like slaughter and oppression, the Shia’ are going to be very difficult to control. Looks to me like they’ve got a tiger by the tail, as they are expending blood and money putting down the Sunni/Baathist rebellion, while the Hawza is quietly strengthening and consolidating it’s position.

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