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SUNNI-SHIA RIVALRY December 30, 2011

Posted by wmmbb in Middle East, Multiculturalism.

If indeed it is the case that the divide between the two major traditions of Islam, which apparently does not include the Sufis, is the reason for the conflict and loyalty to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, why has become so apparent in recent times?

Here is one explanation that the difference is not doctrinal, but rather legitimate succession to the Prophet:

At The Independent, Patrick Cockburn describes the current state of play in the Middle East is due in large part to this religious division:

In three of the Arab countries east of Egypt – Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – protesters have challenged their governments over the past year but failed to overthrow them. The reasons for those failures are very different though they have important points in common. In each of these states protesters were frustrated because a significant part of the population had a lot to lose if the ruling elite were reformed or overthrown.

In Syria and Bahrain religious identity helps explain loyalty to the powers-that-be. Protesters in Bahrain might insist that their programme was secular and democratic, but everybody knew that a fair poll would affect revolutionary change by putting the majority Shia in power instead of the minority Sunni. In Syria, similarly, democracy means that the Sunni, three quarters of the population, would effectively replace the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, as rulers of the state.

This does not mean that the demonstrators in both countries had a secret sectarian agenda. It was simply that political divisions already ran along sectarian lines. In Bahrain the security forces were almost entirely Sunni. As the year went on sectarian hatreds became starker.

At the height of the repression, the government demolished Shia mosques claiming it had suddenly discovered they did not have planning permission. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the sectarian homogeneity of the ruling elite in Syria and Bahrain made it impossible for senior state officials to dump an unpopular regime in order to maintain their own power and privileges. In Syria the Alawites came to believe that if President Bashar al-Assad lost so would they.

The Shia and Sunni split has other serious implications. The struggle between these two Islamic traditions, so similar to the battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, has been escalating since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq in 2006-7 deepened the hatred between the two sects. Of course it was always much in the interests of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria and the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain to play the sectarian card and demand communal solidarity from their co-religionists. As far back as 1991 I remember Saddam Hussein bringing the mutilated bodies of Baathist officials back from Najaf, where they had been lynched by Shia insurgents, and the terror expressed by Sunni friends in Baghdad, previously opposed to the regime, that the same fate awaited them if Saddam was toppled.

The Sunni-Shia rivalry goes some way to explaining why the Arab Spring won successes in North Africa that it has not achieved east of Egypt. Each side has been led by religiously inspired states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have struggled for supremacy in the region for 30 years. Embattled regimes and their insurgent enemies automatically gain allies. The Assad government might be isolated, but not quite to degree that Muammar Gaddafi was before his fall. Iran will do almost anything to keep its most crucial ally in the Arab world in power. By the same token Iran’s many enemies, unable to overthrow the government in Tehran, are determined to weaken it by changing the regime in Damascus.

Patrick Cockburn concludes by writing:

The bright hopes of the Arab Spring are vanishing and peaceful protests may have had their day across the region as civil confrontation threatens to turn into civil war.

It looks like monolithic Islam is as much of a myth as monolithic Communism. Who would have known?

I had second thoughts about Patrick Cockburn’s analysis in that he left the history of imperial involvement. However at Truthdig, William Pfaff suggests that the oil resources of the Middle East are of less importance, and there is less need to prop up the Saudi Arabian regime, and less support in the US to underwrite Israeli expansion. Arabic speaking people have been a source of immigration, especially to Europe, which he says have been associated with a hysterical concern with terrorism. He concludes his article:

Thus the great question about the Arab Awakening is whether it can lead to political systems that provide freedom for everyone in society. The people of the Islamic Middle East have been struggling with this problem since long before 2011-2012. They are coping with problems that the West confronted in the Reformation and counter-Reformation. You might say that they are today searching for their own form of the European Enlightenment. If this is a fair analogy, however, the Islamic time of troubles has only just begun.

Perhaps the problem here may be arguing from analogy and not considering the long history of toleration that puts the European experience to shame.



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