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The myth of the “Safavid enterprise”

Mazin al-Najjar

One of the most common strategies used against Islamic Iran in the Arab world is to accuse it of Persian nationalist ambitions over the Arab Middle East. This is often linked with direct or indirect sectarianism, and is known as the “Safavid enterprise”. DR MAZIN AL-NAJJAR discusses this myth.

After Hizbullah's troops successfully penetrated Israel's border and captured two Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them for Lebanese and Arab prisoners held by Israel, Israel waged an all-out war of invasion and destruction. As the Israeli response exceeded all reactions known in international relations, it transpired that the war was not "really" about the two Israeli prisoners and, perhaps, not completely for Israel.

That is, the US has been heavily involved in the war from the start; possibly it controlled the scene as it evolved. For more than three weeks the US government blocked the UN's efforts to issue a ceasefire resolution by the Security Council that would lead to a negotiated agreement about exchanging prisoners of both sides of the conflict. Washington justified the destructive Israeli war against Lebanon as self-defense and regarded it as a chance to implement UN Security Council resolution 1559, which demands the disarmament of Hizbullah and redeployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon.

One of the most striking aspects of the war, that may have influenced its course and evolution, was the various attitudes of the Arab governments. Some dismissed the operation of Hizbullah as a miscalculated gamble, considered Hizbullah responsible for the Israeli war and its consequences, and distinguished between that action and legitimate resistance. Others, however, warned against the dangers of "adventurous" actions. Hizbullah's leadership regarded this position as not only providing Israel's aggression with a political alibi but also as involved directly in prolonging the war and broadening its scope beyond Israel's usual reactions.

Despite the later attempt of these Arab regimes to arrange a ceasefire, the Arabs' popular response to their governments' position was highly critical. The Arab public could not fathom the Arab official position, which revealed a divergence from their own agendas and priorities; especially because some of the criticized regimes boycott Israel economically and refuse to recognise it formally: there has been no negotiation or contact with Israel for some six decades.

To varying degrees, the Arab regimes' position is a reflection of another factor that challenges major players in the Arab system, namely Islamic Iran's role or enterprise in the Middle East. The signs of this role are the nuclear energy programme; opposition to American hegemony; alliance with Syria; support for Hizbullah in Lebanon; support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine; and patronage of Shi‘i Islamic movements in Iraq.

The emergence of the divisive sectarianism in Iraq continues to harm Iran's credibility in the Arab world. The official Arab discourse varies: it warns against a "Shi‘ite crescent extending from Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon" (a claim unwarranted by political and demographic geography); blames America for conceding Iraq to Iranian influence; alleges that Iraqi Shi'ites' loyalty is to Iran; and demands that Iran fulfill its various obligations to its Gulf neighbours regarding its strategic and nuclear ambitions.

In this emerging anti-Iran atmosphere, several politicians and writers have recently invoked the historical Ottoman-Safavid conflict during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to give their anti-Iranian position a historical cover. They attribute all the faults of the Safavid enterprise in the Iranian realm to the contemporary Iranian enterprise in order to divest the Islamic Revolution and State of Iran of credibility, contain them, and isolate them from the Arab world. Other voices have invoked the anti-Arab racist shu‘oobiyyah sentiment of the early centuries of Islam to identify Islamic Iran with anti-Arab Persian chauvinism. The invocation of Safavism and Persian chauvinism is not confined to anti-Iranian Arab regimes and anti-Shi'ite trends; both motifs are also exploited by anti-Iranian secular leaders and factions in Iraq that resent the predominance of the pro-Iran Shi‘i factions in the contemporary Iraqi situation.

The Ottoman-Safavid conflict has long been characterised as a sectarian Sunni-Shi‘I discord; although the conflict's essence and context were not exactly sectarian. The Safavid movement was born in Iran late in the fifteenth century as a conversion-trend from a Sunni-Sufi background to Ithna-Ash'ari Shi‘ism in a Persian setting that was predominantly Shafi‘i, Ash‘ari, and Sufi.

