Recently, while keeping tabs on the war in Syria, I became aware of this excellent article about music and music videos in support of pro-Assad Shi’a militiamen, the Shabiha, in that conflict. Many of these are dedicated to the defenders of Sayyidah Zaynab, a town in southern Syria containing the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, which is held by Shi’a as the grave site of Zaynab, the daughter of the final Rashindun Caliph, Ali (Peace be Upon Him), and the grandaughter of the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him). A place of deep religious significance for the Shi’a, who trace a religious descent from the family of Ali (Peace be Upon Him), the town has been a target of Sunni Rebel Groups, whose religious affiliation considers the site blasphemous, and who have moved from their bases along the upper Euphrates to repeatedly attack the town, and have mortared and rocketed the mosque. Shi’a Musicians have rallied support via internet video behind the defenders, both Syrian Army and Shabiha, many of who are identified with Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas, the Shi’a “international brigade” and answer to the Rebel Salafi and Nationalist brigades like the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.
Supported by Hizbollah and Iran, these fighters were well and deftly compared in the article to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, whose musical heritage is widely remembered thanks to the efforts of Pete Seeger and the 1960’s left wing revivalists (a personal favorite is “Viva La Quince Brigada“, also known as “Ay Carmela”). Much like the International Brigades saw Spain as a battleground against Fascism, Syria draws in the faithful soldiery of many nations (to say nothing of the unfaithful) to do battle with their religious foes, accessible to many in the large swathe of now open territory of western Iraq and Eastern Syria. One of the many reasons Western Leaders (rightly) have been skeptical about interference is that the war in Syria has become so much more than the Assad Regime versus the Free Syrian Coalition; it has become something more desperate, a struggle of conviction and faith which attracts the ranks of the young from the Middle East, Central Asia, Western Europe, and further afield.
This narrative reminded me in particular of the struggle in the First Great Northern War between the Polish defenders of the Monastery of Jasna Gora in Częstochowa, Poland, against the attacking Swedes in 1655. The Monastery houses the Black Madonna, a religious Icon of tremendous personal significance to Polish Catholics. The siege, though of only minor military significance, formed a rallying cry for mass resistance amongst the Polish nobility and people to the alien and Lutheran Swedes. Though it seemed that the Swedish Invasion, which had overwhelmed the King’s army and is still remembered as the “Potop” or “Deluge”, would surely overthrow Poland’s monarchy, resistance and protection of the poignant religious symbol and pilgrimage site, much like Sayyidah Zaynab, helped turn the course of the war and drew additional support for Jan Casimir, King of Poland, who would go on to later repel the Swedes and regain his throne. It is still celebrated in religious and nationalist context, and formed a major plot point in the 1974 adaptation of the Potop in a movie, in which Polish nobles, commoners, and priests unite to repel the Swedes, who march forward singing the Lutheran Hymn “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott”, the favored hymn of Gustavus Adolphus (though this is a far later setting of it), while inside the faithful gather to pray at a sight of a populist (and very communist) image of Polish religious heritage.
As it looks as if Peace Talks are on the table leading to a settlement with the Assad Regime (a circumstance that seemed impossible a year ago when it was a question of when, not if, Assad would fall), to say nothing of a possible new detente with the Iranian backers of the Shabiha, it will be interesting to see if Sayyidah Zaynab might not take on the same significance as Jasna Gora in the national and religious narrative of the Shi’a states and regimes that follow.