In recent days the Middle East has witnessed an exacerbation of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, which has taken the form of a fratricidal civil war in Syria, of large-scale terrorist attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and of uprisings, civil unrest and public protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, accompanied by harsh reprisals against the protesters by authorities. What lies behind this ongoing wave of violence in the region? Who is inciting animosity among Muslims? A brief excursion into the history of relations between the two main branches of Islam demonstrates that there is no evident cause or objective premise supporting war between them.
Sunnis-Shiite antagonism is rooted in the distant past. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. a dispute broke out among his followers regarding who should inherit political and spiritual authority over the Arab tribes. The majority supported the candidacy of the Prophet’s close companion and the father of his wife – Abu Bakr. They subsequently formed the Sunni camp, today making up 85% of all Muslims. The remaining Muslims supported the nomination of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, declaring that the Prophet himself had named him as his successor. Resultantly, they became known as Shiites, which in translation from Arabic means literally, “Followers of Ali”. Proponents of Abu Bakr took the upper hand in the conflict, gaining him the title of Caliph. The ensuing power struggle led to the murder of Ali by Sunnis in 661. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were also murdered. Hussein’s death in 680 near the Iraqi city of Karbala is regarded by Shiites to this day as a tragedy of historic proportions. For centuries the Sunnis retained power over the Arab (Islamic) Caliphate, with the Shiites consistently remaining in the shadows, professing the true leadership of their Imams – descendants of Ali.
The subsequent history of Sunni-Shiite relations did not involve serious armed conflict.
Today, Shiites, along with various smaller sects with similar beliefs (Ahmadiyyas, Alawites, Alevis, Druze, Ibadis, Ismailis and others), comprise up to 15% of the Muslim population. Followers of this branch of Islam make up the overwhelming majority of Iran’s populace, two-thirds of Bahrain, more than half of Iraq and a significant portion of the Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Yemen. For the majority of these, the central element of Shiism is considered faith in the 12 Imams, the final of whom is hidden by Allah, and will one day appear to the world to fulfil his sacred will.
Apart from the Koran, Sunnis are guided by the Sunnah – a collection of rules and practices based on examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnah is built on the Haditha: legends about the words and deeds of the Prophet. Traditional followers of Islam look upon adherence to the Sunnah as the main component of life for every true Muslim. There is often discussion about the literal application of the holy book’s regulations without any sort of modification. In several strains of Islam this takes an extreme form. For example, during the period of Taliban control in Afghanistan special attention was paid to men’s beard length and type of clothing; every detail of life was strictly regulated in accordance with the Sunnah’s requirements.
Shiites look upon their ayyatollahs (a Shiite religious title) as messengers of Allah on earth. Because of this, Sunnis often accuse Shiites of heresy, and Shiites in turn point to the excessive dogmatism of Sunni doctrine, which gives rise to various extremist movements, such as Wahhabism.
The Caliphate is long gone, owing to the powers which began the division of Muslims into Shiites and Sunnis, and along with it the very subject for dispute. Theological differences among the various strains of Islam are so insignificant that they could practically be ignored for the sake of unity and peace among Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad, shortly before his death, said to a group of Muslims, gathered in a mosque: “Beware that after me you do not turn into infidels, cutting each others’ throats…”. All Muslims today unanimously profess that Allah is the only God and that Muhammad is his Prophet. They all observe the five main pillars of Islam – including fasting during the month of Ramadan – and the Koran is the main holy book for all. During the Hajj – the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca and Medina – Sunnis and Shiites bow together before the sacred stone of Kaaba in the Holy Mosque. Shiites make a similar pilgrimage to the mosques at their holy shrines in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Western media tries to convince us that the blood currently being spilled in the Middle East is a result of the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Ostensibly, Muslims kill Muslims solely on the strength of their religious dissension. Such a version frees the US and its allies from the responsibility of interfering in the internal affairs of the region’s countries and of double standards and dubious alliances with the most reactionary of regimes and radical groups, including extremists and international terrorists. The externally fomented Sunni-Shiite conflict creates an eminent threat of “Somalization” of the region, and of sowing chaos and violence in it for long years to come. It becomes ever more apparent that there is no Sunni-Shiite conflict, as such – there are only external players, striving to realize their own national and corporate goals and objectives (control of resources, the militarization of the region, the enrichment of war lords, etc.) on the blood of Muslims.
