By Irfan Engineer
Conflicts between the Shia and Sunni sect of Islam has increased in the 21st Century. Clerics and politicians on both sides are stoking violence and distrust. Syria’s Civil war has become added reason for the growing virulent conflict between the two sects of Islam. There did exist some amount of mistrust between the followers of the two sects earlier. However, it largely remained at that – mistrust and prejudices. But the US led “war on terrorism” has widened the divide in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, and now in Syria. In our neighbourhood in South Asia, Pakistan too has witnessed escalation in sectarian violence with Shias being attacked inside their mosques and Sunni extremist organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi becoming bolder in their attacks on Shia minorities.
The two sects separated on the issue of choosing the successor of Prophet Mohammed after his death in the year 632. There are indications that struggle for succession had started when the Prophet was on his death bed. Shias believe that the Prophet had appointed his son-in-law Ali as his spiritual as well as temporal successor. However, this is difficult to ascertain, as the tradition of the Prophet quoted to prove this can be interpreted differently. What is probable is that the Prophet might have desired that Ali, who was undoubtedly a man of great courage, valour, character and intellectual accomplishments, should succeed him but did not state it in categorical terms in view of powerful contending groups. Succession brought tribal solidarities to the fore. The Banu Hashim rallied round Ali and the emigrant Qurayshite rallied behind Hazrat Abu Bakr. Banu Hashim were in minority. After and Hazrat Umar pledged his loyalty to AbuBakr, the tide turned in his favour and Abu Bakr was elected as the Caliph to succeed the Prophet. The Banu Hashim did not pledge their support the new Caliph for quite some time. They used to gather at Ali’s house to discuss their plans. However, on Hazrat Umar’s efforts, Ali also accepted the authority of Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar, Uthman and Ali. Those who were partisan of Ali in the conflict between Abu Bakr and Ali for succession were called as Shi’atu Ali or party of Ali and later were called simply as Shias. The majority were referred to as Sunnis, that is, those wanted to follow the good practices of Prophet.
Ali was also the fourth Caliph accepted by all Muslims. Nevertheless, the Shia Sunni Conflict survived as there are some theological differences. Shias believe that the successive Imams should be from the family Ali as the family has special religious wisdom and rightful political authority after the Prophet. It is hard to tell the exact numbers but it is generally believed that Shias constitute about 10-20% of the Muslim population in the world.
The largest Shia population in the world is Iran where they constitute an overwhelming majority. Iran, with its oil wealth and vibrant economy In Iraq though the Shias constitute majority of the population, the army and the Ba’ath party was dominated by the Sunnis. After the US invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Husain, the Shia – Sunni conflict escalated. Shias claimed power and Sunnis feared repression.
According to one estimate, as of early 2008, 1,121 suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. Sunni suicide bombers have targeted not only thousands of civilians but mosques, shrines, wedding and funeral processions, markets, hospitals, offices, and streets. Sunni insurgent organizations include Ansar al-Islam. Radical groups include Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, Jaish Muhammad, and Black Banner Organization.
Sunni insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi urged followers to kill the Shia of Iraq, and calling the Shias “snakes”. An al-Qaeda-affiliated website posted a call for “a full-scale war on Shiites all over Iraq, whenever and wherever they are found.” Wahhabi suicide bombers continue to attack Iraqi Shia civilians, and the Shia ulama have in response declared suicide bombing as haraam. “Even those who kill people with suicide bombing, these shall meet the flames of hell.” Declared Ayatollah Yousef Saanei.
Death squads of Shia militia-dominated government too in early February 2006 were torturing to death or summarily executing hundreds of Sunnis every month in Baghdad alone.
There was a vicious sectarian struggle till 2008 with hundreds killed in the process. The Sunnis pulled out Shia pilgrims from buses and gunned them down with the Shias retaliating equally violently and brutally. The Shia Sunni conflict was sought to be promoted by the US even during the 10 year long Iran-Iraq war. The US installed government is now headed by Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia. It must be remembered here that neither the Shias nor the Sunnis are striving for theological superiority of one over the other. They are locked in the struggle to bargain for maximum share in power.
In Bahrain too, the ruling Al Khalifa family professes Sunni Islam though about 70% of the population is Shia. With Arab springs, there were demonstrations against the government of Bahrain but Saudi Arabia sent army to help the Al Khailfa family curb the demonstrations. Media did not cover much of the demonstrations.
