Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?

The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?*

The Wall Street Journal is one of America’s finest papers. It is also the paper with the biggest paid circulation. Even those who are liberal and not fond of its editorial policies have to admit that the reporting is professional, objective and accurate. There is a so-called Chinese wall between editorial writing and news writing.

Inaccurate and Unbalanced

On the Middle East, the Journal has good writers that have written deep and incisive pieces on the region. Understandably, Syria and Iraq get the bulk of the attention in Middle East reporting. One of the Journal’s reporters in the region is Maria Abi Habib. Recently, she wrote a piece on the Syrian conflict. Her thesis was that Hezbollah is the winner in the Syrian conflict. It seemed as if it was written by Hezbollah's PR department to raise the morale of its fighters and its core constituency.

The page one article by Maria Abi-Habib was entitled “A winner in Syria’s civil war: Hezbollah,” and it appeared in the paper of April 3, 2017. Abi-Habib article was an inaccurate and unbalanced report that overlooked the major losses and challenges Hezbollah is confronted with due to its immersion in the Syrian quagmire. Abi-Habib claimed that the intervention in the conflict strengthened the group. Far from strengthening it, the involvement has been costing it dearly and has weakened it.

Iran’s franchise

 In her article, Abi-Habib repeated a widespread myth in Middle East studies. She stated as settled fact that Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s to “fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.” That is completely not true. The group was founded by Iran in its effort to export its revolution in the Arab world. Before Hezbollah the leading Shiite political group in Lebanon was the Amal Movement, founded by Sayed Musa al Sadr. The Amal Movement, beginning with Sayed Musa, allied itself with the Syrian regime. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were providing military training and indoctrination of Shiites in the Bekaa valley. Amal, while not antagonistic to Iran, valued its Lebanese and Arab identity and refused to become an Iranian proxy. There are two excellent books on Lebanese Shiites that must be read by those who care to understand the community- one is Fouad Ajami’s The Vanished Imam and Shi'ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities by Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr. Eisenlohr’s is especially useful in understanding the political dynamics of the Shiite community and its complicated relationship with Iran.

The myth of the Israeli occupation as the reason for the existence of the group is also belied by the fact that Iran has set up other Hezbollah franchises in the Arab world in countries that never had an Israeli occupation. The only successful franchise was in Lebanon due to the weakness of the state and the nature of the Lebanese political system. The Israeli occupation provided a pretext to build the capacity of the group to the level that it is today.
Iran: Ideology, weapons and funds

The group had no choice but to intervene in Syria. The strategic decision was taken by Iran. There was no room for dissent since the group gets its ideology, weapons and funding from the Iranian regime that is led by an infallible leader. Important Lebanese voices have spoken against the group’s involvement in the Syrian war. Former top security official and former Justice minister Ashraf Rifi warned the group that involvement in the Syrian war is akin to committing suicide and invites retaliation against the Lebanese by the Syrian opposition. A former leader of the group, Sobhi Tofaili, also criticized the group with very strong language. 
Constrained finances, ballooning liabilities

Abi-Habib claims that the group is the “winner” of Syria’s war and “has grown stronger fighting Syrian rebels.” Far from it. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or injured in Syria, many permanently disabled. Hezbollah is on the hook financially to provide for the families of its war dead and injured while facing dwindling financial resources. As far back as 2015 Newsweek reported on the group’s financial difficulties: ‘"Now our family only gets half of the medical care and medicine that we need,” she says. "This used to come every month without any problems, but today we are suffering." She’s not the only one. As critics continue to blast the party for the war in Syria, the slowdown has also led to a gradual reduction in social services, along with payments to Lebanese political allies. One Druze politician allied with Hezbollah used to receive $60,000 per month from the group, according to Khalil and a Lebanese political source close to the party. Today he gets just $20,000 each month. Both claim that another Lebanese politician used to get a monthly stipend of $40,000 but now must settle for $15,000.’

It has steadily gotten worse for the group. The arrest of its major financier Kassim Tajideen and his extradition to the US is part of several successful and effective measures to clamp down on its finances. This increased financial pressure coincides with increasing financial liabilities due to the Syria war- not a recipe for strength. Also, in addition to the thousands of dead and injured, the group has lost top operational commanders in Syria including Imad Moghnieh and his successor Mustapha Badreddine.   

