Holidays and anniversaries

Sundown last night marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday of Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram (ashr is “ten” in Arabic), when the Shiʿa Imam Husayn, son of Ali, was killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680 (it’s also a holiday, albeit a less important one, for Sunnis, and anyway if you’d like more detail please read this). The Guardian has some wonderful photos of the holiday commemoration in the Iranian city of Tabriz.

As I noted last year, Ashura tends to invite sectarian violence, seeing as how it commemorates an act of violence that did as much as any single historical event to shape Islamic sectarianism. Sadly, this year has been no exception. A series of car bombs struck Shiʿa pilgrimage tents in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 28, and today a suicide bomber in northeastern Nigeria killed at least 23 Shiʿa who were in a procession to mark the holiday. The second attack was most likely the product of Boko Haram, whose leader Abubakar Shekau on Saturday declared that the 200+ schoolgirls he had abducted from Chibok in April have been “married off” to his fighters, so the bombing was actually their second grotesque headline in three days. A suicide bombing on Sunday at the eastern Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan likely had nothing to do with Ashura, but given that Pakistan is no stranger to Ashura violence, you can imagine that things are pretty tense there right now.

Tomorrow, meanwhile, marks the 35th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian student revolutionaries. Henry Precht ran the Iran Desk at the State Department in 1979, and he’s written a remembrance of the event for LobeLog:

I turned on the radio at noon and heard that a group of students had seized our embassy, demanding that the Shah–then in the US for medical treatment–be returned to Iran for trial. “Now we’re in the soup,” I thought, knowing that only Ayatollah Khomeini could chase the students off the premises. Although no American official had ever met with him, we knew the ayatollah to be a bold, inflexible cleric, determined to construct an Islamic regime in Iran. Would he risk everything by confronting the US?

In fact, we learned later, his initial reaction was to “Get those kids out of there. Who do they think they are?” Then the students’ cause was adopted by radical clerics who persuaded them to stay indefinitely–rather than only through the weekend as they had planned. The radicals whipped up the usual “Death to America” mob who marched to Khomeini’s office. They changed his mind: he praised the students’ audacity, piety and courage. That wasn’t hard to understand: It was the students and clerics on one scale; the Shah and the US on the other. No contest!

Please go read the whole piece. 1979 hangs over the U.S.-Iran relationship from our side just as the 1953 coup or the Iran-Iraq War hang over it on the Iranian side, and both countries are going to have to find a way to move past these historical grievances. Frankly, as traumatic as the hostage crisis was for America, the Iranians have the stronger beef; whereas all the hostages made it out alive, our material aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War helped kill tens of thousands of Iranians.

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