The Syrian War:
In Syria, this equation reverses. While the majority of the population is Sunni, the Alawite army and the President Bashar Al Assad of Syria has been from Shia sect of Islam. US is subtly using the Shia-Sunni divide to topple Bashar Al Assad Government. Bashar Al Assad has accused the US backed rebels to be terrorists who subscribe to Al-Qaeda ideology. Al Assad has refused to be US client state serving its interests; particularly, it has not accepted the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and its own territory – Golan Heights in under Israeli occupation.
According to one estimate, over 80,000 people have been killed in the US supported and instigated revolt against Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Over 150 Hezbollah fighters have reportedly been killed while fighting in support of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad. Influential cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi recently called on Sunni Muslims to join the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he effectively called for the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East to escalate in some countries and start anew in others. Qaradawi denounced al-Assad’s Alawite sect as “more infidel than Christians and Jews.” Such provocative statements are classic Qaradawi, who in 2008 warned of the “Shiitization” of the Middle East. Such statements could escalate the conflict in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Lebanon has significant Shia population though not majority. Hezbollah a resistence movement to Israeli occupation is a militant organization receiving strong support from the Shias. Hezbollah defends Lebanon’s Southern Borders against Israel. Formed in 1985 to free Lebanon from Israeli occupation, it fought two wars with Israel, the last one being in 2000. When Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon – Rafiq Hariri was assassinated on 14th February 2005, US and countries that support it blamed Syria for the assassination. The pressure mounted led to withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The Shia and Sunni population have a stable sharing of power arrangement in Lebanon after long years of civil war. However, in 2008 the tensions between the two Shia and Sunni dominated political alliances With the Arab Springs, and the US supported rebel in Syria in 2011 the repercussion have been felt in Lebanon too.
In India, Shias are about 20% to 30% of the total Muslim population or about 20-40 million. Shia population in India is second largest after Iran. Shias are found in considerable numbers in Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kargil, Delhi, Mumbai, Jaunpur, Machilipatnam, Barabanki, Sirsi, Amroha, Karari (Kaushambi, UP), Unnao, Akbarpur, Sultanpur and Muzafar Nagar. The Nawabs of Awadh, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore were Shias. There were communal tensions between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow during the Moharrum processions where Tabarra is recited. Tabarra is a doctrine that refers to the obligation of disassociation with those who oppose Allah and those who caused harm to and were the enemies of the Prophet Muhammad or his family. Some Shia leaders send curse (la’anat) on Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Muawiyah and that offends the Sunnis and can potentially trigger of riots between the two. Britishers had banned the Moharrum procession in Lucknow as a preventive measure as Shias are in large numbers in Lucknow. The Moharram procession is now being permitted only since about a decade without any untoward incident.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah who is considered as Qaid-e-Azam in Pakistan was also a Shia Muslim. Pakistani Shia community is spread across the country, mainly in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Islamabad. Pakistan Shia communities include the Turis and Bangash Pashtun tribes, Qizilbash, Hazaras, Baltis, Shias of Padhrar, Khojas, Bohras and others. They constitute about 10% of the population of Pakistan but the estimate of their number varies 17 top 26 million. The Shia-Sunni Conflict in Pakistan has manifested itself in brutal attacks on the Shia Masjid. Sunni extremist organizations have been active on this front, particularly Sipah-e-Sahaba. Some Shias formed their own militant organization Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan. The sectarian conflict escalated due to “Islamization” drive in Pakistan during Zia-Ul-Haq. Shias were resisting compulsory deduction of Zakat from the incomes of all Muslims by a state dominated by Sunnis.
Nature of Shia-Sunni Conflict:
Though there are theological differences, they are hardly the cause of escalation of Shia-Sunni conflict in the world. It is not for us to go into the merits of theological validity. Belief is always between the God and the believer and not for any third human being or human institutions like state or religious institutions to interfere or make the believer answerable to his/her beliefs. Genuine believers usually do not aggressively seek to impose their beliefs on anybody else. In fact firmer one’s belief and deeper one’s conviction in the truth, less one depends on aggression and imposition. Such a person has more confidence in the truth of one’s belief that would itself persuade the others to one’s point of view. There have been and will be dialogue between the believers of different theological perspectives as to merits and demerits of their theology and practice in an open and accommodative spirit. Violence has no role in such dialogues. The escalation in Shia-Sunni conflict cannot be attributed to theological conflict, though mistrust can be attributed to the theological differences and to aggressive style of sections of religious leadership.