The biggest Loser: Soft power

Most importantly the group has lost its soft power in the Arab and Muslim world. The group used to be immensely popular but after its involvement in Syria there was a tidal shift in Arab opinion away from the group and not just among the viewers of al Jazeera. A testament to this loss of soft power is the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council classifying it as a terrorist group and clamping down on its financial supporters and many others in its core constituency.

There are simply no winners in the Syrian quagmire. 
*A part of this entry appeared as a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal of April 13, 2017.
Abi Habib's article:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Israel and the ESCWA report

Israel and the ESCWA report: The case of the Israeli crime of apartheid in Palestine
The single most important document on Palestine today*

Professor Virginia  Tilley

Professor Richard Falk

The honorable Rima Khalaf resigned from her position as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) amid a controversy about a report published by ESCWA. Ms Khalaf held her position at the UN from 2010 to 2017. She decided to resign rather than remove the report as ordered by the Secretary General of the UN António Guterres. The report made Israel and its supporters angry, and for good reasons. The report cost Khalaf her job, its removal “earned” Guterres another term at the UN.

The report, Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, is a relatively short document- 65 pages only. But it is the single most important document on Palestine today. In this document, the authors Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley argue, on the basis of law and facts, that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid. In addition to providing the facts and the law to make their case, they also provide recommendations for dealing with the ongoing crime against the Palestinian people.

Apartheid can be used as a slur, as an insult and as a rhetorical jab. But this is not how serious scholars Falk and Tilley use it. They make a case firmly based on international law and undisputed facts. The word apartheid has been used by others to describe the reality in Palestine but the timeless and priceless contribution of the authors is their laying out the case methodically based on law and facts. This document is a must read for all supporters of human rights and Palestinian rights. The document must be read, understood and distributed widely by supporters of human rights. The writers have done the hard work for all the activists on Palestine by bringing up the counter arguments of Israel and its supporters and succinctly defeating these arguments.

The UN has the copyright to this document. The UN published it. However, it is not official UN policy. The document’s disclaimer reads: “The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its officials or Member States.” Despite that disclaimer, the fact that the report was published by the UN carries a lot of moral authority, legitimacy and credibility and these attributes are precisely what Israel could not accept, especially that the authors identify apartheid as a crime in international law, just like genocide is. 

Supporters of human rights for Palestinians should share the report widely. The authors of the report, Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, should be invited to speak about the report and help educate the American public on Israel’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people. 

Below are excerpts from the report:

In sum, this study was motivated by the desire to promote compliance with international human rights law, uphold and strengthen international criminal law, and ensure that the collective responsibilities of the United Nations and its Member States with regard to crimes against humanity are fulfilled. More concretely, it aims to see the core commitments of the international community to upholding international law applied to the case of the Palestinian people, in defence of its rights under international law, including the right of self-determination

This report concludes that Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Aware of the seriousness of this allegation, the authors of the report conclude that available evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.

This report finds that the strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people is the principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime. It first examines Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid how the history of war, partition, de jure and de facto annexation and prolonged occupation in Palestine has led to the Palestinian people being divided into different geographic regions administered by distinct sets of law. This fragmentation operates to stabilize the Israeli regime of racial domination over the Palestinians and to weaken the will and capacity of the Palestinian people to mount a unified and effective resistance. Different methods are deployed depending on where Palestinians live. This is the core means by which Israel enforces apartheid and at the same time impedes international recognition of how the system works as a complementary whole to comprise an apartheid regime. Since 1967, Palestinians as a people have lived in what the report refers to as four “domains”, in which the fragments of the Palestinian population are ostensibly treated differently but share in common the racial oppression that results from the apartheid regime. Those domains are:

 1. Civil law, with special restrictions, governing Palestinians who live as citizens of Israel; 2. Permanent residency law governing Palestinians living in the city of Jerusalem; 3. Military law governing Palestinians, including those in refugee camps, living since 1967 under conditions of belligerent occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 4. Policy to preclude the return of Palestinians, whether refugees or exiles, living outside territory under Israel’s control.

