If we have any sense of history, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are sectarian in essence, writes Salah Nasrawi
Like the summer heat, the fear of impending sectarian clashes is weighing on the Middle East these days. Compared with previous catastrophic wars, a sectarian flare-up looks much worse and could have profound implications for our time. Even Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month, doesn’t seem immune from the gloom.
From wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, a government crisis in Lebanon, and the bombings in Saudi Arabia, the perception that the region is sinking into deep sectarian conflicts is becoming a reality. Fierce rivalry between a Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia conglomerate led by Iran is heightening sectarian tensions, even in conflicts that are primarily political.
A key factor behind the tension is the rise of Shia Islam that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and fears that the newly empowered Shia will try to carve out political space for themselves in a Sunni-dominated region. The turmoil that marred the region in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, which trigged a tectonic shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape, has also increased regional sectarian tensions.
In Iraq, the rise of the Shia upset the sectarian balance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and reinforced the historic conflict between Islam’s two main sects. The Shia-led government failed to build a consensus democracy following the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein. This gave rise to Sunni radicalisation and mobilisation to fight back against what Sunnis perceived as exclusion and marginalisation.
The culmination of the Sunni insurgency in the Islamic State (IS) group’s onslaught last year and its seizure of vast chunks of territory has sharpened the sectarian divide as Shia militias moved quickly to fight for what they saw as their survival against the militants. Sectarian violence and atrocities committed by both sides have deepened the intercommunal strife and taken the region’s historic Shia-Sunni split to a potentially explosive level.
The popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria soon turned into another regional sectarian flashpoint when Iran and the rest of the Shia in the Middle East backed the Alawite-dominated regime, while Sunni Arabs supported the country’s Sunni majority. The war has engulfed the residents of Alawite and Sunni villages and towns in massive atrocities and in many cases revealed vengeful tendencies towards sectarian point-scoring.
In a recent interview with the Al-Jazeera television network, Abu Mohamed Al-Golani, head of the radical Al-Nusra Front, warned that his Al-Qaeda-affiliated group did not only want Syrian Alawites to disavow Al-Assad and drop their arms, but also to “correct their doctrinal mistakes and embrace Islam.” Al-Golani vowed to fight Iran, which he described as a “non-Islamic” and “Persian” state hostile to the Arabs.
EXTENSION OF THE CONFLICT: The war in Syria has spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon, with the Shia group Hizbullah siding with Al-Assad and many of the Sunni faithful in Lebanon openly supporting Syrian rebels. Over the past few weeks, clashes have roiled the borders with Syria as Hizbullah carried out its most intense operations against Sunni militants who have taken up positions in the porous mountainous region.
Hizbullah’s offensive has increased Shia-Sunni tensions in a country that has its own turbulent history of religious and sectarian struggles. Many expect that in a post-Al-Assad Syria dominated by Sunnis, their co-religionists in Lebanon will take heart and demand a greater role and more power. If Al-Assad, or the Alawite minority, stays in power, or if Syria falls apart into ethnic mini-states, Lebanon could easily follow suit, but only after another bloody war.
The crisis in Yemen, where competing forces are also fighting for control, has further galvanised the region. Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Gulf Arab nations in the fight against Shia Houthis who now control large swathes of land in the impoverished but strategically important country. The Saudi-led intervention has turned what was mostly seen as a political and tribal power struggle into a sectarian conflict between the Houthi minority and Yemen’s Sunni majority.
In all these countries the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni communities are seen as part of the larger regional geopolitical struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. The sectarian alignment, crystallised in the war in Yemen with Saudi Arabia assembling a coalition of Sunni nations against the pro-Iranian Shia Houthi rebels, is a clear sign of how sectarianism is snowballing.
Given the intensity and scale of the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region and its dynamics, Saudi Arabia itself is not immune to the sectarian competition. Saudi Arabia’s Shia, who comprise about 15 per cent of the population, have been struggling for greater political and economic rights and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Wahhabi establishment, which considers them as heretics.
Last month, attacks in the Shia-dominated eastern province of the country, where dozens of Shia worshipers were killed by IS suicide bombers, were an indication of how rising tension in the region is penetrating the kingdom itself, feeding a bloody sectarian struggle. Following the deadly attacks, messages posted on social media in the kingdom were rife with anti-Shia rhetoric, with some calling for the killing of the “impure” Shia infidels and the destruction of their “temples.”
Frightened and feeling betrayed, Shia in the eastern province sought to take matters into their own hands and create self-protection committees to guard against IS attacks. That was immediately rejected by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, also deputy premier and minister of the interior, who warned that the government “will confront those who try to undermine its security and stability with an iron fist.”
Other Middle Eastern Muslim countries where Shia are small minorities, such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan, have not been spared the spiralling sectarian tension raging in the region.
In Egypt, a report by the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies cautioned against the “repercussions of Shia political and religious activity” in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. The report said the “reactions of the Egyptian Shia sect to Operation Decisive Storm have gained a lot of attention and raised questions about the extent of the presence of the Shia in Egypt.”
