The deadliest but least understood Middle Eastern faultline is between Sunni and Shia
Yussef al-Qaradawi is stirring things up again.
When last heard from, the Egyptian-born TV-preacher with a massive Al-Jazeera viewing audience was at the center of a maelstrom touched off by former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s invitation to visit the British capital. People from across the political spectrum protested the reception accorded the homophobic, anti-semitic Muslim Brotherhood imam whose approval of suicide operations against Israeli civilians and Infidel troops in Muslim lands should have earned him treatment as a security threat rather than a VIP.
These days Qaradawi is waging a campaign in the Arabic media against his fellow Muslims – specifically the Shia minority whom extremist Sunnis like himself see as heretics. He told the London-based pan-Arab daily, Asharq al-Awsat, that thanks to Iran’s orchestrated efforts to undermine the Sunnis, “countries that were purely Sunni are becoming Shia.”
In response, Iran’s Ayatollah Mohamed Ali Taskhiri, Secretary General of the “World Assembly for Proximity among the Islamic Schools of Thought”, condemned Qaradawi’s statements, which, he said, were “poisoned with hypocrisy and deceit.”
Other religious and political figures from around the region jumped into the fray. A Lebanese MP from Hezbollah, the militant Shia political party, blamed the controversy on foreign powers (i.e. the US and Israel). Though some Sunni spokesmen criticized Qaradawi’s sectarianism they also deplored how the Shia were treating fellow Sunnis.
It appears that the thrust of Qaradawi’s sectarian campaign has less to do with religious doctrine than the political, and sometimes military, battle shaping up around the Middle East.
On one side is Iran and the so-called “Resistance Bloc”, which comprises Lebanon’s Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shia groups and also some non-Shia Arab actors, like Syria – ruled by the Alawite minority — and the Palestinian radical, and Sunni, group Hamas. On the other side is the established Sunni Arab order, including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, all of whom, it is worth noting, are US allies. Although the emerging Middle Eastern divide does not run precisely along Shia-Sunni lines, those who are exploiting the schism could fuel a more general conflagration from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
The US-led invasion of Iraq, the subsequent overthrow of a Sunni strongman in Saddam Hussein and the enfranchisement there of a long-repressed Shia majority has been the catalyst for the current state of sectarian affairs. However, neither Washington policymakers, nor Zionism, nor even the legacy of Western imperialism engineered the Sunni-Shia schism. Indeed, this split and the concomitant political violence, and not external forces, that have shaped the fundamental character of the region since the earliest days of Islam.
Because Muhammad never named an heir, the death of the Prophet led to highly charged factional infighting to decide the future of the umma. One camp comprised the members of noble Arabian families, many of whom came to Islam late, and they became known as the ahl al-Sunna, or the people of law or tradition. The other group believed that Muhammad’s successor should come from the prophet’s own house, starting with the messenger of God’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali. They were known as the faction of Ali, shi’at Ali.
When the Caliphate finally fell to Ali, disaster soon followed. Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, outwitted Ali in a famous battle at Siffin (657) by having his men hoist copies of the Quran on their spears causing Ali’s forces to stop in their tracks. Ali agreed to mediation and the man who would become known as the first of the Shiite imams was assassinated shortly after by disenchanted former associates.
Mu’awiya moved the Caliphate to Damascus where he founded the Umayyad dynasty (661-750). He was succeeded by his son Yazid, who cut down Ali’s second son Hussein at Kerbala in 680, a seminal event in Shia history, and commemorated each year with self-lacerating enthusiasm during the Ashura festival. Thus, the Shiites, celebrating their suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom, became the perpetual also-rans of Islamic history.
The Sunnis are the region’s top dog, constituting between 85 to 90% of the Muslim population around the world. (The Shiites are the largest of the faith’s many minority sects.) In response to Sunni domination, often founded on force and coercion, Shia scholars and jurists developed defense mechanisms, like the doctrine of taqqiya, or dissimulation, which allows the faithful to dissemble and disguise their real identity and belief for fear of being trounced by a stronger power – i.e., the Sunnis.
Open warfare between the two sides has been sporadic, hardly surprising given that the Shia are greatly outnumbered. But mutual hostility is never-ending. Many Sunni Arabs, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, believe that Shiites are more loyal to Iran than to the countries they are living in. There’s also an entire sectarian folklore, some of it grotesque. For instance, in Lebanon I have encountered Sunnis who actually believe that Shiites have little tails. Much of the anti-Shia calumny tends to be of a sexual nature, some of it no doubt issuing from the Sunnis’ attitude toward “pleasure marriage,” a Shia prerogative entitling men to engage a temporary union, which is effectively religiously sanctioned prostitution.
While the Shiites occupied the back seat of Middle Eastern history, they bided their time imagining what the world might look like with themselves at the reins. Their most hopeful, indeed messianic, scenario forecasts the world saved by the reappearance of the “Twelfth Imam”, Muhammad al-Mahdi. It is he, in occlusion since the ninth century, who lends his name to Twelver Shiism, the largest Shiite sect, and whose return will usher in an era of peace and justice.
