March 26, 2006

Iran: Reinterpreting Ashura ‎

Wednesday, 22 March 2006‎

Radio Free Europe

Payvand's Iran News
The West may not have noticed -- and nor, perhaps, may many Muslims‎
‎-- but a range of Islamic thinkers are currently trying to raise‎
awareness and understanding of the Islamic tradition of pacifism,‎
tolerance, and rationality. Among them is Emad Baghi, an Iranian
scholar of Islam, previously himself imprisoned for his writings
about the killing of critics of the regime in the 1990 and now the
head of the Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners'‎
Rights. Fatemah Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda spoke with him about
some of the roots of militant Islam, but particularly about his new
and provocative interpretation of Ashura, one of key moments in the
history of Islam and a date of particular significance to Shi'ites.‎
Here, he suggests that the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a descendent of
the Prophet Muhammad and one of Islam's first leaders, should be seen
as a symbol of pacifism and rationality rather than as a symbol of
tragedy, resistance, and revolution.‎

RFE/RL: In recent years, tensions between the Islamic world and
Western civilization have been rising. Many analysts reluctantly
admit that the prediction by the U.S. academic Samuel Huntington of a
pending clash of civilizations may be on the verge of coming true.‎
How did we get here, and who is to blame? ‎
Other aspects of Ashura were forgotten and a violent and
revolutionary picture of Islam was painted, a revolutionary Islam
that advocates martyrdom as offering the key to heaven.‎

Baghi: Toward the end of the 20th century philosophers and social
scientists suggested that, with the advent of the third millennium,‎
the whole world would be moving toward greater harmony and mutual
understanding. Concepts such as the global village raised an
expectation that peace and tolerance would prevail. But the events of
September 11 altered this trend. The terrorist attacks of September
‎11 were not only a human tragedy, but also a catastrophe that‎
deflected the course of history in the third millennium. After
September 11, Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism became the dominant face
of Islam. As a result, anti-Islamic sentiment rose in the West. The‎
Western public was told that the West was now in a war against Islam.‎
The term "crusade" was commonly used in the media and even by George
Bush, although he later distanced himself from that statement. ‎

But the truth is that Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism, long before
declaring war to the Western civilization, had started a massive
offensive against a large portion of Muslims, modern Muslims, those
who want to show the peaceful nature of Islam. Examples are the
conflicts between different Islamic groups in Afghanistan and the
Taliban's cruel violence against Iranians and other Muslim
nationalities. The horrible crime that these people committed on
September 11 completely eclipsed the peaceful face of Islam. ‎
‎ ‎
‎ ‎
RFE/RL: But don't we also see elements of violence in the Shi'ite
interpretation of Islam? ‎

Baghi: Well, there has been a long tradition of a revolutionary and
militant interpretation of the Shi'ism, although this interpretation
has always been very different from Bin Laden-ism. The concept of‎
Alavi Shi'ism or "red Shi'ism" [a concept propounded by the Iranian
intellectual Ali Shariati that contrasts Alavite Shi'ism or Red
Shi'ism -- the religion of martyrdom -- with Safavid Shi’ism or Black‎
Shi'ism, the religion of mourning] was in fact a response to
totalitarian regimes and was primarily represented by freedom
fighters. Religious intellectuals wanted to use this instrument to
mobilize the masses against tyranny. They therefore exaggerated the
militant and revolutionary aspect of the Ashura, the movement of Imam‎
Hussein [the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third of the
Muslim leaders -- imams -- who, as descendents of the Prophet, are‎
the key interpreters of God's will]. Other aspects of Ashura were
forgotten and a violent and revolutionary picture of Islam was
painted, a revolutionary Islam that advocates martyrdom as offering
the key to heaven. Martyrdom and jihad [the concept of holy war]‎
became limited to violent struggle against one's enemies. This
picture was in sharp contrast with the spirit of religion. The spirit
of all religions is the protection of human dignity. All prophets
came to undo injustice against humans. All Islamic texts start with
the phrase "in the name of God, the merciful." In Islamic teaching,‎
jihad is not limited to fighting the enemy with violent means.‎
According to Islam, even if you are struggling to put food on your
family's table, or if you are writing to spread knowledge and
awareness, you are engaged in the jihad. ‎
In the emotional approach, Ashura is about tears and sympathy; in the
political approach it is about the struggle for freedom.‎
I think the growing anti-Islamic sentiment is rooted primarily in the
reaction to this violent picture depicted by Islam. Even the recent
caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that led to a major crisis were
not, in essence, an insult to the real prophet, but rather to the
Muhammad that Bin Laden-ism had pictured for us. This was aimed at a
fake Muhammad forged by violent and extremist groups, and not the
prophet known for centuries by Muslims as the symbol of peace and‎
compassion. ‎

‎ ‎
RFE/RL:Iraqi Shia mourn the death of Imam Hussein (epa)You mentioned
that the militant interpretation of Ashura, Imam Hussein's uprising
‎[in 680 AD, which ended with his death in battle with the ruling
caliph at Al-Karbala], was an exaggeration by Islamic intellectuals. ‎
You recently made a speech entitled "Imam Hussein's Peace", a term
normally applied to Imam Hassan [the second imam and the brother of
Imam Hussein], who made peace with his rivals. This is a very new and
provocative concept. Could you elaborate on that? ‎

