Iran’s revo­lu­tion bridged sec­tar­ian rift be­fore deep­en­ing it

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION/WORLD - By Jon Gam­brell

DUBAI, United Arab Emi­rates— In­spired in part by Iran's Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion, a young Egyp­tian army lieu­tenant emp­tied his ma­chine gun into Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat in 1981, killing a leader who made peace with Is­rael and of­fered the shah a refuge af­ter his over­throw.

The as­sas­si­na­tion car­ried out by Khalid al-Is­lam­bouli and oth­ers from a Sunni Is­lamic ex­trem­ist group showed the power of Iran's Shi­ite-led revo­lu­tion across the re­li­gious di­vides of the Mus­lim world.

Is­lamists ini­tially saw Iran's revo­lu­tion as the start of an ef­fort to push out the strong­man Arab na­tion­al­ism that had taken hold across the Mid­dle East.

But those di­vi­sions now feel in­flamed by the sec­tar­ian blood­shed that fol­lowed the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003, Syria's long civil war and the re­gional ri­valry be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia.

It may seem as though the Mid­dle East has al­ways been di­vided be­tween Sunni Is­lam, which rep­re­sents about 85 per­cent of the world's more than 1.8 bil­lion Mus­lims, and Shi­ite Is­lam. But that di­vide, stem­ming from a dis­agree­ment cen­turies ago over who should suc­ceed the Prophet Muham­mad, owes much to the po­lit­i­cal ri­valry be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran af­ter 1979.

Long be­fore the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion, Is­lamists had wanted to wed gov­ern­ments to their faith. One of the most prom­i­nent was the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a Sunni group founded in 1928 in Egypt that spread across the Arab world. An­other was the Ira­nian Shi­ite Is­lamist group "Devo­tees of Is­lam," who as­sas­si­nated pro-Western Prime Min­is­ter Ali Raz­mara in 1951.

The af­ter­math of World War II in­stead saw the rise of pan-Arab na­tion­al­ists, chief among them Egypt's Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser. Mil­i­tary strong­men took power, push­ing for rapid mod­ern­iza­tion that shunted reli­gion aside.

The na­tion­al­ists "see them­selves of­ten as crit­i­cal of reli­gion be­cause reli­gion is 'back­ward.' It's what's been hold­ing the Arab world back," said Daniel By­man, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity. "That's kind of the dom­i­nant di­vide, and Is­lamists of all stripes are push­ing back against this."

Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, who re­turned to Iran from ex­ile af­ter the de­par­ture of Shah Mo­ham­mad Reza Pahlavi, made a point to keep Shi­ite ideas out of speeches.

"The Ira­nian revo­lu­tion in the be­gin­ning was por­tray­ing it­self as the start of a pan-Is­lamic revo­lu­tion," said Toby Matthiesen, a se­nior re­searcher at St. An­thony's Col­lege at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford who is writ­ing a book on Sunni-Shi­ite re­la­tions. "It was even seen like that by a lot of the Sunni Is­lamic move­ments."

Khome­ini also made a point to em­brace the Pales­tini­ans in their fight against Is­rael. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the over­whelm­ingly Sunni Pales­tini­ans, re­turned the fa­vor by be­com­ing the first leader to visit Khome­ini.

"The Ira­nian revo­lu­tion gave us a strong be­lief that the tyrants can be brought down," said Ahmed Yousef, one of the founders of Ha­mas, the Pales­tinian Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal party and armed wing that has con­trolled the Gaza Strip since 2007 with Iran's back­ing. "Fol­low­ing that big vic­tory, the Is­lamic Ji­had was es­tab­lished here in Pales­tine and few years later Ha­mas was founded too."

The pan-Is­lamic Ira­nian in­spi­ra­tion per­haps reached its height on Oct. 6, 1981, as Is­lam­bouli and his co-con­spir­a­tors rushed out of a truck at a Cairo mil­i­tary pa­rade and as­sas­si­nated Sa­dat, who had made his­tory by sign­ing the first Arab peace deal with Is­rael. At trial, Is­lam­bouli fa­mously clutched a Qu­ran and shouted: "It was I who killed the Pharaoh!" Iran ven­er­ated Is­lam­bouli, nam­ing a street in Tehran af­ter him and is­su­ing a postage stamp in his honor.