Equally significant are the flesh and blood figures, ideologues, activists and scholars whose legacy suggests that it is the Shia minority rather than the regional majority who are the political engine of the modern Middle East. For instance, it is one of the great ironies of modern Muslim intellectual history that the founding father of Salafism, a patently Sunni movement spanning the rise of the Islamist movement from Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna to Qaradawi, was himself a Shia. The nineteenth-century publicist and provocateur Jamal al-Din al-Asadabadi concealed his sectarian origins with the assumed name al-Afghani to suggest he was from Afghanistan rather than Persia.
Of course, the last century’s most famous Islamic political activist was openly Shia: Ruhollah Khomeini was the architect of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, an epochal event as momentous as the Russian, French and American revolutions. Arguably its significance is just starting to become apparent since its energies were mostly checked during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war. The regime’s greatest foreign success came via Iran’s ancient ties to the Shia community of Lebanon, where the Revolutionary Guard seeded Hezbollah.
Today the most famous of all Arab Shia leaders is Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah who has waged perpetual war with Israel, thereby earning him the admiration of even the Sunni masses and enabling the Party of God to jump the sectarian divide. At least that was the case until this May, when his cadre overran West Beirut, a Sunni stronghold, killing civilians, destroying property and thus outraging Sunnis across the Middle East. Here Hezbollah has entered dangerous territory.
The Party of God can claim with some justice that it is the only Arab outfit to have dealt Israel a genuine military defeat. However, it is worth emphasizing that with their struggle to “liberate Jerusalem” Hezbollah is essentially exploiting generalized anti-Israel animus in order to disguise its patently Shia roots. For over fifty years it is the Sunnis who have led the charge against Israel, and now Hezbollah has picked up the banner of Arab nationalism and effectively out-Sunni’d the Sunnis. That is to say, Hezbollah’s current trajectory can only be understood in the context of the region’s Sunni-Shia issues.
Make no mistake, as Nasrallah’s gloating over Israeli corpses proves, Hezbollah takes real joy in killing Jews. However, the organization’s deepest fear is not of the Zionist state founded in 1948, but of the Sunni sea that has engulfed the Shia for 1400 years. Remember that shortly before he was killed in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of collaborating with the Zionists and protecting Israel from the “real” resistance – i.e., the Sunni resistance.
In a letter captured by US forces in the spring of 2005 Al-Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri chastised Zarqawi for his anti-Shia campaign, fearing that their supporters around the region would neither understand not approve of killing fellow Muslims. As it turned out, Zawhiri had misunderstood the depths of sectarian loathing in the region, for mainstream Sunnis all over the Arab world cheered on Zarqawi’s relentless bomb attacks on Shiite marketplaces and mosques. And when Sunni Arabs or Pakistanis either in the region or in countries like Britain demonstrate against the killing of “Muslims” they are certainly not referring to the deaths of Shiite heretics but members of the formerly hegemonic Sunni minority.
If the Al-Qaeda HQ underestimated the toxic nature of anti-Shiite feeling, it is unlikely the Americans will be cut any slack for the same error. Nonetheless, US forces seem to have learned quickly on the ground in Iraq. Remember that up until this spring, the common wisdom in Western diplomatic and media circles was that the guileless, gun-slinging Yanks should model themselves after their British counterparts. UK forces walked the streets of Basra without helmets to mingle more humanely among the population whose hearts and minds they now owned. However, as the situation in the Shia port city deteriorated, it became clear that British “soft power” had become a euphemism for digging in at the Basra airport. The bulk of the fighting against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi and Iranian elements was left to the Maliki government and those gun-slinging Americans. In retrospect, it was perhaps an error in American judgment to let the Brits patrol one of the country’s most prominent Shiite regions in the first place. After all, having been awarded the post-WWI mandate for Iraq, London showed its ignorance of Shia sensibilities by emplacing the Emir Feisal, a Sunni, to rule a Shia-majority country.
At this point it’s worth asking, given the ardent and frequently violent nature of the Sunni-Shia split, why haven’t we seen this conflict played out in the Muslim diaspora? The short answer is that since most of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, most immigrants are as well. The more complicated answer is that the psychodrama of the Muslim Middle East’s majority/minority divide is indeed unfolding before us, but we just haven’t recognized it as such.
In the context of Western political cultures, Muslims constitute a religious minority. However, insofar as most are Sunni they retain a Sunni identity and think like a majority – a majority who for close to 1400 years has demanded that others tailor their attitudes to their worldview. There is nothing in the historical character of Sunni Islam that would make it anything but hostile to the idea of compromise.
This of course is not to say that all Sunnis and Sunni immigrants are supremacist; nor do I mean that the Shia are liberal-minded by nature. My point is merely this: The set of issues that Western policymakers, security experts and journalists typically think of as Islamic in character might be a much more specific symptom, the rigid and rejectionist mindset of a majority culture that will not willingly accommodate itself to others, never mind to a culture that is increasingly uncertain of what it stands for, a culture that treats with the likes of Yusuf Qaradawi, homophobe, anti-Semite and anti-Shia ideologue.