[Below is one counterargument they deal]
Consistency with international practice: The Israeli doctrine of maintaining a Jewish majority, enabling the Jewish people to have its own nation-State, is consistent with the behaviour of States around the world, such as France, which express the self-determination of their respective ethnic nations. It is therefore unfair and exceptional treatment — and implicitly anti-Semitic — to target Israel as an apartheid State when it is only doing the same.
This common argument derives from miscasting how national identities function in modern nation States. In France, for example, anyone holding French citizenship, regardless of whether they are indigenous or of immigrant origin, are equal members of the French nation and enjoy equal rights. According to the Supreme Court, Israel is not the State of the “Israeli nation” but of the “Jewish nation”.86 Collective rights in Israeli law are explicitly conferred on Jews as a people and on no other collective identity: national rights for Jews, embedded in such laws as the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law (discussed above) do not extend to any other group under Israeli rule. Hence, racial-nationalist privileges are embedded in the legal and doctrinal foundations of the State. That is exceptional and would meet with opprobrium in any other country (as it did in apartheid South Africa)

Link to the report:

*Published in Forum and Link 3/23/2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

President Trump’s immigration executive order, law and politics: Questions and Answers

President Trump’s immigration executive order, law and politics: Questions and Answers
A community united, building broad coalitions, can push back*

President Trump issued an immigration executive order that caused a lot of controversy, even turmoil at airports. Why did he pass this order? Why did the judges rule against Trump? What does the future hold for Muslim Americans?  Below are commonly asked questions and their answers.

-What is an executive order? 

An executive order is an order issued by the President of the United States to the executive branch officers directing them to engage in a particular action. The legal authority for it comes from the inherent authority of the position of the President of the United States or from statutory authority given to him by Congress. This order has the force of law.

- What is the controversial immigration executive order about? 

This order suspended all refugee admission for 120 days, suspended the admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspended the entry of all aliens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days.

-Why did President Trump issue this order? 

The official Trump line is that the order is needed to keep the country safe from terror.  The wording of the order cites the 9/11 attacks. However, many see it as a fulfillment of a campaign promise. During his campaign he called for a ban on Muslims entering the US and flatly stated “Islam hates us.” Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani stated that Trump asked how he could legally ban Muslims from entering the US. Trump also told a Christian broadcasting station that the ban does not apply to Christians. The US also assured Israel that the ban does not apply to Jews from these countries. Therefore, it is a Muslim ban in all but name.

- Why was there pushback from the American public?  

There was a humanitarian crisis on US soil, a crisis that one usually sees on TV in other countries. Families separated, individuals turned away at airports or detained not because of what they did but because of who they are as members of a religious group.  Immigrants are so an integral part of American society and even Americans not directly impacted by immigration are indirectly impacted in important ways. The actions of the President were perceived as going against American values- against core American values and the Constitution.  Many Americans thought the measures that Trump took were unconstitutional and un-American. America does not use a religious test for citizenship or admission to the country. 

-Why was there pushback from the courts? How could the courts side with foreigners against the President of the United States? 

 The courts did not side with foreigners against the President. They sided with the law and the Constitution. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 authorizes the President to suspend “the entry of any class of aliens” whose entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The judicial standard of review here is the rational basis test- the lowest standard of review.  Judge Robart during oral argument asked for evidence that the executive order was based on facts not fiction.  The government had no facts to justify the suspension. Their basic argument was that Trump is the President of the United States and his actions in that area are basically unreviewable. But, the President is not above the Constitution. The judiciary branch is a co-equal branch to the executive and legislative branch. They have a final say on what is constitutional and what is not. And insulting judges does not help.  Trump stated: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law- enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned.”  This insult has shocked the public and the judiciary and did not help Trump’s case at all. Interestingly, all the court events so far have been preliminary- courts have not studied the merits yet. But the judges were convinced that the plaintiffs are likely to win on the merits and that not ordering a stop to the president’s order would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs.

-Trump said he is issuing another order. What do you expect to happen?

The Wall Street Journal attributed Trump’s losses in the courts to the executive order being “conceived in secret, sloppily written and overbroad, and sprung on a confused public.”  These are all factors that contributed to  Trump’s judicial ignominious defeats but the real reason for the loss is whether the order is based on facts or on fiction, on facts or on biases and prejudices. Judges read the newspapers, watch the news and have access to Twitter. They knew the real reason for the ban and the Trump administration did not even bother to manufacture facts to justify the order.  My sense is that the judiciary is more wary as to the administration’s antics and they will scrutinize closely any future order.