Ithna-Ash'ari Shi‘ism , in the pre-Safavid era, is largely accepted as having been ‘moderate' and nonviolent. In fact, Ithna-Ash'aris coexisted well with Sunnis in the second Abbasid era; their founding scholars devoted great efforts to establish the academic foundations of their madhhab, while their leaders were prominent in the Abbasid administration in Baghdad. Despite the ascension of the Persian Shi‘a Buwayhid dynasty to power under the Abbasid caliphate for over a century, there was no struggle or discord such as that of the Ottoman-Safavid era, apart from a few isolated episodes. The Ithna-Ash'ari scholars devoted significant effort to confront the extremist margins of Shi‘ism; splinter groups with violent, anarchist, pantheistic or gnostic orientations in particular were dealt with. The Safavid conversion to Ithna-Ash'ari Shi‘ism in Iran resulted in the elimination or extinction of these extremist margins. In the pre-Safavid era, Shi‘ism was chiefly an Arab tradition par excellence; non-Arabs had very little role in it. Today Shi‘ism is all but Arab in Lebanon, Iraq, Hijaz, Ihsaa', Bahrain and other Gulf areas.

Though it is not prudent for students of history to interpret past events according to retrospective assumptions or opinions, this author believes that the exhausting Ottoman-Safavid conflict was not a response to the Safavid sectarian transformation in sixteenth-century Iran. Historical evidence indicates the role of ethnic, cultural and geopolitical factors in the collision of Turkic dynasties in the late middle ages.

In the pre-Safavid era, the Ottoman dynasty in Anatolia and the Balkans had been in fierce conflict with two Turkic dynasties that dominated the Iranian realm: the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. Like the Ottomans, both dynasties were Sunnis and Hanafis. They waged major wars against the Ottomans; sometimes campaigns were mobilized because of insinuations by former rulers of Anatolian Turkic emirates that were overrun and annexed by the Ottomans in the course of unification of empire.

The dilemma of the Safavid enterprise is that, since its early days, it directed its enormous militant energy inward, i.e. within the Ummah. Thus, in the classic sense, it was a project of fitna; that is to say that it resulted in divisions and attrition of Muslims, with all their adverse consequences. The main difference between the Ottoman and Safavid enterprises was the open, tolerant and universal nature of the Ottoman Empire and its self-perception as an heir to the Eastern Roman Empire and the multiple roles of the Ottoman sultan as patron of the Byzantine church, monarch for all of his subjects, caliph of all Muslims, and supreme Khan of Turkic peoples and dominions.

The contrasts between the Ottoman and Safavid enterprises gave the former its historical legitimacy and led to the discredit and disparagement of the latter. The Safavids isolated a significant geographical, cultural and human Muslim sphere from the rest of the Ummah; they alienated Shi‘ites from Sunnis by abusing the spirit and essence of Shi‘ism; this process has been analysed by ‘Ali Shari‘ati, who distinguishes between "Safavid Shi‘ism" and "Muhammadan Shi‘ism".

The real modern heir of the Safavid enterprise was the former Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. He exacerbated the chasm between Iran and the Arab world by forging an alliance withzionism and imperialism, and becoming an agent for the US in the Middle East. Pahlavi also tried to distort and westernise Iranian identity and culture by promoting a hostile attitude towards Islamic and Arab causes. The Shah also invaded and occupied three islands of the UAE, creating an intractable dispute between Iran and the Arab world.

The differences between the Ottoman and Safavid enterprises suggest criteria by which to review any role or enterprise in the current Arab-Iranian situation. One difficulty now is the absence of any significant Arab role, project or enterprise with which others can be compared. The Safavid enterprise assumed its "negative" aspects mostly through its incompatibility with the Ottoman enterprise. And since there is no present Arab equivalent of the Ottoman enterprise, there is no present Iranian equivalent to the Safavid enterprise too.

The dilemma of the official Arab position is its divergence from the Ummah's direction and choice. This entails contradiction with peoples' aspirations, and also lack of any concrete programme vis-à-vis zionist threats and imperialist hegemony; hence the official Arab position lacks clarity and purpose. The resistance in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq does not represent a sectarian state of mind; for resistance is the peoples' response to great challenges. In the same country and within the same sect, some individuals or groups resist occupation and others collaborate; sectarian affiliation is an empty concept in the sense that it does not explain such contrasts. Nevertheless, the peoples' worldview, aspirations and awareness of their history, identity and interests are more potent in shaping their priorities, agendas and choices.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 7

Sha'ban 08, 14272006-09-01

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