This year in Iran two highly significant remembrance days coincided. Both of them constitute foundational myths of the Islamic Revolution, linking the revolutionary past with the revolutionary present. On November 3, Iran marked the Ashura. On this day Shiites all over the world mourn the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali, the Third Imam of the Shiite faith, in the Battle of Karbala in October 680. [Karbala is located in today’s Iraq.] And on November 4 (Aban 13), Iran observed the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in which many embassy staffers were taken hostage. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei affirmed that in struggling against its enemies, Iran’s source of inspiration is the path laid down by the Imam Hussein.
The regime also made use of these two events to level harsh criticism at the United States and its allies. Demonstrators (some of them facing the U.S. embassy building) chanted and carried banners proclaiming, “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and “Death to Britain,” and flags of these countries were burned.
According to Iranian reports, demonstrators expressed support for the government’s hardline stance as decreed by Khamenei in the nuclear talks; called for the lifting of the international sanctions against Iran; and urged the Majlis [parliament] to show prudence when it comes to approving a possible agreement.1
Even former president Ahmadinejad, who lowered his profile after two stormy tenures, made a public appearance during the Ashura ceremonies.
Past and future are intermingled for Shiites. The death of Imam Hussein in Karbala together with many of his family members at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid bin Muawiyah some 1300 years ago remains a formative factor for Shiites in general and for Iran that aspires to lead them. This event is deeply engraved in Shiite collective consciousness and underlies the tenets of sacrifice and martyrdom. To this day Hussein’s martyrdom is a central motif that also sets the fault line between Shiites and Sunnis. The anniversary of Hussein’s death is a paramount event in the Shiite calendar when Shiites weep real tears, pray fervently, and even injure themselves until blood flows, while reenacting the Battle of Karbala.
Shiites say, “Every day is the Ashura and the whole world is Karbala.” Iran’s drive for regional and Islamic hegemony backed by nuclear weapons is largely aimed at rectifying the historical injustice caused to the Prophet’s family members at the dawn of Islam and at compensating for hundreds of years of suffering and humiliation inflicted by the Sunnis and by the West’s “arrogance” toward the Muslim world.
The Ashura is observed in Shiite communities worldwide, with Lebanon no exception. As in past instances, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made the most of the ceremonies for a rare public appearance, surrounded by thousands of frantic Shiites displaying “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” banners. Nasrallah threatened to pound Israel’s airports and seaports with rockets and missiles.
The profound significance of Hussein’s martyrdom and readiness for sacrifice among Shiites also has political and contemporary implications that go far beyond their historical contexts. These themes helped Ayatollah Khomeini mobilize mass support at the time of such founding events as the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, and later also to export the revolutionary ideas to Lebanon. The “culture of resistance” that Hizbullah demonstrated during the First Lebanon War and especially during the Second Lebanon War stems from the legacy of Hussein at Karbala and clearly reflects Iran’s influence.
During the Second Lebanon War, Israel was able to capture a great deal of material that reveals Hizbullah’s deep indoctrination in the legacy of Karbala. This year, the gains of the Shiites in Yemen, who for the first time marked the Ashura publicly in the streets of Sana’a, the capital, have given the Ashura added importance and political content.
Over the next 40 days thousands of Shiites from all over the world will make their way to the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala, one of their holiest sites. Last year, two million faithful made the pilgrimage.
The conquest of parts of Iraq by the Islamic State, along with the intensification of the Sunni-Shiite struggle, are likely to make this journey to Karbala by Shiites from various parts of Iraq (and the Shiite world) into a bloody affair. The ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 produced a “big bang” for Iraq’s Shiites in particular and for the worldwide Shiite community in general. Its shock waves continue to impact the region as it gains momentum with the upheavals of the Arab Spring, or as Iran calls it, the “Islamic Awakening.”