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How religious polemic and a seventh-century battle are driving Iranian foreign policy in Syria

Muharram in cities and villages of Iran

Now is an extraordinary time to be in Iran.

Men and women, babies, teenagers and elderly people, are cloaked head to toe in black. Main roads are blocked off and streets are filled with mourners waving red, green and black flags. 

Brightly coloured alams (metallic ornaments engraved with verses from the Quran or names of the Prophet Muhammad and his children) are twirled by master spinners as rhythmic poems and chants are recited -- sometimes thunderously fervent -- other times subdued and mellow. 

Each verse is recited in perfect sync with the sound of drums and beating chests, and each seems to prompt a new flood of tears.

The rituals that take place on Ashura day mark one of the darkest chapters in early Islamic history: the assassination of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, at the hands of a tyrannical ruler in Karbala, Iraq in 680 AD.

For Muslims living outside Iran, Ashura is often marked by taking the day off work or school to attend prayers and listen to sermons in the local mosque. Street processions take place in several western cities, including New York and London.

But in the Shia stronghold of Iran, the mourning ceremonies of Ashura and Tasu'a (the day preceding Ashura) take on a life of their own.

"It's the most breathtaking event I've ever seen," says Sara Mohammed*, a foreign journalist based in Tehran. "It looks like the whole country is mourning. People line up to watch. They re-enact the burning of the tents and children run around, mimicking those who were made to witness the battle that day." 

Modern-day policies shaped by centuries-old battle

Even more remarkable is how this epic seventh-century battle has manifested itself in Iran's modern-day foreign policy. The regional power is spending billions of dollars a year to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's government, providing military advisers and subsidized weapons, as well as lines of credit and oil transfers. From the view in Tehran, the war against anti-Assad forces is a war against terrorism and tyranny -- the same tyranny Husayn fought against.

The Karbala narrative is powerful. It relates how Yazid, the sitting caliph in Damascus, demanded that Husayn, pledge allegiance to him or face death. Husayn resisted on the grounds that Yazid was a corrupt and immoral leader. A bloody battle ensued in the city of Karbala. On Ashura day, Yazid's army killed every male member of the Prophet's family before finally boring down on Husayn, trampling his body with horses before decapitating him.

After the tents they were taking shelter in were set alight, the women and children in Husayn's family were bound as slaves and taken along with his head as a trophy to Damascus. Holding the Quran high in one hand, Yazid and his supporters rejoiced in front of a stunned audience. They had succeeded, they declared, in "restoring" Islam to its true principles.

It's not hard to see the parallels with today's Islamist movement. The actions of Yazid and his army are seen to resemble the actions of IS in their drive to create an "Islamic State," while Husayn's tenacity and fierce sense of social justice are believed to be reflected in pro-Assad fighters. But are the comparisons legitimate?

"Politics in the guise of religion"

"Karbala is a theme [based on] oppressed vs oppressor," says Mohammad Marandi, Associate Professor in Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran. "You have to understand the mindset of Iran on a political and personal level and how it rose up against the Shah [in 1979]."

"This is a country that doesn't view Husayn or Kerbala only in Muharram. Shia clerics speak about Husayn in a way that resonates throughout their lives. It's taught as a way to stand up against oppression. So it's not just about Syria but also about Palestine and Yemen."

The heightened religious fervour during Ashura reflects the government's attempt to create an atmosphere where people become more sensitive to the threat of Al-Qaeda and IS, Marandi adds. "But there's also a vernal fear of the rise of this extremism. If Syria falls, then Iran will have to fight these groups within its own borders."

Others challenge the government's use of the Karbala narrative, saying it is self-serving, and part of the state's efforts to retain clerical control.

"It's really politics in the guise of religion," says Siavash Ardalan, an Iranian journalist in London. "The idea of using religion for foreign policy objectives is what the adversary of Iran -- in this case Saudi Arabia -- does as well through its religious schools -- push its own narrative of Islam in what it sees for its own interest."

In Shia Islam, the narrative revolves around the concept of martyrdom. "The Iranian government has tried to merge these ideas and rituals with their own foreign policy tools," he adds. "We see that being played out in Syria and during the Iran-Iraq war."

As much as the religious and political rhetoric heighten during Ashura however, it would be wrong to assume that all Iranians support the government's policy in Syria -- or that the Iranian military presence in Syria is huge, Ardalan says.

"Ceremonies marking the return of bodies are staged on a daily basis and there are massive mourning rituals around that. But only a few thousand have gone to fight; in a country of 80 million people, that's not a lot. It's just a way of keeping the public excited and committed."

It's also not just in foreign policy where religion is used to incorporate politically convenient messages. The Karbala narrative is so deeply entrenched in Iranian ethos that Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani told congregants last week that if they planned to watch the football Asian Football Confederation match against South Korea the day before Ashura in Tehran's Azadi Stadium, the entire stadium must be covered in black and mourning must still observed.

"Instead of clapping, all should shout 'Ya Husayn'," he said. Absurd or admirable? It didn't really matter to the fans. The live broadcast on state television showed a solemn audience wearing black. And the external validation certainly didn't hurt: South Korean journalists voluntarily wore black arm bands to show respect for the holy day.

*name withheld 

This article originally appeared in The New Arab.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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