- Are you optimistic about the future? 

Americans, by definition, are optimistic people. Islam requires us to be optimistic- otherwise we have lost faith in God. But being optimistic is not the same as being naïve and unprepared. We are in treacherous times and we should expect anything from a President Trump. But, the reality that Trump has declared the media an “enemy” and insulted the judiciary invigorates the media and the judiciary.

- Do you think Arab and Muslim Americans are up to this challenge? 

Yes, they can push back hard it they organize and let go of petty politics and form coalitions with the broader American society. American Muslims are merely 1% of the US population, this underscores the importance of coalition making with sympathetic segments of the US population. But, there were no Muslims in the US Congress before the 9/11 attacks- now there are two- one elected in 2006 and the other in 2008. This underscores the importance of political participation- from the simple act of voting to running for office.    

-What do you think of the Arab and Muslim American community in Detroit?

The Detroit Arab and Muslim American community is on the radar of every anti- Muslim anti-Arab bigot in the US. The high profile of the community, as stated by others, is a blessing and a curse. First, importing conflict from overseas will not help bring the Arab and Muslim American communities together. Second, there are voices in the community that are struggling to remain relevant so they stir the pot of division to get attention. One of these voices, Osama Siblani, has a newspaper that he uses as a tool to advance his control the way the Soviets used Pravda.  Siblani wants to run the community as a Middle Eastern dictatorship, a fiefdom- and he is known as a cheerleader for dictatorships in the Middle East.  Just last week Osama’s paper resurrected a writer, Mohmed Ozeir, from the past to attack prominent voices in the Arab American community. One of the people attacked told me he and others attacked by Ozeir had done much more than he had ever done to the community himself and Ozeir in particular is in no position to judge others.  My source noted that Ozeir is an excellent writer but is one of Osama’s frenemies and Osama provided him a platform to sow division in the community. My source asked rhetorically: What has Ozeir himself done to the community when he could? Again, you ask yourself why? Why sow hatred and division? The community faces extraordinary challenges and does not need manufactured conflict driven by ego and petty personal agendas. 

* Will appear in the Forum and Link, 2/23/2017,

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

America and Iran: Taking “death to America” “too literally"

Ayatollah Shirazi

America’s relationship with the theocracy in Iran is complicated. While Iran always makes anti-American noises, reality is more complicated.

In Dining with al Qaeda, Hugh Pope, a British reporter who used to write for The Wall Street Journal, relates an instructive episode on Iran’s attitude to the US, in Pope’s words:       

The slogan appeared on the compound wall of Khamenei’s representative in Shiraz, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, who kept his offices in a jumble of box-like concrete constructions softened by palms and eucalyptus trees.
          The ayatollah was mocking my reporter’s need for neat categorizations, and he tossed his chaff into the chair with a trouble-loving twinkle in his eyes. He clearly did not often have the chance to address “the West.” He moved to a subject close to his heart: Why, why did America not realize that Iran was its friend?

          Surprised at this turn in the conversation, I mumbled something about Americans finding it hard to think well of a country that kept saying “Death to America.”
          “Oh, Americans take all that stuff far too literally!” said the ayatollah, happily hitting his stride. “It’s just propaganda. We are at war after all. The difference between Americans and us, though, is that we are only waging a war of words. How many Americans did we kill? None. But in our war with Iraq the Americans were helping the Iraqis use chemical weapons, you were selling the Iraqis Phantoms and Mirages.”
75 – 76

The Soviet role in one of the most bloody chapters in Palestinian history: The Abu Musa rebellion

Abu Musa

The demise of the Soviet Union is considered by some Palestinians as a major setback for the Palestine cause since the Soviets supported them and the US supported Israel. The history of the Soviets is more complicated. The USSR played a role in one of the bloodiest episodes in Palestinian history: The rebellion of Abu Musa.

