put unjustly to death by the odious extremist Saudi regime, for making the statement that the Shi’ites under their rule deserved the bare basics of human respect – and that if they didn’t get it from the government, then they should appeal to authorities elsewhere. But, contrary to the claims of the government which killed him, he never appealed to violence: he insisted that protesters use ‘the roar of the word’ rather than the blade of the sword. Naturally, the only way to deal with a troublemaker like Sheikh al-Nimr is to prove him right and to further his cause by making him a martyr, and that, the Saudis have accomplished with remarkable effectiveness.
The unjust shedding of the blood of the righteous ayatollah has led to something of a chill in Saudi-Iranian relations, naturally. But what is truly interesting about al-Nimr’s case is how it has highlighted the common plight of Christians and Shi’ite Muslims in the Middle East, particularly in areas and under regimes where the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam holds its strongest sway. It is this shared plight that has brought together Shia and Christian first in Iraq, then in Lebanon, then in Syria. But is this shared plight merely the basis of an alliance of convenience, as Lebanese Christian Rony Khoury, interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor, claims? Or is there some deeper and theological reason that Shia Muslims and Christians are making common cause throughout the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, and look set to do so even in repressive Saudi Arabia?
It certainly hasn’t always been the case, and it is never wise to look at the history of relations between Christianity and Islam without a good cold dose of realism. Both Sunni regimes and Shi’ite ones have historically repressed Christians – and these usually belonging to the Assyrian, Armenian or Georgian nations. Modern revolutionary Iran, though Armenian and Assyrian Christians are for the most part left to themselves and even guaranteed representation on the Majlis, still does not legally allow any ethnic Persian to become a Christian. But it does seem fair to say, in the same spirit of realism, that the Sunni regimes have always treated us more barbarically than the Shi’ite ones, and very often, the nation of Iran has been the sole convenient refuge for Christians facing worse repression elsewhere. I think it may be warranted to look at the philosophical, if not theological, reasons why Shia Islam is often closer to Christianity – and not just the political reason of the convenience of two minorities banding together against a violent and murderous majority.
The dual emphasis in Shia Islam on the need for a monarchical, hereditary succession to Muhammad, as well as on the ideal of just, courageous and compassionate leadership exhibited by Husayn ibn Ali, filled an intellectual and moral vacuum in post-Sasanian Persia, after the last of the Zoroastrian rulers had been overthrown. As journalist Stephen Kinzer notes briefly in his excellent book, All the Shah’s Men, Shi’ism was an organic answer to the latent and unfulfilled promises of social justice, of a ‘glorious’ kingship in the Zoroastrian sense: it was, in the words of Iranian social critic Jalal al-e-Ahmad, ‘an answer to the call of Mani and Mazdak three centuries earlier’. Another famous Iranian social critic, Dr. Ali Shariati, also wrote on these themes with his famous essay ‘Red Shi’ism versus Black Shi’ism’. Kinzer does wax somewhat romantic with regard to Shia Islam’s populist potentials and its model of justice favouring the poor and powerless; the ecstatic, self-sacrificing ethos of martyrdom in the tradition of Ali and his son Husayn; and the scholarly penchant of Shi’ism for preserving and re-appropriating pre-Islamic Iranian traditions. He is also keen to present these tendencies as key shapers of the Iranian reaction to the British colonial presence in the country, and to the subsequent reaction in Iran to Mohammed Mosaddegh’s clandestine removal from power in a CIA-backed coup.