Baghi: There has been two approaches to Ashura, an emotional approach
and a political one. In the emotional approach, which dominated for
centuries, the tragic element of Ashura became prominent. Ashura was
simplified as a tragedy. In the political approach, Imam Hussein
became the symbol of resistance and revolution. In the emotional
approach, Ashura is about tears and sympathy; in the political
approach it is about the struggle for freedom. The emotional approach
to Ashura and to Islam as a whole is misinterpreted. This gave rise
to rituals in which people beat themselves to the point of fainting.‎
In this interpretation, mourning -- and extreme expressions of that‎
‎-- become virtues. The political approach has introduced other‎
misinterpretations of its own -- to the extent that Imam Hussein is‎
turned into a symbol of war and revolution while Imam Hassan
represents pacifism and compromise. The political interpretation has‎
so deeply engraved these concepts upon our psyche that my title,‎
‎"Imam Hussein's Peace," sounds strange even to many of my friends. ‎
Instead of providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts,‎
let the world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the‎
peaceful face of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and
political activists in the Islamic world.‎

I am advocating a different view of Ashura, a view that is free of
emotionally and politically tainted interpretations. In my view of
Ashura, two elements -- rationality and pacifism -- characterize Imam‎
Hussein. If we study history free from emotional or political
agendas, we realize that Imam Hussein was more of a pacifist than a
militant. The Imam had repeatedly offered ceasefires and peace
negotiations to the enemy that had surrounded him. The Imam was a
true believer in human dignity and knew that wars destroy human
dignity. It was only when all his efforts remained unfruitful that he
chose death with dignity over capitulation. That is the real heroism‎
of Ashura. ‎

In this alternative [third] view, Imam Hussein becomes an ordinary,‎
but intelligent, man whose actions are based on reason. He tries to
avoid war because he knows the consequences. ‎

RFE/RL: Are you trying to raise an academic point or do you feel that
this new view has an immediate implication for the realities of
today? ‎

Baghi: Today, in our modern world, the West is advocating a fight
against terrorism. I want to raise the point that, 1,350 years ago
‎[at a time when both Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein were alive], when
killing was common practice and often praised, Imam Hussein rose up
against both war and terror. This may surprise many in the West. Imam
Hussein's representative in Kufa [a city in modern Iraq whose
population invited Imam Hussein to lead it], when faced with
conditions unfavorable for victory over the enemy, suggests to Muslim
ibn Aqil, Imam's deputy, that he assassinate Obaidollah Ibn-e Ziad
‎[the provincial governor of Kufa]. That assassination would have‎
changed the course of history and Imam's supporters, who had
infiltrated the enemy, were fully capable of executing it. However,‎
Muslim ibn Aqil, who knew Imam Hussein's philosophy very well,‎
vehemently rejected the idea, arguing that "in Islam terror is
illegal." ‎

RFE/RL: Do you think the rise of extremism is an irreversible
process? How can we stop this? ‎
If you go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the
number of books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been
translated into Farsi.‎

Baghi: I think the West has made a big mistake by falling into the
trap of Bin Laden-ism since the tragedy of September 11. In fact,‎
this policy played perfectly into the hands of those who want to
destroy Western civilization. By polarizing the world between the‎
civilized camp and the Islamic camp, a Bin Laden-ist definition of
Islam, policymakers in the West paved the way for the extremists to
gain ground. All Western media have unintentionally been serving the
cause of these extremist groups. This type of blind conflict is
exactly what the Bin Laden-ists want. I believe some politicians may
have pushed this for political gains. Because their approach was not
one based on human rights but rather a political approach, they
thought they could use this situation to promote a plan for a new
political geography in the Middle East. Some may have seen this as a
golden opportunity to gain access to the enormous wealth that is
lying underground in this region. But I don't think that the entire
Western world thinks like this group of politicians. But,‎
unfortunately, most Western media resources are directly or
indirectly serving this approach. ‎

RFE/RL: And the solution? ‎

Baghi: The simple solution is that these resources be used to
introduce and promote the other interpretation of Islam. Instead of
providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts, let the
world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the peaceful face
of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and political
activists in the Islamic world. ‎

These people are largely unknown to the Western public. The reason is
that, unfortunately, we have a one-sided flow of translations. If you
go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the number of
books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been translated into
Farsi. But this is not a mutual relationship. The West does not know
much about the evolution of thought and philosophy in the Islamic
world. There are very few who would reflect these thought products in
the West. ‎

RFE/RL: I want to go back to your provocative new interpretation of‎
Ashura. Can we expand this new approach to other religious issues and
texts and come up with novel interpretations? ‎

Baghi: Yes. In the new discourse that is under way in Iran, we are
witnessing many novel interpretations of religious principles by
prominent religious leaders. For example, Ayatollah Montazeri has
challenged one principle that has been conserved for centuries in
Islamic jurisprudence: he has criticized Islamic jurisprudence for
being based on a recognition of believers' rights rather than on
human rights. Mr. Montazeri [under whom Baghi studied for 10 years in
Iran's clerical capital, Qom] puts very strong evidence on the table
‎-- and from the Koran itself -- that supports the notion that human
rights are a central principle in Islam. In fact, he shows that, in
this regard, we have deviated from the true teachings of Islam. ‎

Related Stories About Iran:‎
Reformist Party Calls For U.S. Talks, Nuclear Freeze ‎
Politicians Seek Unity Amidst Nuclear Standoff ‎
Students Protest Burials Of War Dead On Tehran Campuses ‎
Russian Offer "Off" The Agenda ‎
Iranians Voice Mixed Views On Nuclear Conflict ‎
U.S. Expert Weighs Pros And Cons Of Nuclear Compromise ‎

‎ ‎
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty © 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights‎
Reserved. ‎

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