In Dining with al –Qaeda, Hugh Pope, a well-known reporter with a long experience in the Middle East related the following, in his words:

A few days later she took me across town to the compound housing the Soviet embassy. It looked  then like many U.S. embassies look today, surrounded by high concrete walls and solid metal gates The guards were expecting us and ushered us in, deeper and deeper, until we reached a building with a plaque announcing it to be the Soviet-Palestinian Friendship Society. There, waiting for us, was a dignified gentleman with silver hair, a military uniform, and a cravat.
          His name was Colonel Mousa Abu Mousa, and he was something in the PLO. I’d never heard of him, but I tried to keep my cool, partly because the embassy had put in a minder to watch over our conversation, and mostly because I didn’t want to be mocked afterward by Slobodanka for any ignorance. Abu Mousa soon got my attention, however, shocking me by denouncing Yasser Arafat as a traitor to the Palestinian cause and insisting that Arafat intended to betray the Arabs by doing a separate peace deal with Israel. (Such plans were indeed afoot with Jordan at the time.) He, Abu Mousa, was now raising the flag of rebellion against Arafat. This new defender of the purity of the Palestinian cause would prevent imperialist America buying off the Palestinians like it had bought off Egypt with the gift of a billion dollars per year.
          I didn’t think to ask: Why are you doing this in a Soviet embassy building? Why are we doing this in front of a KGB minder?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Interview with internationally renowned cookbook author Hadia Zebib Khanafer:

The Arab world is in the news for its dysfunctional politics. There are ongoing wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. There is the Arab-Israeli conflict with Israel continuing to take Palestinian lands while the people of Gaza live in a big prison. While Middle Eastern politics maybe unsavory, there is a consensus that the food is not only savory but healthy as well. 

The Forum and Link reached out to renowned Lebanese cookbook author, Hadia Zebib Khanafer, with questions about Lebanese cuisine and her two successful cookbooks.*

Forum & Link: Please introduce yourself to readers?

Hadia Zebib Khanafer: I am the author of “Sofra ‘Amra” and “Hadia, Lebanese Style Recipes.” I also have my own blog called Hadia’s Lebanese Cuisine and I’m a passionate self-trained cook.
I grew up in Beirut and I came from a family of fantastic cooks. Currently I reside in Congo/Kinshasa with my husband. I am a mother of three great young men. I value the ritual of gathering with my family, friends and loved ones around a dinner table.

You have written two cooking books. When did they come out and what motivated you to write them?

I released my first cookbook in Arabic in April 2003. The second expanded edition came out in April 2007. The idea of translating my book to English for non- Arabic speakers was always on my mind. Hadia (Lebanese Style Recipes) was released in December 2014.
For many years, I have entertained dinner guests with delightful recipes where with time I acquired a reputation for being a good cook, so I began to think what it would be like to put my recipes in a book.  I started to collect the recipes after the encouragement of my husband, family and friends telling I should write a cookbook. And that's how the journey began.

Is your book focused on Lebanese cuisine?

The book has the familiar Lebanese recipes that readers expect to find in restaurants and markets, but there is a lot more than that in the book. In addition to the wide variety of the Lebanese recipes, the book features a diverse compilation of recipes from around the world. I was blessed to have been able to travel far and wide with my family, and those travels have inspired my cooking. The book features 600 recipes, mostly from Lebanon, but from other parts of the world as well.

Is cooking an art or a science? Can anyone be a good cook?

Cooking is both art and science.  I believe anyone can cook. It is a skill that can be learned, developed and over time with practice be perfected. I know not all people have the same level of passion about cooking, but I tell you, you don’t have to be a Michelin star chef to create wonderful dishes. All you need is fresh ingredients and a few basic techniques that can be mastered with practice.

What advice do you give to the novice cook?

Know your limits, start with the basics and slowly build your skills. You can never be a good cook without some serious failures. The more you practice the better you are going to be.

What is your cooking philosophy?

Use fresh produce, eat vegetables and fruits that are seasonal, cook from scratch, be open to different cuisines, use your senses - and the most important ingredient is the love for those you are cooking for.

In this day and age people are busy. Why do you think it is important to cook at home instead of simply eating out?