But by this time, Saudi Ara­bia, fear­ful of Iran's grow­ing in­flu­ence and the 1979 ex­trem­ist at­tack on the Grand Mosque at Mecca, be­gan pump­ing money into spread­ing its ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive view of Sunni Is­lam through­out the world and dis­miss­ing Shi­ites as apos­tates.

"The Saudis re­ally put a lot of money into the 'Dawah' ma­chine to try to out-com­pete Iran around the world," By­man said, re­fer­ring to the king­dom's pros­e­ly­tiz­ing ef­forts. "There's a real panic and con­cern then."

Pan-Is­lamic ad­mi­ra­tion for Iran waned as it sup­ported desta­bi­liz­ing at­tacks across the re­gion, such as a failed 1981 mil­i­tant coup in Bahrain and a 1985 car bomb­ing tar­get­ing the emir of Kuwait. Iran's eight-year war with Iraq deep­ened that rift.

Iran at the same time found per­haps its great­est suc­cess in help­ing cre­ate the Shi­ite mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah in Le­banon, which still holds sway over much of the coun­try decades later as both an armed group and a po­lit­i­cal party. In Oc­to­ber 1983, a bomb­ing at the U.S. Ma­rine bar­racks in Beirut killed 231 Amer­i­can troops—the blood­i­est day for the armed forces since World War II—and a U.S. fed­eral judge blamed Hezbol­lah and Iran for the at­tack. Iran has long de­nied any in­volve­ment.

Sec­tar­i­an­ism ex­ploded in the re­gion with the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003. Iran backed Shi­ite mil­i­tants im­pli­cated in deadly road­side bomb at­tacks against U.S. forces and sec­tar­ian as­saults on Sun­nis. Sunni ex­trem­ists re­peat­edly tar­geted Shi­ite civil­ians, and when the Is­lamic State group ram­paged across Syria and Iraq in 2014 it mas­sa­cred Shi­ites and other mi­nori­ties. Iran in­ter­vened again, re­ac­ti­vat­ing the mili­tias to help Iraqi forces even­tu­ally de­feat the ex­trem­ist group.

Syria's civil war fur­ther fu­eled the split, as Iran and Hezbol­lah pro­vided cru­cial mil­i­tary aid to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, who comes from the Alaw­ite re­li­gious mi­nor­ity, while Sunni Gulf coun­tries and Turkey sup­ported the mainly Sunni op­po­si­tion.

And yet even to­day, the role of the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion in stok­ing Sunni mil­i­tancy can­not be ig­nored.

"The Ira­nian revo­lu­tion played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the birth and the growth of the ji­hadist move­ments in the Arab World, as it raised the aware­ness of the role of reli­gion in po­lit­i­cal change in the re­gion," said Ad­nan Mil­hem, a Pales­tinian his­to­rian at al-Na­jah Uni­ver­sity. "The Ira­nian revo­lu­tion af­fected the po­lit­i­cal think­ing in the re­gion in terms of in­tro­duc­ing reli­gion as a chang­ing tool to fight op­pres­sion and cor­rup­tion."

As­so­ci­ated Press

■ Wav­ing flags, Ira­nian school girls at­tend an an­nual demon­stra­tion Nov. 4, 2009, in front of the for­mer U.S. Em­bassy in Tehran, Iran, com­mem­o­rat­ing the 30th an­niver­sary of the seizure of the U.S. Em­bassy by mil­i­tant stu­dents. The poster at top cen­ter shows Iran's late rev­o­lu­tion­ary founder Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini. Iran's 1979 Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion ini­tially in­spired both Is­lamic mil­i­tants and Is­lamists across the Mideast. They saw the revo­lu­tion as the start­ing gun in a com­pe­ti­tion to push out the strong­man Arab na­tion­al­ism that had taken hold across the Mid­dle East. How­ever, an­a­lysts say Iran's push to back mil­i­tants in the wider Mideast and Saudi Ara­bia's ef­forts to mo­bi­lize the Sunni world against the Shi­ite power would turn many away.

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