Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Three Different Paths On Ashura

Monday was the 10th of Muharram in the lunar Islamic calendar, which slides by 10-11 days per Gregorian solar year, which is celebrated by Shi'i Muslims as Ashura, their holiest sectarian day, the anniversary of the martyrdom at the hands of Sunni Muslims commanded by Caliph Yezid of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, Hussein, now buried in Karbala, Iraq. Traditionally, devout Shi'a march in the streets flagellating themselves in his memory and honor. This year there was violence in three neighboring countries on this day, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, but for different reasons in each case.

In majority Shi'i Iraq celebrating Ashura used to be banned under Sadaam Hussein. After his overthrow it was joyously celebrated and was supported by the new regime. For the first time this year many of those celebrating manifested anti-government slogans and speeches, mostly accusing the al-Maliki government of corruption. The violence erupted when a Sunni radical suicide bombed some marchers, killing six and setting off riots.

Much more publicity has attended to majority Shi'i Iran, where both the government and the opposition support celebrating it, and there were some pro-government groups who celebrated it in the usual fashion, without incident. However, opposition groups used it to criticize the anti-democratic and repressive regime, with this bolstered by demonstrations following the death seven days earlier of the most prominent anti-regime Grand Ayatollah, Hossein Ali Montazeri. The new demonstations included for the first time open criticism of Supreme Jurisprudent, Ali Khamene'i, as well as attacks on Basiji (private militia) outposts, and some security people refusing to fire on the crowds. Ashura is traditionally supposed to be a time of peace and truces, and the government is in total violation of this, along with the latest report that they are holding the bodies of five people killed to avoid demonstrations at their funerals, one of those being the nephew of the main opponent of Ahmadinejad in the June presidential election, Moussavi.

Pakistan is majority Sunni, with about 20% of the population Shi'a. Ashura is often accompanied by riots there whenever Sunnis mock the marching Shi'a. Last year 40 died when a Sunni attacked the Shi'a in the Hongu, which was under strict curfew this year. This year only 30 died in a suicide bomb attack by a radical Sunni in Karachi, the country's largest city, which, big surprise, triggered rioting by Shi'a in that city.

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