Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Railways, religion and politics

Evidence of an earlier German railway project in the Middle East
Following the news last week that the Hijaz Railway is to be revived, another Middle East, railway related story caught my eye this morning. The Iranians have signed an agreement with a German company to build a high-speed "maglev" railway line from Teheran to Mashhad, a shrine for Shia pilgrims. A spokesman for the German firm brushes aside the threat of further sanctions on Iran. "The transportation of pilgrims", he says, "is certainly not a project that would fall in the remit of a political boycott." If he truly believes this, he is falling into the trap of trying to separate politics and religion in a part of the world where they are intertwined like arabesque designs.

In this project's likely underlying motive, its similarity with the Hijaz railway, 100 years old next year, is uncanny. The Times article says, almost in passing, that "The Iranians, for their part, appear determined to make the Shia shrine easily accessible across the region." And this is surely the crux of the matter. Some of the greatest beneficiaries would, of course, be the sizeable Shia population in Iraq. Like the Hijaz Railway, this new project is profoundly political. It is to win the gratitude of Shias worldwide, and along the way, cause disagreement in Europe on the need for tighter sanctions.

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