Though eating out every now and then is fun, food at home is healthier and more nutritious. Home cooking creates an environment that brings family conversations around a dinner table. Good home cooking can be soothing to the heart, body and soul. Besides, most foods served at restaurants have high amounts of calories and eating out is always going to be considerably more expensive.

What are the keys to success as a cook?

Believe in yourself, be organized, keep learning, be passionate and improve and practice to refine your skills.

Are you an active on social media? Do you have a YouTube channel?

To a certain extent, yes I am active, especially on Facebook. And yes, I recently launched my Youtube channel.

What is your favorite restaurant in Lebanon?

I have many: Mounir in Brumana (Lebanese), Babel Bay (seafood), Sultan Ibrahim (seafood), Mayrig (Armenian), and Couqley (French).

What advice do you give to those who enjoy good food but find cooking intimidating?

Try recipes other people have created. Count on reliable straightforward cookbooks such as mine- I have written my book in a way accessible to the novice cook. And, it is always good to read a recipe before you begin cooking. Be calm and composed and remember that cooking is like anything in life - the more you practice, the better you will become.

What is your favorite recipe for a quick and healthy meal?

Lebanese-style spaghetti with yogurt. All you need is to sauté the garlic with olive oil, add to the yogurt, adjust salt to your taste and smother over the spaghetti et voila that’s it.  It’s budget friendly and healthy.

* Interview is published in the Forum and Link of 1/26/2017.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Interview with Zackery Heern, author of The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism

Dr. Zackery Heern

Interview with Zackery Heern, author of acclaimed book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran.*

The 9/11 terror attacks have created immense interest in Islam. Many books were published on Islam and Muslims, a large percentage of them written by non-specialists. A number of individuals, seeing a market for specialists, presented themselves as Islam specialists even though they had no credentials or dubious Islam credentials. At the same time, since 9/11, great books on Islam have also been written, by scholars trained in the field. One of these great books is Dr. Zackery Heern’s book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran, published by Oneworld. The Forum and Link reached out to Dr. Heern, formerly a Murray State University assistant professor and currently an assistant professor at Idaho State University, with questions about his book. Below is the interview:
Ihsan Alkhatib: Thank you for doing this interview with the Forum and Link. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Zackery M. Heern: Thank you so much for your interest in my work! I am currently an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic studies at Idaho State University in the beautiful town of Pocatello, Idaho. I am particularly interested in modern Islamic movements, and I enjoy teaching my students and the general public about the many great contributions that Middle Easterners have added to human civilization, including algebra, science, and the great literary tradition associated with luminaries like Rumi.

IK: What interested you in the study of Shi‘ism?

ZH: Shi‘ism is fascinating to me for many reasons. Shi‘i thought and practice surrounding the Imamate, Mahdi, and the relationship between Shi‘ism and politics, authority, and knowledge have been of great interest to me for a long time now. I was especially interested in understanding how a religious movement that defined itself for so long as apolitical and shunned political engagement could lead the Islamic revolution in Iran. I think this revolution is one of the most stunning revolutionary moments in world history, especially because many Western scholars assumed that religion was on its way out as societies modernized.

IK: Congratulations on your book, The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. Were you surprised it was written about in the Economist?

ZH: Thank you! I am still surprised that this book, which started as my PhD dissertation, was reviewed in the Economist. But, I spent several years revising it for a general audience and I think a lot of people are hungry to know more about Islam. Also, the publisher – Oneworld – has an impeccable track record of promoting their books. They recently stunned the literary world by winning the Mann Booker award in 2015, and again in 2016. So, a lot of credit goes to Oneworld for getting the attention of the Economist.

IK: What is your book about?

ZH: Most of the book focuses on Usuli Shi‘ism, a movement that has become the most powerful force in the modern Shi‘i world. I suggest that Shi‘i scholars, as well as Sunnis and Sufis, were responding to the changes associated with the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in Iran and the decentralization of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century.

IK: What is “modern Islam”? “Modern Shi’ism”?

ZH: Many scholars think of modernity as the ideals and practices associated with The Enlightenment (democracy, rational thought, secularism, individual rights, etc.), which have supposedly been at the heart of European dominance in the modern world. Instead of this Eurocentric conception of the modern world, I think of modernity in terms of theories and practice that have defined diverse human experiences in the past several hundred years. In other words, there is not a single dominant narrative that defines the modern world, and therefore we must speak in terms of multiple modernities.

