Shia JFM Creates Graphic Tribute to “The Lions of the Shia Resistance”

Without saying a word, a pro-Shia militant group has asserted that Shia groups are the soldiers of Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shia Islam after the Prophet Muhammad himself.  A posting to an Iraqi Shia militant web forum shows footage of the “Great Lion” Aslan, the central character from the 2005 Walt Disney Movie The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (based on the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), side-by-side with logos of two militant Shia groups, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq. It’s ironic that the creator chose Aslan to represent the Imam Ali, as The Chronicles of Narnia contain a significant amount of Christian symbolism and parallels to Christian scripture.  In fact, the Aslan character is thought by some to represent Jesus Christ.  Regardless, by combining the images of Aslan the Lion with the logos of these two groups, the creator of the graphic is declaring them soldiers of the Imam Ali, as fierce and dangerous to their enemies as he.  Further, the creator is saying that primary mission of these militant groups, defeating the US military in Iraq, is a holy one blessed by Imam Ali himself.

Depiction of Imam Ali accompanied by a lion

The lion has special significance in Shia Islam because of its association with the Imam Ali.  During his lifetime, Imam Ali was given the nickname of “Haydar,” meaning “Lion,” and was often referred to as “The Lion” or “The Lion of Allah.”  Because of this association, Imam Ali is often accompanied by a lion in graphical representations, or depicted as a lion himself.  Shia militant groups in Iraq, like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, frequently refer to their fighters as “the Lions of the Shia Islamic Resistance.”[1] Two of the most notorious Shia militant groups in Iraq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are suspected of being offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was officially disbanded by the Shia cleric in 2008.  Both groups are thought to have received support from Iran and/or the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah and have conducted attacks against US military forces in Iraq.  Kata’ib Hizbollah has even been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department.

A lion depicted with a body of calligraphic invocations to Allah

Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups occasionally compare their fighters to lions as well.  For example, when a group like the Islamic State of Iraq[2] claims to have conducted a suicide bombing attack, they may claim responsibility with a reference to the lion, saying that the attack was carried out by the “brave Lions of the Islamic State of Iraq.”  However, when Sunni groups make such claims, their comparisons lack the religious significance that they hold for Shia groups.  The Sunni comparison comes as a reference to the lion’s ferocity, strength, and reputation as a top predator, not as an association with a holy figure.

The Lion Imam Ali T-Shirt design, sold by Islamic Artistic Design

The association between Imam Ali and the lion is so strong that it often appears in popular culture.  For example, in this YouTube video, footage of an actor portraying Imam Ali on horseback chasing down an enemy is interspersed with footage of a lion chasing down another animal.  In another example, a clever and entrepreneurial group of artists has designed a T-shirt for sale online showing a lion with facial features represented by intricate Arabic calligraphy, to include the word “Ali” in the center of his face.

Yet another example of this association permeating popular culture is a common Iraqi joke.  Intended as a commentary on the current state of Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence in Iraq today, this joke is a bit of gallows humor that further demonstrates the strong connection that Shia Muslims make between Imam Ali and lions:

An Iraqi lion arrives in the United States to apply for asylum.  When immigration officials ask the lion for his reason for requesting asylum, he shows them a picture of Imam Ali with a lion.

“You see?” says the lion,“the Sunnis are after me because they have seen pictures of me with Imam Ali!”


[1] The names of these two groups are translated as “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq” and “The League of Righteous People.”

[2] The Islamic State of Iraq is a political front organization used by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq to issue public statements on behalf of the group.

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Culture is our Weapon

AfroReggae is a Brazilian NGO that empowers destitute youths through cultural empowerment.  The organization was founded in 1993, right after Rio de Janeiro police massacred twenty-one civilians in the Vigario Geral favela (the Portuguese equivalent of slum).  The founders of the organization recognized that young people in these favelas were given no cultural reference points aside from pervasive violence and the drug trade.  Because they are given no alternatives, many of these impoverished Brazilians become tied up in narcotrafficking gangs at a very early age and are unable to ever escape.  AfroReggae’s mission is to promote development by bringing culture to these people who have lost their culture.

The organization’s efforts have been a model of success, as its founders used their connections in the local favela communities, the Rio government, and even the narcotraffickers, to gradually expand AfroReggae’s operations to more of Rio’s impoverished favelas.  At a recent event in Washington D.C., Damien Platt, the author of a recently-published book about AfroReggae called Culture is our Weapon, detailed the full extent of AfroReggae’s efforts in Rio: several bands, five culture centers that offer classes, a samba group, an all-girl percussion group, a theater group, a dance and procussion group, a circus school, a TV program, a magazine, and two to three radio programs.  Damien first encountered AfroReggae while working for Amnesty International in Rio, and later worked as AfroReggae’s International Relations coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

The experience of AfroReggae shows that targeted cultural development programs, carefully tailored to the local environment, can have transformative effects on impoverished communities.  Clearly, AfroReggae’s efforts should be encouraged by the local government in Rio de Janeiro so that they can spread to the city’s other destitute favelas.  However, this organization’s successes raise the question of whether similar efforts can be undertaken elsewhere in Brazil.  For example, Brazil’s Tri-Border Areas, particularly the triple frontier with Paraguay and Argentina, have received considerable international attention in recent years, due to allegations that Middle Eastern terrorist groups have profited enormously from the illegal drug trade in these loosely-governed border areas.  Could Brazil improve its efforts to undermine the drug trade in the southern Tri-Border Area by promoting efforts similar to AfroReggae’s in Rio?

In his talk, Damien Platt highlighted that race relations have played an important role in AfroReggae’s success in Rio: not only are AfroReggae’s Afro-Brazilian clients socioeconomically marginalized, but they are also racially marginalized.   AfroReggae addresses both of these social problems, giving their favela clients specific Afro-Brazilian cultural reference points.  If similarly marginalized minorities exist in the Tri-Border Areas, Indian tribes and Middle Eastern immigrants for example, AfroReggae’s development model could be put to use elsewhere within Brazil.  AfroReggae’s development efforts in Rio have taken over a decade to grow their current stage, and fostering this kind of grassroots development in the Tri-Border Area will take time – all the more reason to get started soon.  If any of you know of any studies indicating whether this model could be successful in Brazil’s TBAs, please send it our way.

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