Shia converts in Brussels: "We lived a lie"

Sunnis who become Shiite is not an exception any more. In Brussels the Moroccan people tend to convert easier than the Turkish community.
On a Friday just after noon’s prayer. Sjiek Abdallah changed his long vestments and turban for his pants and coat. He asks me to wait, while he speaks to a young man. The conversation takes ten minutes in the office (annex library) of the Shiite mosk Erreda in Anderlecht. The common language is Farsi. Sjeik Abdallah is a native Moroccan. He was raised as a Sunni, but after his conversion, he moved to Iran to study Theology. He stayed in Iran for ten years. Now he is an Imam in the Erreda mosk of Anderlecht where his followers are rather native Moroccan.
‘I became a Shiite when I met some fellow Moroccans who were already converted. This was already in the eighties.’ He tells us. ‘That first group was inspired by books, which were distributed here by some Iranians.’
Same for Fatiha, a Moroccan girl living in Antwerp, who became a “new Shiite”. Her conversion happened when she met her Iraqi husband, a Shiite. They had a “fun-wedding” or temporary marriage. ‘I was divorced and craved for sexual contact’, she explains. ‘It comforted me that this was even possible in an Islamic context.’ The temporary relationship led to a marriage contract. Not only this temporary marriage, which had been criticized by many Sunnis, but the entire Shiite philosophy was appealing to her. ‘The Sunnis always talk about details and rituals, whereas the Shiites are more profound. Which is clearly shown in the religious Television shows’, she says.

Ali’s disciples


It is obvious that the group of ‘New Shiites’ is growing on a global scale. ‘You can say it has a snowball effect’, says Imane Lachkar, who examines conversion for her PhD at the University of Leuven. ‘In Brussels it’s a large phenomenon, in a globalising context. The information easily circulates. There’s already a new generation of ‘New Shiites’. For example, the choice for baby names, such as Jaafar and Fatima-Zahra are getting popular. And these names are traditional Shiite names.’ Statistics on the number of ‘New Shiites’ are not available. ‘We’re not talking about a conversion in faith. It’s something that occurs within the spectrum of its faith. There is no certificate and no registration. The only difference is the addition of Ali, nephew and son in law of the prophet Mohammed, to the Sjahada or the confession of faith (the fact that there is only one God and Mohammed is his messenger) which is Hoejate Allah or the symbol of embracing Ali.’
Let’s recapitulate. Shiism is the second largest religious aspect within the Islam. Sunnism is still the largest. Shiism has its foundation in the struggle for the succession of prophet Mohammed. Shiites or Sjia te Ali, who are followers of Ali, believe that Ali is the direct successor of Mohammed. He is entitled to this, because he is family of the prophet. The other party thought both parties should consult together on who would be the next prophet, because other members were equal to Ali. Abu Bakr was chosen as the first ‘Kalif’. Twenty years later, Iman Ali was privileged with this title, but was killed by his opponents. This was the big turning point in the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. But it was until the assassination of Imam Hoessein in 680 in Karbala, that the conflict really escalated. The Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iraqi-Iranian war of the Eighties caused the old clash to resurrect once again. This event caused the first ‘conversion’. ‘The assassination of the prominent Ali who was close to Mohammed and the brutal murder on his son Hoessein by fellow Muslims, caused a great sympathy towards the Shiites,’ says Sjeik Abdallah.

‘Crying gives you strength’


The Hierarchy within the Shiite system is admirable for many Sunnis. Fatiha for example thinks it’s good that there’s one spiritual leader that takes responsibility to answer believer’s questions. ‘It’s a very structured religion. There is no chaos’, says Imane Lachkar. ‘There’s little room for Ijtihad, the religious interpretation. Shiites believe in people who have a better status and more religious capacities to give a religious interpretation. They also believe in the infallibility of the prophet and of the twelve Imams who are descendants of the prophet. And this is the great difference with the Sunnis.’
There is no discussion that the actual political situation has made Shiites more visible. But people don’t change out of political opinion. ‘Hassan Nasrallah is a Shiite leader of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and very popular with Sunnis. But it doesn’t change the Sunnis into Shiites’, explains Sjeik Abdallah.
The decision to convert to shiism is not experienced as a change, but more as a return to its roots. ‘it is a critical view towards history’, says Imane Lachkar. ‘Many people have a feeling of being living the lie, since history has been written by conquerors.’ The decision to convert is not an intervention with the environment. ‘Shiites will not easily be convinced to tell about Shiism, especially when they get the feeling the environment won’t understand its point of view. On the other hand it’s possible for some mostly high educated Arabs to convert their entire family’, explains our investigator.
‘To be a Shiite is also a process’, says Imane Lachkar. ‘People try to be a Shiite. They try to understand what happened those days. The remembrance of the assassination of Hoessein is a clear example of this phenomenon. Shiites work hard to acquire the tragedy of Karbala. They are prepared well in advance for this event. The tenth day, day of Asjoera where Hoessein had been assassinated is the climax of the event. The tragedy has to be internalised by one another.’ ‘Bloody self punishment is not the purpose’, says Sheik Abdullah. ‘ A soft clap on the chest, the same clap people did when they heard that Hoessein had been killed, which symbolises our mourning. It is crying out of love for Ahl Ibait. Crying gives you strength, same for men’.
‘To question history is good. It proves a critical mind. But New Shiites are explicit dogmatic in character’, says Imane Lachkar. ‘ in this case many critical minds have their boundaries as well.’

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