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In the weeks leading up to November 21, millions of Shiite Muslims will flock to the southern Iraqi city of Karbala for the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. Although the Arba’een pilgrimage has recently swelled to about ten times the size of the Hajj, it remains virtually unknown in the West. Pilgrims from across the world perform this ziyara—or visit to the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein—on foot to mark 40 days after his martyrdom. The event commemorates a central moment in the Sunni-Shiite divide and was largely restricted during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who saw the massive physical mobilization of Shiites as an implicit threat to his regime.
Since Saddam’s fall, participation in such religious festivals has risen steeply. The new Iraqi government opened the borders to Shiites from around the world, and in 2004, over two million pilgrims, including 100,000 Iranians, went to Karbala for Arba’een. Ten years later, and despite the Islamic State (ISIS) takeover of Mosul, the pilgrimage in the fall of 2014 welcomed a reported 17 million pilgrims, including over a million Iranians who were able to enter as a result of the lifting of visa restrictions for the pilgrimage. We used the unique opportunity afforded by last year’s Arba’een pilgrimage, which attracted a reported 22 million pilgrims, to survey over 4,000 observant men and women from two of the largest and most influential Shiite countries: Iran and Iraq.
The survey covered a vast range of topics—from religion and gender to Western intervention and Iran’s nuclear agreement—at a pivotal time, when the United States is fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, working to enforce the nuclear agreement with Iran, and combating intense sectarian conflict in Syria and Yemen. We found significant transnational allegiances among these religious Shiites, as well as pragmatism about the benefits of working with the United States to promote a more stable and prosperous Middle East.
Roughly 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Shiite, and Shiites make up the largest or governing group in some of the Middle East’s most contentious areas, including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Yet to date there has been very limited information on how they view their respective regimes, the regional power players, and the Western world. This is partially due to a lack of public opinion surveys in the Middle East, which is in turn a result of regime restrictions, raging conflicts, and the displacement of civilians. The knowledge deficit has had major consequences for the United States, which has routinely misestimated the importance of sectarian allegiance and Shiite religious leadership.
The most prominent instance of this miscalculation was the United States’ backing of the Shah of Iran, which continues to have ramifications for regional engagement today. More recent examples include the West’s failure to anticipate the rise of the Houthis in Yemen and the resilience of the Alewite government in Syria.
The Arba’een pilgrimage brings together religious Shiites from across the socioeconomic spectrum. The pilgrims are undoubtedly more religious than their countries’ populations as a whole, and they are often perceived to be the backbone of support for their respective governments. For Iraqi pilgrims, due to the ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict at home, the pilgrimage also has an additional sectarian dimension beyond its religious importance.
A consistent pattern that emerged throughout the survey was the importance to individuals of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic classes of Shiite religious practice and of transnational Shiite ties. Conflicts across the Middle East are often seen as proxy wars between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. In the past, it has been hard to know how supportive the religious populations of these two countries are of these interventions and how they view Iran’s role in the conflicts.
As it turns out, both Iranian and the Iraqi respondents are overwhelmingly supportive of Iran’s strategy in the Middle East, with upwards of 90 percent of Iranians and over three-quarters of Iraqis positively perceiving Iran’s interventions in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Over 80 percent of the respondents also supported giving financial assistance to Shiite groups caught up in these conflicts. When asked what Iran’s foreign policy goal was, a majority of Iraqis stated that it was to protect vulnerable Shiite communities throughout the Middle East. Iranians, on the other hand, were most likely to state that Iran’s primary goal was ensuring its national security. The importance of Shiite ties is further highlighted by attitudes toward Shiite religious practice, which centers on emulation, or following the teachings of a particular high-ranking religious scholar. Over 90 percent of respondents believed the practice of emulation to be obligatory. The majority of Iraqis surveyed noted that they follow Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the majority of Iranians named Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei, with Sistani having a substantial following among Iranians as well. Over 80 percent of Iranians and Iraqis believe that these scholars’ political statements are as binding as their religious statements. Despite the overall religiosity of this group, however, throughout the survey we found diversity in beliefs about how much exchange there should be between religion and politics, with around 40 percent of Iraqis and 20 percent of Iranians saying that religion should not inform government decisions. Iraqis were also divided on whether Islamic parties were better or worse than other political parties, and respondents from both countries were split on whether democracy was compatible with Islam.
Respondents expressed nuanced views toward the United States and the West. Most Iranians valued their country’s search for self-sufficiency over its integration into the international community, and they saw the United States and Iran as having divergent interests. Further, the majority of respondents believed that the United States was dishonest and unfair with Shiite countries and more honest and fair with Shiite enemies, but they also recognized the need for cooperation.
Both Iraqis and Iranians preferred minimal U.S. involvement in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, even including non-military options, but they also recognized the need for collaboration in the most incendiary conflicts. For example, nearly 65 percent of Iranians supported collaboration between the United States and Iran in fighting ISIS, and Iranians were split on their support of interaction with the United States through tourism, talks, journalists, and cultural exchange.
This nuanced perspective extended to Iranian views about their country’s nuclear program. Although the majority was supportive of their country developing nuclear energy, respondents were evenly divided on whether their country should develop nuclear weapons. Around 80 percent were also supportive of the P5+1 nuclear deal, with only slightly fewer—70 percent—being optimistic about its success.
Iranian and Iraqi Shiites differed, however, on their views about their respective regimes. When asked which political party they supported, 70 percent of Iranians stated that only the Supreme Leader Khamenei should lead Iran. Around 30 percent of Iranians stated that they could not criticize their system without fear, whereas only eight percent of Iraqis stated the same thing. Iraqis expressed overall frustration with their political system, with 60 percent of Shiites stating that no party was suitable to lead their country. In the context of choosing a leader, they were more likely to prefer someone new, even if that meant the new leader would be inexperienced. Despite the overall dissatisfaction with authority, more than half of Iraqis remained supportive of democracy as a whole and disagreed with statements linking democracy to a degradation of social and ethical values, the economy, and stability. Iranians, although supportive of their theocratic regime, were only slightly less optimistic about democracy than their Iraqi counterparts. Iraqis were also in favor of keeping a unified, sovereign Iraqi state. Specifically, they supported fighting ISIS to liberate Sunni areas and opposed the creation of a Sunni autonomous region or a Kurdish independent state.
The complete findings from the survey, found here, cover these topics in more detail, with extended discussions of gender, media usage, religion, and democracy. The insights gained from this research indicate a desire for less Western intervention but also for more positive engagement with Iran and Iraq. The United States has more work to do to combat its reputation of pro-Sunni bias. Continuing the process of normalizing relations with Iran would have effects across the region, given the strength of Shiite transnational ties. Remaining engaged in efforts to reach a lasting ceasefire in Syria and in Yemen are also steps in the right direction. It is worth getting the relationship right: even among this religious population—presumably the segment that is the least enamored with the United States—respondents were clearly aware of and supportive of the cooperation necessary to promote regional peace.