Therefore, modern Islam and modern Shi‘ism are the many trends associated with Muslim communities for the past several centuries. Some trends are more dominant and common than others. I focus on Usuli Shi‘ism, Wahhabi Sunnism, and neo-Sufism as important movements that are necessary to understand changes in modern Islam. Other Islamic movements are also modern, like Hamas, which is largely defined by its aims associated with nationalism, which is one of the defining features of modern global history. Additionally, movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS are radically new (and thus modern) in their ideology, practice, use of technology, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, many modern Muslims have advocated a more progressive, liberal, and feminist reading and practice of Islam.

IK: What explains the emergence of “modern Islam” during that particular time period?

ZH: As I noted above, I think of the emergence of modern Islamic movements in relation to the expansion, decentralization, and collapse of the so-called gunpowder dynasties – the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. The late eighteenth century was a critical period, not only in the Islamic world, but in the West and Asia as well. In the West, this period is defined by radical historical changes associated with the French Revolution, the founding of the United States, the Industrial Revolution, and a renewed effort to colonize the world, which began the process of European imperialism in the Islamic world.

IK: What is Usuli and Akhbari? 

ZH: Usulism and Akhbarism are schools of Shi‘i thought rooted in the tradition of Islamic law. In the late eighteenth century, the dispute between the two schools came to a head. Akhbaris are often referred to as scripturalists because they generally argue that the Qur’an and hadith are the only two sources of Islamic law. Usulis are called rationalists because they believe that in addition to the Qur’an and hadith, legal norms can be produced by reason. Usulis also argue that doctors of Islamic law (mujtahids) are the vicegerents of the Shi‘i Imams. Therefore, many Usulis argue that mujtahids, or Ayatollahs, should play a central role in worldly affairs, including politics. Akhbaris favor a more limited social role for Muslim scholars.

IK: How did Usulis become the dominant school of thought in Shi‘ism? Are the Akhbaris extinct now?

ZH: Usulism came to dominate Shi‘ism at the end of the eighteenth century. Prior to this era, during the Safavid period (1501-1722), Shi‘i schools of thought included Akhbarism, a variety of Sufi movements, illuminationist philosophy, as well as Usulism. After the fall of the Safavid dynasty in the eighteenth century, the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’ in Iraq became the centers of Shi‘ism. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Usulis dominated these Shi‘i centers and spread throughout the Shi‘i world. The founders of the neo-Usuli movement declared infidelity (takfir) on Akhbaris, Sufis, and other Muslims. Some Usuli scholars issued death sentences on Akhbaris and Sufis, who were tracked down and killed. Akhbarism is not dead but there are few Akhbari scholars in the Shi‘i world these days, especially compared to Usulis.

IK: How much did Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon contribute to the rise of the Usuli school?

ZH: Shi‘i scholars from Lebanon were especially influential during the Safavid period. And the Shi‘i community in Lebanon was certainly influenced by the spread of neo-Usulism. As you know, Hezbollah is closely linked to Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran, certainly holds sway over many Hezbollahis. The late Ayatollah Fadlallah in Beirut was also a product of Usulism.

IK: When were the titles of Ayatollah and Grand Ayatollah created? Are they connected to the rise of the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Scholars within the neo-Usuli movement took on grandiose titles from its inception. The founder, Wahid Bihbhani, was referred to as the “reviver of Islam” and “the teacher of all.” Some Usulis were referred to by the titles of their books, like Bahr al-‘Ulum (the Ocean of the Sciences) and Kashif al-Ghita’ (Remover of the Veil), which are now the family names of great clerical dynasties in Iran. Others took on religiously significant titles, including Hujjat al-Islam (the Proof of Islam). Starting in the nineteenth century, clerical titles became routinized and institutionalized, which include “the source of emulation” (marja‘ al-taqlid) and Ayatollah. Usuli scholars still debate whether claimants to the title of Ayatollah or Grand Ayatollah deserve the designation since the process of becoming an Ayatollah is not clearly laid out the way clerical authority operates in Catholicism, for example. Therefore, after a scholar finishes his studies and publishes scholarship, he must take additional steps to become an Ayatollah, including the acquisition of followers, the collection of khums money, and so on. So, becoming an Ayatollah, like twitter, is partially a popularity contest since Shi‘is can choose which Ayatollah to follow.

