Brothers at war

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL -

FOR two sects united by their be­lief in one Maker, one Book and one Prophet, the amount of blood spilt in the name of their re­spec­tive faiths by Shias and Sun­nis is truly stag­ger­ing. This is spe­cially so when one con­sid­ers the tiny dif­fer­ences that de­fine and di­vide them.

Since the ear­li­est days of Is­lam in the 7th cen­tury when the schism first tore the young Mus­lim com­mu­nity apart, the two sects have been war­ring in­ces­santly. Un­told thou­sands have been killed over the years, and this in­ternecine war con­tin­ues to dev­as­tate com­mu­ni­ties and na­tions.

I am not qual­i­fied to go into the rights and wrongs of this old con­flict. How­ever, as a stu­dent of his­tory, I can think of no other sin­gle cause of dis­unity among Mus­lims as this cor­ro­sive, cen­turies-old strug­gle. Other re­li­gions have gone through pe­ri­ods of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence: wit­ness the bloody re­li­gious wars that Catholics and Protes­tants fought in Europe.

But while th­ese ten­sions have mostly died down with the slak­ing of re­li­gious pas­sions among most Chris­tians, Mus­lims con­tinue to fight over whose ver­sion is the true Is­lam. In­deed, much of Is­lamic his­tory is writ­ten in the blood­shed ei­ther over suc­ces­sion, or in sec­tar­ian wars.

First, Ot­toman rule across large parts of the Arab world held Shi­aSunni vi­o­lence in check, even though in many prov­inces, Shias were sub­jected to dis­crim­i­na­tion. But as this vast area was con­trolled from Con­stantino­ple, open war­fare was rare. Then, in the post-Ot­toman, colo­nial era in the last cen­tury, Euro­pean pow­ers largely pre­vented Shia-Sunni ten­sions from break­ing into hos­til­ity.

In the last half of the 20th cen­tury, af­ter the de­par­ture of colo­nial forces, many Mus­lim coun­tries were ruled by sec­u­lar dic­ta­tors who, for all their many faults, kept the lid on th­ese an­cient sec­tar­ian ten­sions. From Sad­dam Hus­sein of Iraq, to Muam­mar Qad­hafi of Libya, to the As­sads of Syria, and to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, vi­o­lence be­tween the sects was kept at a min­i­mum.

Nev­er­the­less, the rul­ing sect did marginalise the other: thus, the ma­jor­ity Shias un­der the Sunni Sad­dam fared badly. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it is the mi­nor­ity Sun­nis un­der the Shia heel. In Syria, the mi­nor­ity Ale­wites have ruled since the

Ir­fan Hu­sain Sev­en­ties. In Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Shias are marginalised.

The list goes on, but one thing is clear: both sects har­bour deep dis­trust of each other. In­deed, in a re­cent Pew In­sti­tute sur­vey on at­ti­tudes in the Mus­lim world, only 53 per cent of those sur­veyed in Pak­istan con­sid­ered Shias to be Mus­lims. This fig­ure is even lower in sev­eral other Mus­lim coun­tries.

There is sim­i­lar doubt on the other side, with many Shias cast­ing doubt on Sunni be­liefs. So clearly, time has only sharp­ened this schism, rather than heal­ing old wounds.

But while more of­ten than not, th­ese ten­sions are lim­ited to neigh­bour­hoods and na­tions, the emer­gence of a Shia theoc­racy in Iran has taken th­ese dif­fer­ences to a new level.

Although me­di­ae­val Is­lam saw states en­gag­ing in sec­tar­ian war­fare, this ten­dency was later sup­pressed in mod­ern times, as we have just dis­cussed. How­ever, although the IranIraq war was fought over ter­ri­to­rial claims and counter-claims, overtly sec­tar­ian sym­bol­ism was de­ployed by both sides.

And when the Amer­i­cans in­vaded Iraq in 2003, the rul­ing Baath Party was ousted, and the mi­nor­ity Sun­nis dis­placed from power. This led to a Shia re­vival, and a ma­jor gain in Ira­nian in­flu­ence. In­deed, the US-led cam­paign was widely viewed in the Mid­dle East as hav­ing en­hanced Ira­nian power across the re­gion.With friendly Shia gov­ern­ments in Iraq and Syria, Iran could eas­ily send arms to Hezbol­lah in Le­banon and Ha­mas in Gaza. To­gether with its nu­clear as­pi­ra­tions, the Iran of the ay­a­tol­lahs sent alarm bells ring­ing in Sunni cap­i­tals in the re­gion.

Thus, when the Arab Spring reached Syria a cou­ple of years ago, pro­tes­tors were sup­ported by Sunni Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And see­ing an op­por­tu­nity to cut a hos­tile Iran down to size, west­ern pow­ers have now thrown their weight be­hind the anti-As­sad forces.

But sup­port­ing Sunni fight­ers is prov­ing tricky, given the pen­e­tra­tion of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion by Salafi groups that have flooded into the coun­try. In­deed, they are prov­ing to be the most ef­fec­tive and or­gan­ised among all those cur­rently try­ing to over­throw their Ale­wite rulers. The pres­ence of th­ese ex­trem­ists has made west­ern pow­ers wary of sup­ply­ing them with lethal anti-air­craft mis­siles. The fear is that th­ese weapons could be turned against Is­raeli and west­ern air­craft.

Both Iran and Hezbol­lah are do­ing their best to keep the tot­ter­ing As­sad regime in power. They know that a hos­tile, Sunni-dom­i­nated government in Da­m­as­cus would make life dif­fi­cult for both of them. In­creas­ingly, the sec­u­lar Syr­ian re­sis­tance is be­ing side­lined by ex­trem­ist forces.

The real dan­ger is that Syria will frag­ment along sec­tar­ian and eth­nic lines. This would cause chaos in the re­gion, with the spill-over be­ing spe­cially lethal for Le­banon, a coun­try del­i­cately poised over sev­eral re­li­gious and sec­tar­ian fault­lines. Although the great sec­tar­ian di­vide is now play­ing out in the geopo­lit­i­cal arena, vi­o­lence be­tween Shias and Sun­nis is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly bloody in coun­tries like Pak­istan. In the sub­con­ti­nent, the two com­mu­ni­ties have lived peace­fully side by side for cen­turies. Even though there were oc­ca­sional clashes at Ashura, there was lit­tle of the or­gan­ised killings that are tak­ing place with sick­en­ing reg­u­lar­ity in Pak­istan to­day.

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