The sight of millions of Iraqi pilgrims flocking to the holy Shia city of Kerbala has caused disquiet in Washington. Since Shiites comprise about 60 percent of the population of Iraq, it is not inconceivable that the ousting of former president Saddam Hussein could result in a democratically elected Shia government -- a nightmare scenario to many in the West, where Shia has been regarded as the epitome of fanaticism since the Iranian revolution of 1978 to 1979. Among many the mention of Shiism immediately evokes thoughts of sinister ayatollahs, processions of flagellants and an implacable hostility to progress and democracy.
But how accurate is our perception of the Shiites and would a Shiite Iraq necessarily be a disaster?
Unlike the governments of Europe and America, Iraqi Shiites have consistently and heroically opposed Saddam. During the 1970s and 1980s, while those in the West seemed to find the Baath regime quite acceptable, the Shiites of Iraq regularly risked their lives in the arba'in pilgrimage, a three-day march from Najaf to Kerbala, braving police bullets, waving the bloodstained shirts of those who had fallen, and shouting: "Oh Saddam, take your hands off the army! The people do not want you!"
It was not Saddam's secularist policies, his initial courting of the West, nor his neglect of Islamic law that principally offended them. Their resistance to Baghdad was fuelled by a visceral and religiously inspired rejection of tyranny.
The shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala take us to the heart of Shiism. Najaf contains the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam, who was murdered in 661. After his death, Islam was never the same. Ali had been a devout Muslim and had an outstanding reputation for justice, but the Umayyad dynasty that followed him was increasingly worldly, inegalitarian and autocratic. To many this seemed a betrayal of the Koran, which insisted that the first duty of Muslims was to create a just and equal society. Malcontents who called themselves the Shia i-Ali (Ali's partisans) developed a piety of protest, refused to accept the Umayyad caliphs, and regarded Ali's descendants as the true leaders of the Muslim community.
In 680, the Shiites of Kufa in Iraq called for the rule of Ali's son, Husain. Even though the caliph, Yazid, quashed this uprising, Husain set out for Iraq with a small band of relatives, convinced that the spectacle of the Prophet's family, marching to confront the caliph, would remind the regime of its social responsibility. But Yazid dispatched his army, which slaughtered Husain and his followers on the plain of Kerbala. Husain was the last to die, holding his infant son in his arms.
For Shiites the tragedy is a symbol of the chronic injustice that pervades human life. To this day, Shiites can feel as spiritually violated by cruel or despotic rule as a Christian who hears the Bible insulted or sees the Eucharistic host profaned. This passion informed the Iranian revolution, which many experienced as a re-enactment of Kerbala -- with the shah cast as a latter-day Yazid -- as well as the Iraqi arba'in to Kerbala.
Shiism has always had revolutionary potential, but the Kerbala paradigm also inspired what one might call a religiously motivated secularism. Long before Western philosophers called for the separation of church and state, Shiites had privatized faith, convinced that it was impossible to integrate the religious imperative with the grim world of politics that seemed murderously antagonistic to it.