Here’s to wishing a happy and peaceful holiday to all, including our fellow Shiite Muslims, who just this past week have been celebrating the observance of Ashura, or commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein. While the day is intended for Shiites to pay their respects to the fallen son of Ali at Karbala and consequently one of the most important moments in the history of Islam, this year it has also been the backdrop of a number of contemporary developments in Middle East. In both Iraq and Iran, one finds both positive and negative events surrounding this profoundly religious holiday, and the ways in which its symbolism is utilized in the modern context.
Beginning first with the place of Hussein’s death, Karbala has seen its fair share of difficult days during past Ashura celebrations. Since 2003, the events of the Iraq War have made it a bit complicated for Shiite citizens to observe holidays peacefully and a quiet end to this particular week-long celebration has been something elusive. Enter the Iraqi government of late 2009: a government now faced with an impending withdrawal of foreign troops who have provided support for that same government’s security since its inception (the reasons behind that support and troop presence, I’m not touching with a ten-foot pole; suffice it to say that the fledgling government has relied significantly on that troop presence). Thus, it is now critically important for the government to demonstrate a measure of control and self-sufficiency in the face of near complete autonomy. In several of the articles I read this past weekend, one addressed just this issue (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8432114.stm). Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki praised a substantial police presence of 20,000 in Karbala this past weekend who defused nine bombs presumed to have been set as an attack on Shiite worshippers in the holy city. Ultimately, the festivities passed without any incident and, minus other acts of violence and instability elsewhere in the country going on at the time, painted government forces in a positive light.
In neighboring Iran, Ashura ended on a much different note. According to a Washington Post article, the holiday was intended to set the stage for several anti-government protests, reigniting the voices of dissent against the result of the June election for president in the Islamic Republic (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/12/27/ST2009122701517.html). In response, the government has allegedly used brutal tactics to subdue the protests; tactics which resulted in the deaths of five people and the arrests of hundreds. Now I personally have trouble wrapping my head around all of the international media’s reports on Iran. From the negotiations with the U.N. and western countries over the nuclear program, to the takeover of oil fields within the borders of Iraq, to this latest story, I have no idea what to make of the actions of the Iranian government. That’s not my point though. What is my point is that Ashura, for these protestors, was a symbol which they utilized for a modern conflict in Iranian politics. It’s interesting to examine the ways in which Islamic symbols are used and manipulated throughout history for a variety of ends (legitimacy, popular support, etc.). Obviously, this past weekend isn’t the only time this has happened and it’s something worth noticing whenever we look to contemporary developments. Regardless, religious symbols are always important to consider, especially during this time of so many religious holidays. Just some food for thought.