Amid Mideast Turmoil, The Shiites Have Risen In Recent Decades For centuries, Islam's Shiite minority was considered the downtrodden of the Islamic world. But as turbulence gripped the Middle East in recent decades, their prospects changed dramatically.

Amid Mideast Turmoil, The Shiites Have Risen In Recent Decades

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today, we continue our look at the people at the heart of several conflicts in the Middle East.

MONTAGNE: Shia Muslims are a minority in Islam - for much of their history, a downtrodden minority. Today they dominate Iran, and their conflict with Sunni Muslims is at the center of the violence in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Yesterday, we reported on the origins of the Shia sect. Today, we will trace the way their prospects changed in the last century.

NPR's Mike Shuster has part two of "The Partisans of Ali."

MIKE SHUSTER: At the beginning of the 20th century, the Shiites of Iraq and Lebanon were ruled by Sunni Ottoman sultans. The Shiites of Arabia were under the authority of Sunni tribal leaders. In Shiite Persia, the monarchy and the Shiite clergy coexisted, so long as neither ventured into the other's realm.

In Shiism, this has been known as Quietism. Shiite clerics, by and large, believe that politics was an imperfect practice, so it was better to look inward says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."

Dr. VALI NASR (Author, "The Shia Revival"): They also accepted the legitimacy of the rule of monarchs so long as they did not violate religious law, so long as they did not harm Shiism, and so long as they helped the preservation of the community. So it was not expected that government would be Islamic in a perfect sense. All that was necessary was for government to protect religion.

SHUSTER: That arrangement began to crumble soon after World War I. In Persia, Reza Pahlavi, a military officer, seized power in a coup in 1925 and declared himself shah. Pahlavi changed the name of the state to Iran and set about creating a secular government, much to the dismay of some of the Shiite clergy.

Britain and the Soviet Union seized parts of Iran early in the second World War, and in 1941, forced the shah to abdicate the throne in Tehran in favor of his son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - reported at the time by the BBC.

(Soundbite of archived BBC News report)

Unidentified Man #1: We have seen the closing in on the city of British and Russian troops, the hasted departure of numbers of Germans - women and children included - and the first visit of the new Shah to parliament. Yesterday morning, half the population of Tehran was waiting at corners and along the broad streets under the impression of the armored cars of the Russians or the motorized columns of the British would come rolling into the (unintelligible).

SHUSTER: The young shah's reign was also marked with instability. In 1953, political turmoil broke out in Tehran, forcing the shah to flee the country -events captured in movie newsreels.

(Soundbite of movie newsreel)

Unidentified Man #2: Death to the shah, and statues of the ruler and his father are pelted and desecrated by the fanatic followers of the aged premier, Mohammad Mossadegh. In a brazen act of defiance, the statute of the shah's father is toppled from its pedestal.

SHUSTER: In turn, a CIA-engineered operation ousted the nationalist Mossadegh and returned the Shah to power.

(Soundbite of movie newsreel)

Unidentified Man #2: Now crowds shout pro-shah slogans and carry pictures of the troubled ruler of a troubled nation.

SHUSTER: After that, the shah clamped down, creating a merciless secret police that sought to destroy all efforts to challenge his rule. The one institution that the shah could not dominate was the mosque, according to Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan and author of "Sacred Space: The Politics, Culture and History of Shiite Islam."

Professor JUAN COLE (Middle East History, University of Michigan; Author, "Scared Space: The Politics, Culture and History of Shiite Islam"): Dissidents gravitated to the religious institution just because the secret police didn't and couldn't control it in the way that they were controlling everything else.

SHUSTER: One of those dissidents was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini began to challenge the shah's rule in the 1950s. In 1963, he was briefly arrested and then exiled to southern Iraq. In exile, Khomeini developed his idea of what an Islamic state would be: a Shiite Islamic state under the control of the clergy, notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont.

Professor GREGORY GAUSE (Middle East Politics, University of Vermont): Khomeini said only the clerics have the true knowledge of law - of Islamic law - to allow them to govern the state, to be the leaders - the political leaders of the state. This was an enormous innovation in Shia thought, and still widely questioned and not accepted among major Shia religious figures.