It is not merely Sunnis that are standing against Shiites, but the political elite, tied to the West by dozens of economic, political, military, financial and other threads, receiving guarantees that persecution of Shiites will not kindle the outrage of the “international community” nor become a subject for the international tribunal in Hague or of US Congress hearings. Additionally, myths were fabricated in the corridors of the State Department and the CIA for propaganda purposes – myths about Shiite fanaticism, the Iranian nuclear threat, the “bloody dictatorship of the ayatollahs” and the anti-civilian regime of Bashar Al-Assad – in summary, an ideological base was created for a new witch hunt. The most visible goal for the artificial fomenting of the Sunni-Shiite conflict is clear: the destruction or weakening of Iran’s strategic regional partners such as the Assad government in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, increased pressure on the Shiite-majority government in Iraq, and the future isolation of Iran and the Persian Gulf region as a whole. As Imam Khomeini justly stated: “Animosity between Sunnis and Shiites is a Western conspiracy. Discord among us is profitable only to enemies of Islam. Whoever does not understand this is not a Sunni or a Shia…”.
It should be noted that the “Sunni front” struggle with Shiites is headed by the US’s regional allies -Saudi Arabia and Qatar; involved to a lesser extent are Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. Only one Arab Gulf state stands apart – Oman, where the wise Sultan Qaboos has not allowed his country to be dragged into sectarian strife. What, then, provides the basis for the willingness of Riyadh and its partners in the Gulf to follow the traditional policy of Western countries: “divide and conquer”?
First, Riyadh and its partners are not happy with the growth of Iran’s authority and influence in the region and in the Muslim world as a whole (the Shiite regime in Iraq, the Alawites in Syria, the role and significance of Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon), nor with the growing popularity of the idea that Shiism is a more equitable way of life for ordinary Muslims.
Second, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf are alarmed by events of the Arab Spring, which rocked the entire Arab world and sparked a wave of protests specifically in the Gulf countries. The most large-scale, spontaneous displays by the civilian population were observed in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and in Bahrain, where Shiites live in close quarters. Dependant on their Sunni elite, leaders of the Gulf countries did not wish to share power or profits with the Shiite population and again resorted to violent methods of dispersing demonstrations and quelling insurgency. The Saudis even sent a punitory military contingent to Bahrain with this express purpose.
Third, their own impending doom is becoming increasingly clear to the morally and physically declining kings, sultans, emirs and sheikhs of the Gulf countries, who wish to extend their period of unchallenged dominance for as long as possible. The expression, “Caliphs for an hour” is particularly applicable to these, who believe that transforming Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into an arena of open armed conflict between Sunnis and Shiites will not only help them to remain in power, but also bring them into positions of leadership across the Arab and Muslim world. Such monarchs will not stop at footing the cost for this war- numbering in the billions of dollars – or at recruiting fighters worldwide for cooperation with infamous terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Dzhagbu en-Nusra, and the like.
Flywheel violence and Sunni-Shiite strife are promoted by Washington and its satellites in the region and are unlikely to be solved by a “Geneva II”, “Geneva III” or any other formal international conference which will serve sooner as a screen to cover international crimes in Syria. Stopping the death of Syrians and Iraqis could be accomplished only by convening a special session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and adopting a resolution prohibiting any foreign interference in these conflicts. At the same time, the UNSC must decide to conduct peacekeeping operations (humanitarian intervention) in order to establish control over the borders of Syria and Iraq and prevent new jihadi militias from entering these countries. Sponsor-nations of international terrorism should be subjected to UN sanctions such as those which, until now, have been placed only on Iran.
Stanislav Ivanov, leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, PhD in history, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.