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Ashura in Istanbul

Yesterday was the 10th day of the Muslim holy month of Muharram — commemorated by Shi’a Muslims for centuries as the holy day of Ashura.  (We send our best wishes to all of our readers who are observing this special time.)  One of our readers highlighted something truly striking that happened yesterday, in connection with the observance of Ashura, but which was almost completely ignored in Western media coverage.

In Istanbul — capital of the former Ottoman Empire and last seat of the Sunni caliphate — Ashura processions drew tens of thousands of Turks into the streets; even though the majority of Turkish Muslims are Sunni, at least 20 percent are Shi’a (most Alevi, with a relatively small number of “Twelver” Shi’a).  Notwithstanding freezing temperatures, an Ashura ceremony filled an Istanbul square with several thousand people.  The two main speakers at this event were Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who continues to advise the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on international affairs.

Erdoğan — whose Justice and Development Party is Sunni Islamist in orientation — said that the tragedy at Karbala 1,330 years ago affects all Muslims and should serve as a source of unity between Sunni and Shi’a.

Our prayers, cries, and screams have been echoing in the sky for 1,300 years. . . .  Hussein’s sacrifice is [a] unification rather than a farewell, it is a beginning rather than an end, brotherhood rather than separation.  It is solidarity and integration. . . .  Nobody is superior to anyone in these lands, not the Sunni to the Shiites, not the Turkish to the Kurdish, the Laz to the Circassian, or the Persian to the Arabs. . . .  We are all the same in this land, together, brothers.

Dr. Velayati described Imam Hussein’s uprising as a lesson to Muslims about the moral and spiritual imperative to rise against bullying powers.  In Velayati’s account, Imam Hussein remains today the symbol of uprising against oppressors and tyranny.  The former Iranian Foreign Minister linked Hussein’s struggle to the cause of modern-day Palestinians, fighting to defend their rights in the face of Israel’s ongoing tyranny against Muslims, arguing that all Muslims are called to stand with the Palestinians in this fight.

Erdoğan’s participation in the Ashura ceremony undoubtedly reflects a mixture of considerations — including a genuine commitment to ameliorating and overcoming religious and ethnic divisions that continue to plague his country and its regional neighborhood, plus an interest in “pushing” back against narrow and highly sectarian Sunni fundamentalist currents in the region.  But it also reflects a judgment that this was an appropriate moment to underscore publicly that Turkish-Iranian ties remain strong and are grounded in the deep wellsprings of a shared culture and religious heritage as well as in overlapping strategic needs.

In the aftermath of the WikiLeaks disclosures, there has been much chatter in Western media and policy circles about the degree of Arab antipathy toward the Islamic Republic.  We have previously warned against underestimating the extent of Iran’s “soft power” in the Arab world — especially based on highly selective and biased reporting on the presumed attitudes of some Arab elites.  But those doing the chattering would also be well advised to ponder that America’s closest Arab allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are entering a period of political uncertainty because of impending changes in top-level leadership, and are, in any event, losing influence across the region (Egypt even more than Saudi Arabia, but the trend is clear in both cases).

Turkey, by contrast, is a dynamic and rising force in the region whose leaders have captured the attention and respect of publics across the Muslim world.  Part of why Erdoğan, his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and their associates have proven to be so effective is that they understand strategic realities — including that the Islamic Republic is an important partner for Turkey.  More than any other factor, Turkish-Iranian cooperation undergirds what our colleague Alastair Crooke describes as the emergence of a strategically consequential “northern tier” in the Middle East (including Syria, important non-state actors like HAMAS and Hizballah, and, at least prospectively, Iraq, in addition to Iran and Turkey).  Western analysts and commentators who continue to highlight what they portray as the Islamic Republic’s marginalization in the region really need to think again.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  The text above is an excerpt from an article first published in The Race for Iran on 17 December 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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