The Suffering of Shia Muslims Is Heartbreaking

Article excerpt

Warm thanks to all of you - Muslims and non-Muslims - for the many thoughtful and empathetic letters which arrived after my recent Channel Four programme, a personal exploration of my journey as a Muslim struggling to hold on to a faith that has become such a hallmark of extremism. Much of the demonisation of Islam is grossly unfair (which is why I will always defend the best aspects of the religion and victimised Muslims), but some of what people believe about us is based on reality, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Several of you were appalled by the murderous threats that my family receive, simply because I am the "wrong" kind of Muslim, and because I am married to a Christian. They hurt and they frighten me, and sometimes the police have to be called, but for every killer e- mail, I get dozens of others from Muslims who see my voice as an important echo of theirs.

I was born a Shia Muslim, and can see how the recent rise of the New Model Sunni Army is targeting us. We make up only 10 per cent of the Ummah (the world-wide Muslim population), although Shias are the ruling majority in Iran and 60 per cent of the population in Iraq.

The assassination this week of the much respected Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim in Najaf - one of the holiest of sites for Shia Muslims - is an act of political vandalism in an unstable country and further evidence of mounting persecution of Shia Muslims. In Pakistan, thousands of Shias have been killed as they pray, walk, take their children to school. The brutes are slaughtering many of the most educated people in the country: doctors in surgeries, teachers, writers, architects, entrepreneurs.

A brief description of Shia-ism. The Prophet Mohammed died without naming a successor. His best friend, Abu Bakr, was elected the first Caliph. Three further Caliphs were elected by Muslim leaders in Medina, and the fourth of these was Ali, son-in law of the Prophet. He settled in southern Iraq, and it was there that he was assassinated in AD 661. His son was also murdered. The schism began at this point, with Sunnis choosing to follow exactly the Prophet's words and deeds and the Shias to believe in various interpretations expounded by successive leaders who came down from Ali.

Change, accommodation, and an historical view of compulsions and obligations is woven into Shia preaching and practice, but leaders can have extraordinary influence, which is always dangerous. There is also an elitism that Shia Islam fosters and Sunni Islam rejects.

Ayatollah Khomeini developed his autocratic ideas while in exile in Najaf, where he declared that religious and political power had to be vested solely in the hands of militant clerics. …