What is worrying is that US imperial ambitions to hegemonize and dominate the world (we shall call it “the Empire” for convenience and includes the Gobal North acting in the interest of a few big global corporations monopolizing trade surplus profits with slogan of freedom, choice, free market). The Empire using the Shia Sunni conflict to make a section of population fight against the other and ultimately overthrow inconvenient regimes and install pliant regimes and convert them to client states.
President Bush tried to create a Sunni axis by cobbling alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Countries against Shia Iran. In late 2006 or early 2007, the United States changed its policy in the Muslim world, shifting its support from the Shia (in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussain) to the Sunni, with the goal of “containing” Iran and as a by-product bolstering Sunni extremist groups. During the Iraq War, the United States feared that a Shiite-led, Iran-friendly Iraq could have major consequences for American national security.
US updated its “Mass Atrocity Response Operations” (MARO) doctrine in 2012. This doctrine was used in Libyan war and is being misused in the Syrian war. The MARO doctrine allows providing advisors, equipment, or specialized support such as deployment or airpower to coalition partners, host nation, or victim groups; to influence perpetrator behaviour with strikes, blockades, or no-fly zones and to contain them and finally to attack and defeat perpetrator leadership and/or capabilities. The Empire instigated Syrian civil war is exploiting the fact that Alawite Shia regime reigns amidst the Sunni majority population. It is instigating Sunni rebels and even those who subscribe to Al Qaeda ideology extremism against the Shia Alawite regime. The Empire wants to topple the regime to secure Israel, its ally in the Middle East and install a pro-Israel client regime that is less belligerent towards Israel if not outright friendly and that does not support Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army against Israel. And finally, the Palestinian fighters are not able to seek support or refuge in Lebanon. The Empire sees potential threat in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis with Iran having the potential to develop nuclear weapons and wants to neutralize this threat. While war is one way to fight the threat with loss of resources, weapons and men, the easier option for the Empire is to train one sect to fight another, i.e. use one Muslim sect against the other and the sectarian divide is handy here. This is precisely the MARO doctrine.
US wants to secure Israel to control the Arabs sitting over fossil fuel energy – oil. The increasingly mechanized world and modernized industrial production systems that are cutting down on labour costs to increase profits needs more and more energy. Renewable energy cannot meet the challenge and nuclear energy is accident prone. The best source of energy therefore seems to be the fossil fuel and Arab nations are sitting over this wealth. Forming cartels and limiting supply of this fossil fuel would push the price up and bring down profits. The only way to keep the OPEC cartel from consolidating it dividing them on whatever basis and sectarian conflict is one of the tools exploited by the Empire.
The Authoritarian states:
However, the Muslim populated states themselves are authoritarian kingdoms/Emirates to monopolize the wealth and revenues earned from the fossil fuel. They too use religion and religious ideology to keep control over its subjects. They have no futuristic vision. The
Arab-Muslim countries are yet to build good research centres, world class universities and centres of knowledge. They invest in spreading religious ideology and religion based orthodoxies to ensure stability and they themselves revel in riches violating every moral obligation of equality and justice in Islam. They talk of Wahabism, Salafism even while building most modern and luxurious palaces for their extended families. They too use sectarian religious ideologies as a tool to exclude their subjects from revenues and deprive them of development. Muslims are most backward though they constitute roughly 1.6 billion people. Shia –Sunni Conflict is direct result of such instrumental use of religion by the rulers and military dictators in the Muslim world. The war of words between Sunni Scholar Ysusf Al-Qaradawi and Hassan Nasrallah literally calling for war is the case in point. Had the political leaders focussed on education, the educated class would have demanded more inclusive and responsive governance. The rulers patronize huge Madrassas and religious leadership that is backward looking orthodox and promoting sectarian conflicts.
Role of Media:
The Empire as well Muslim authoritarian states use media extensively to achieve their narrow objectives. The Empire uses media to spread Islamophobia and rally “its people” in this “war against terrorism” which in reality is a war to promote hegemony of corporate world and their interests, to promote access to resources of the global south and their markets. The authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world use media to promote orthodoxy and ritualized Islam. Media then creates stereo-types and “Jihadi Muslim” and “Islamic terror”. Those fighting against occupation of their land by foreign forces like the people of Afghanistan, Palestine and to some extend Pakistan are labelled as terrorists.