In April, a new Salafi group was formed to combat Shia activism in Egypt. The announced launch of the Coalition for the Defence of the Prophet’s Companions followed increased Shia-Sunni polarisation over the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Security crackdowns on the Shia in Egypt, including closing down their offices and questioning their leaders, have also increased.
FIRE UNDER THE ASHES: The modern Shia-Sunni struggle dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and its aftermath, when conservative Sunni countries in the Middle East, faced with Shia Iran’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide, responded by challenging the Islamic credentials of the Shia ayatollahs who had become Iran’s new rulers. The Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s opened a new chapter in the sectarian schism, as most of the Arab countries supported Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime against Shia Iran.
The animosity gained new impetus with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which empowered the majority Iraqi Shia at the expense of the Arab Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq since independence in the 1920s. The prospect of a Shia-led Iraq triggered alarms bell among many Sunni regimes of the danger of a geopolitical shift in the region, one in which Shia Arabs could ally themselves with Shia Iran.
Many Sunni Arab leaders started warning of a Shia Crescent, the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia, or where there is a strong Shia minority in the population. The idea was that a shared faith could lead to potential cooperation between Iran, Iraqi Shia, Alawite-dominated Syria, and the politically powerful Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Sunni militant groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which were born in the upheaval that following, took anti-Shia zeal to new heights. The rivalry reached genocidal levels with the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an Al-Qaeda offshoot, after civil war erupted in Syria in 2011. The group, which later declared itself as a caliphate and came to be known as the Islamic State, refuses to recognise the Shia as Muslims and has given them a grim choice of conversion or death.
ROOTS OF DIVISION: The Sunni and the Shia are the two main sects of Islam. Followers of both sects believe Allah is God, that Mohamed was his last prophet, and that the Qur’an is the holy book of Islam.
Unlike the different denominations of Christianity, the division between Muslim Shia and Sunnis is not defined by doctrine. They share most of the same Islamic tenets, but have some differences in their interpretation of the religious texts and the Prophet Mohamed’s traditions.
However, there are also differences between the two groups in the way they govern themselves and how they view political leadership within Islam. These variations stem from a disagreement over who was the legitimate leader to succeed the Prophet Mohamed after his death in 632 CE.
Some of his companions argued that the new leader should be chosen by them, while others claimed the role should stay within the Prophet’s immediate family. Those who supported the idea of “selection” won, and Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, a close companion of the Prophet, was installed as the caliph (successor) or chief Muslim civil and religious ruler.
Muslims who felt that the leadership should stay within Mohamed’s clan rejected Abu Bakr and his successors and instead supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This row has led to two main branches within Islam: the Sunni and the Shia. While supporters of giving rule to the Prophet’s descendants took on the name of Shiat-Ali (“the party of Ali”), commonly shortened to Shia, the others were called Sunni, meaning those who follow the traditions of the Prophet.
Today, Sunnis account for some 90 per cent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and have been the dominant branch in the Middle East for centuries. Although the Shia are spread across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, they constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. Hundreds of thousands of Shia also live in the United States and other Western nations, and they, like their Sunni counterparts, are primed for sectarian sentiments.
Despite its historic roots, however, the split within Islam has not been this deep or bloody for centuries. It is only in recent years that it has emerged as the biggest fault line in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East and beyond.
The geopolitical conflicts raging between the Sunnis and Shia are shaking the Middle East today. Sectarianism is being instrumentalised in various ways to advance geopolitical aims, including justifying extremism and employing religiously oriented propaganda in conflicts.
As if to underscore the antagonistic nature of these conflicts, the warring parties have showed no willingness for a pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which started last week. The United Nations has asked for a halt in the fighting in Yemen during Ramadan, a time of fasting, spiritual reflection and worship, yet the fighting has not abated neither in Yemen nor in other countries.
Consequently, with so much blood being spilled and chaos spreading, the most pressing question being asked now is whether rising sectarianism in the Middle East reflects real religious differences between Islam’s two main branches or is merely politics.
For those who believe sectarianism is the work of the colonial powers, the phenomenon was not such an issue before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its growth is a result of the struggle for wealth, power and territory in the region.
A careful and in-depth analysis of the modern history of the Middle East shows that the rise of sectarianism is not spontaneous, though religious, sectarian and ethnic divisions after the independence of the Arab countries from the Ottomans and Western colonial powers seemed less pronounced. The recent turmoil may just have been the catalyst that exposed long-hidden sectarian prejudice and biases.
In their heyday, during the immediate post-colonial era, the focus of the region’s founding fathers was on establishing a common pan-Arab and national identity in the face of religious and ethnic identities. But sectarianism has revealed not only the fragility of the modern Arab nation-state, but also the deep religious hatred that seems to be the sole preserve of one sect group or the other.
For now, sectarianism continues to exacerbate regional conflicts. For many people, the fear is that the vicious Shia-Sunni division that has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years may become even get worse.