SHUSTER: Among many Shia clerics in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon at that time, Khomeini's views represented a challenge to a fundamental tenet of Shiism: the role of the Twelfth Imam - the Hidden Imam who disappeared in the ninth century and who, according to the faithful, will return when God decides to establish justice on earth.

Again, Vali Nasr.

Dr. NASR: This ran again in the face of the whole logic of Shiism, which believed that that kind of authority belonged only to the imams.

SHUSTER: In 1978, a popular movement exploded in the streets of Iran's cities, aimed at overthrowing the shah - reported here by the BBC.

(Soundbite of archived BBC News report)

Unidentified Man #3: There's been a major battle going on here for the last half hour, very much shooting. And the people are trying to take on the tanks. Their throwing Molotov cocktails from the rooftops, and they're…

(Soundbite of gunfire)

A huge tank just in front of me now going down the road, going through all the fires and people here are throwing Molotov cocktails out at them.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: From exile, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the revolution's leader. And in early 1979, after the shah fled the country, Khomeini returned.

Unidentified Man #2 (Reporter): This is the man they call the father of the revolution, and this is the moment that millions in Iran had been waiting for. After his long years in exile, the first hesitant steps of Ayatollah Khomeini on Iranian soil.

SHUSTER: In the midst of the chaos, Khomeini oversaw the writing of a Constitution that gave most of the state's power to the supreme religious leader. Late in 1979, Iranian revolutionary students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, making hostages of the diplomats there. And in a referendum, Khomeini's constitution was adopted. Ray Takeyh is author of "Democracy in Iran."

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Author, "Democracy in Iran"): I'm not quite sure if it was understood at that time, by the frenzied Iranian populous - just coming out of a revolutionary experience where they had managed the remarkable task of displacing what appeared to be a robust monarchy - that they were actually going to saddle themselves with an office whose prerogatives and powers would remain unaccountable.

SHUSTER: These events in Iran would have a powerful effect on the wider Islamic world. Yitzhak Nakash is author of "The Shi'is of Iraq."

Mr. YITZHAK NAKASH (Author, "The Shi'is of Iraq"): There are people generated by the Iran and Islamic revolution, emboldened Shiites in the Middle East and reinforced trend of activism within Shiism that continues to this day.

SHUSTER: Khomeini's revolution had a powerful influence in Lebanon, especially after Israel mounted an invasion in 1982 to eliminate Lebanon as a base for guerilla attacks of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israelis ousted the PLO from Lebanon, but sparked the creation of a new enemy, Hezbollah.

Mr. AUGUSTUS NORTON (Author, "Hezbollah: A Short History"): This was initially created by Iran.

SHUSTER: Augustus Norton is author "Hezbollah: A Short History."

Mr. NORTON: With the act of participation of these young Lebanese clerics, really in many cases, simply students in their 20s. And this began really as a sort of a cat's paw of Iranian influence in Lebanon.

SHUSTER: But Khomeini and his followers did not want his version of Islamic revolution and the Islamic state limited to Shiism. He wanted the Sunni world to embrace it as well.

Unidentified Woman: And even the non-Muslim people, if they wise up, they will follow his way. His way is (unintelligible) the cruel and the oppressed people. That is his way. Islam is powerful, Islam is strong and the Muslims are the strongest. It is because the faith makes us strong.

SHUSTER: And initially Khomeini's revolution did attract some Sunni enthusiasts says Ray Takeyh.

Mr. TAKEYH: Certainly for many Sunni activists that were resisting their reactionary governments, it was an indication of what power of faith can do.

SHUSTER: But most Sunni rejected the Iranian revolution as a model for their own societies. Sunni governments reacted aggressively with Saudi Arabia taking steps to strengthen Sunni fundamentalist movements across the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was most aggressive of all. In 1980 he ordered an invasion of Iran to topple the Persians, as he dismissively called them, and seize the Iranian oilfields. This would deepen further the division in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shiite.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the war between Iran and Iraq, and the origin of Lebanon's Shiite militia, Hezbollah. You can read profiles of key figures in this series at

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