What should we do to promote Shia-Sunni unity:
Before we answer the question what should we do to achieve Shia-Sunni unity, we must ask the question why do we want to achieve this unity. If the unity is to be forged to prosecute another conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, say with the western culture etc., the unity is not desirable. However, if Shia-Sunni unity is part of larger process of reconciliation and promotion of peace and humanity, a common struggle to a common struggle to achieve justice for all the peoples of the world, then the unity is highly desirable. but we cannot make any progress without the unity. Shia-Sunni unity is therefore part of the process of struggling for justice and struggling to establish Hukumat-e-Ilahiah where everybody is equal, everybody is a free citizen enjoying all the rights to good life and where is collectively struggling to creates means to enjoy good life for all which includes all basic necessities like food shelter, clothes, education, health.
If all are to be equal, we have to create systems that ensure fair distribution of resources and fair economic and political systems that ensure that all are heard. It is to be a common struggle of humanity against the Empire dominated new world order and more inclusive UN. While struggling against the new world order and the Empire, the authoritarian states ruling the Muslim countries are not going to be our allies. The so called Jihadis like the Al-Qaeda and Talibans are also not going to be our allies. In fact they are the factors that claim to fight the Empire but in a sense are allies of the Empire as they supply the pretext to the Empire through their actions (which are at best a little irritant) to create and strengthen New World Order where power is even more centralized and peoples of the world are further excluded. But these are long term measures. However, we need to immediately mitigate the Shia-Sunni Conflict.
In a special interview broadcast on Al Jazeera on February 14, 2007, former Iranian president and chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and highly influential Sunni scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, “stressed the impermissibility of the fighting between the Sunnis and the Shi’is” and the need to “be aware of the conspiracies of the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken Islam and tear it apart in Iraq.”
The present hotbed of Shia-Sunni Conflict is Syrian civil war. All efforts must be made by the Muslim world to stop the civil war and work out a negotiated settlement that is fair to all sides. Way should be paved for free and fair elections under neutral observers but keeping the international influences out. In fact the Muslim world as a whole should forge ahead towards democracy wherein freedom of religion is ensured and minorities secured and enjoy equalilty in all respects and enjoy all liberties.
Introducing democracies in the Muslim countries are throwing up Islamists into power which in turn leads to repression of minorities and restricting their liberties to practice their faith, including the Shia or Sunni minorities. However, we will have to be patient as long repressed and well organized Islamists are more likely to effectively reach out to people far and wide. Besides they have also being organizing welfare activities like educational institutions hospitals, other medical services and people are dependent on them. However as state takes over these functions, people would judge more impartially the performances of other parties as well with better economic and political programmes. But for that we would have to be a bit patient.
International Islamic Unity Conference: Saudi-Iran summit
A good beginning was made when on March 3, 2007 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held an extraordinary summit meeting. They displayed mutual warmth with hugs and smiles for cameras and promised “a thaw in relations between the two regional powers but stopped short of agreeing on any concrete plans to tackle the escalating sectarian and political crises throughout the Middle East.” However, nothing more was expected and the Empire is good in seeing that the two countries do not come together. On his return to Tehran, Ahmadinejad declared that “Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies’ conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front.” The Saudi official government news agency said, “The two leaders affirmed that the greatest danger presently threatening the Islamic nation is the attempt to fuel the fire of strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and that efforts must concentrate on countering these attempts and closing ranks”.
The Arab League can play a great role in pushing the Arab nations and mediate whenever there is conflict between and within Arab nations. However, Arab League has proved to be more pliant to the Empire’s interests. Arab Springs, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt raised hopes that people would be listened to and there would be democratic governance. But once again the Empire manipulated Arab Springs and channelized the momentum into instigating civil war in Libya and Syria. Rulers in the Muslim world are too engaged in promoting their own narrow and sectarian interests and dependant on the Empire to expect anything from them. Even their ill gotten wealth is invested with the Empire which is an additional control over the rulers.
The only long term hope is in promoting education among the Muslim youth and building world class educational institutions that provide opportunities to the younger generation to acquire knowledge and wisdom to be able to address these problems and build a popular media to be able to reach out to the world at large countering Islamophobia and broadcasting truth.