IK: Historically, at the core of Shi‘ism was that politics is corrupt until the return of the Mahdi and even religious obligations, such as Friday prayer, were suspended until the return of the Mahdi. How did that change? Were the Usulis influenced by the Sunni tradition?

ZH: This change is linked historically to governments that adopt Shi‘ism as the state religion. Therefore, in more recent times, these attitudes changed after the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501. In fact, Shi‘i scholars during the Safavid period hotly debated whether or not Friday prayer should be held, and if it is held who should lead it in the absence of the Imam. Usulis are highly influenced by Sunnis. In fact, one of the original arguments that Akhbaris used against Usulis was that they were introducing Sunni methodology and practice into the Shi‘i legal system.

IK: You compare the emergence of modern Shi‘ism with the emergence of the Wahhabi movement and neo-Sufism. How are they similar and/or different?

ZH: Ideologically the movements of Wahhabism, Usulism, and neo-Sufism are very different. They are influenced by three entirely different traditions within Islam. However, since the late eighteenth century they have faced a similar set of questions – including how to respond to perceived crises in the Islamic world, imperial decentralization, and how to save Muslims from incorrect theoretical and practical approaches to Islam. Each movement was led by charismatic teachers who were concerned with the sources of knowledge and authority in Islam and charged mainstream Sufis with corrupting Islam. Additionally, the movements were politicized. Wahhabism became the state religion of Saudi Arabia and Usulis established themselves in power after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

IK: What is the contribution of Ayatollah Khomeini to the dominance of the Usuli school?

ZH: I see Khomeini’s relationship to Usulism from two perspectives. On one hand, he represents a culmination of the Usuli movement, which advocated more involvement for mujtahids in worldly affairs. Khomeini utilized Usuli ideology and its social movement to gain power. On the other hand, Khomeini’s conception of guardianship of the jurist (wilayat al-faqih) and his Islamic Republic of Iran were innovations that caused a serious fissure in the Usuli movement. Those who disagreed with his politicization of the Usuli movement in Iran were marginalized. In Iraq, many Usulis, including Ayatollah Sistani who probably has more followers than any other Ayatollah in the world, do not subscribe to Khomeini’s conception of Shi‘i politics.

IK: Today Sunni extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are referred to as takfiris. What are takfiris and is takfirism a phenomenon in all schools of Islamic thought, including the Usuli tradition?

ZH: Takfirism is the practice of declaring infidelity on Muslims and excommunicating them from the community. This is a very old practice in Islam and is common to both Sunnis and Shi‘is at various times in history. Takfirism was not common under the rule of pluralistic empires like the Ottomans. However, the Wahhabis and Usulis revived the practice, but neo-Sufis generally refrained from takfirism.

IK: Some say that Sunni Islam is Arab Islam and Shi‘i Islam is Persian Islam. Is there any truth to this characterization given the role of Vahid Bihbihani?

ZH: This is an oversimplification based on the fact that the majority of Iranians are Shi‘is and the majority of Arabs are Sunnis. However, this assumption does not consider the historical reality of Sunni and Shi‘i communities in Iran and the Arab world. Currently, there is an important Sunni community in Iran. Additionally, the overwhelming population of Arabs in Iraq and Bahrain are Shi‘is, in addition to significant populations of Shi‘is in Lebanon, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Bihbihani, the founder of neo-Usulism, was from Iran but spent much of his career in Iraq and most of his writings are in Arabic.

IK: Iran was a majority Sunni country until the sixteenth century. How did it become a Shi‘i majority country?

ZH: The majority of Iranians became Shi‘is as a result of willing and forced conversion when Iran was ruled by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1777), which adopted Shi‘ism as the state religion. Also, the majority of southern Iraqis converted from Sunnism to Shi‘ism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which parallels the rise of Usulism and the Ottoman policy of settling of nomadic tribes. However, the cities of Qum, Najaf, Karbala’, and others have been associated with Shi‘ism since the early history of Islam.

*Interview will appear in the Forum and Link of 12/17/2016.