In the countries that follow the Muslim faith, the lines between past and present often blur, making it seem as though the past is not over, and certainly not forgiven. Indeed, the past can come terribly alive here, and it can turn terribly deadly, again and again, every day.
When representatives from around the world convened in the Iranian capital of Tehran last Thursday for the start of a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an annual meeting of 120 nations that view themselves as not aligned for or against any major powers, the focus was suddenly on 1,300-year-old battles, murders and power struggles. The host was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Shiite. Next to him on the dais was Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni.
Morsi began his opening address with a mention of the Prophet Muhammad, but then continued: “May Allah’s blessing be upon our masters Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.”
Iranian media immediately took the statement as a provocation. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were Muhammad’s successors after the Prophet’s death in 632. Sunni Muslims venerate them as the first caliphs--but Shiite Muslims consider them usurpers and traitors to the faith, hated figures whose very names should not be spoken. Muhammad’s true successor, Shiites say, was Ali, their first imam, who later fought against the other three before being murdered.
Morsi went on to discuss the present situation in Syria, where Bashar Assad is overseeing the massacre of rebels who are mostly Sunni. Assad and his clique belong to the country’s Alawite minority, which is more closely aligned with the Shiites. “The bloodshed will not stop without intervention from outside,” the Egyptian president declared, saying that Assad’s regime had lost all legitimacy. Morsi, a Sunni, made these statements while sitting next to the Shiite Ahmadinejad, who has been providing the Syrian regime with weapons and now fighters, too.
Morsi must know that any country that intervenes in Syria risks ending up at war with Iran, as well. The frontlines of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites run through many countries in the Middle East, and those who fan the flames in one part of the region may find themselves under fire in another part entirely.
From Tunisia to Bahrain, the Arab Spring began as a rebellion against despots and their rapacious clans. It began with a cry for freedom, justice and prosperity. But, increasingly, these rebellions are being sucked into the maelstrom that is the ancient conflict between these two different camps of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites.
It was power that was at stake after Muhammad’s death, and it’s still at stake today. Like tectonic plates that explode into motion after long periods of apparent calm, there is always friction under the surface between these two groups. In the past, that tension has often burst forth as carnage, for example, in the Iraqi civil war, which began in 2004 and still hasn’t really ended. In late July of this year, 27 separate explosions killed 107 people within the space of a few hours. Most of the victims were Shiites, and it’s assumed the bombers were Sunnis.
But rarely have so many countries and regimes experienced active tensions at once. There has been far more of this since the rebellions of the Arab Spring began in North Africa, in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, toppling moribund despots or forcing them into crisis and even open warfare. There are also rumblings in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, everyone is afraid of each other, while Iran fears an attack from Israel.
The rebellions all began in a similar way--people wanted to topple their dictators and bring an end to despotic rule. But these political battles have also fanned new fears along old fronts.
When Sunnis in Syria fight their country’s Alawite regime, they receive help from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. At the same time, Iran supplies Damascus with money, weapons and, more recently, troops.
When Shiites in Bahrain fight their country’s Sunni king, they’re applauded by Iran and by Syria’s regime. At the same time, Saudi Arabia supports Bahrain’s despot.
For years, representatives of Bahrain’s Shiite majority, who are treated as second-class citizens, have been demanding more rights from their king. The conflict had been brewing for a long time, but it was the momentum of the other Arab revolutions that brought thousands of Bahrainis out to the streets.
When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a consortium consisting primarily of the oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf, met in March 2011, it declared that Libya’s Colonel Moammar Gadhafi should resign because he had lost all legitimacy by deploying tanks against his own people. Shortly after, GCC member Saudi Arabia sent tanks into Bahrain to crush the peaceful protests there.
The silence from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two major satellite news channels operated by the Sunni states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively, is also telling. On some days, these broadcasters provide hourly reports on murders in Syria, yet they give little coverage to the violence in Bahrain.
Syria’s state-run media, on the other hand, deplore the harsh treatment of the largely Shiite opposition in Bahrain--even as Syria’s own regime has turned to carpet-bombing entire neighborhoods in which primarily Sunnis live.
The war that the regime in Damascus is waging against Syria’s mostly Sunni rebels is increasingly taking on denominational characteristics, and not just within the country. The struggle is also drawing in external participants belonging to both camps. Soldiers from Lebanon’s militant Islamist group Hezbollah, which is Shiite, have come to help the regime, as have elite forces from Iran, while Libyan volunteers have joined the rebels, who also receive significant amounts of money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In Iraq, attacks by Sunni radicals are on the rise once again as the Shiite government forces Sunnis out of positions of power. Sunni terrorists groups in Pakistan murder Shiites, and even a Shiite mosque in Belgium was the target of an arson attack this March that killed the mosque’s imam. The presumed attacker, a radical Sunni, declared after his arrest that he had acted out of revenge for Iran’s military aid to Syria.
Shiites make up only 10 to 13 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, but their representation in the states around the Persian Gulf is significantly higher. Shiites account for 90 percent of the population in Iran, 70 percent in Bahrain, over 60 percent in Iraq, 35 percent in Kuwait and around 10 percent in Saudi Arabia.
In the Islamic world, where power and faith have always commingled, political conflicts often become religious ones, turning into a question of power that cuts along one of the region’s most important frontlines.
It began with a question of power, as well. When the Prophet Muhammad died, he left behind a problem that would become his religion’s curse: the question of succession. Unlike Jesus, for example, Muhammad was not only a prophet, but also a military commander. He was both a religious and a political leader, and he left behind a correspondingly large power vacuum. A dispute quickly arose as to whether his legitimate successor should be selected from within the prophet’s circle of close associates, or whether it was more important that it be a relative of Muhammad’s--for example, Ali ibn Abu Talib, his cousin and son-in-law. Supporters of this second viewpoint were known as “Shiat Ali,” or “followers of Ali,” the source of the term “Shiite.” Initially, though, the other faction gained the upper hand, and Ali wasn’t chosen as caliph until three others--Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman--had preceded him. Ali was then murdered in 661.
The initial struggle for power continued for more than two decades until something strange occurred: During the Battle of Kerbala in what is now Iraq, an enemy army killed Ali’s son Hussein, and thus his last faithful successor. The struggle was over, and the Shiat Ali had lost.
Yet instead of vanishing into obscurity like so many other minor religious denominations, the Shiites grew stronger. Hussein’s downfall became “the big bang that created and set into motion the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shia Islam,” says Heinz Halm, an expert on Shia Islam at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. “For Shiites, Kerbala is the pivotal point around which their faith revolves.” In other words, it is a faith that grew out of defeat and has defined itself through resistance.
Within Islam, two competing ideas established themselves. There are the Sunnis (named after the Sunnah, the canon of Muhammad’s teachings), who see power and faith as one. The Shiites, meanwhile, held little power over the centuries and were left with only the mythos surrounding the hero of their religion, Ali.
An unbroken succession of imams, Ali’s successors, continued for the next two centuries. According to legend, the 12th imam disappeared in 874, but did not die. It is believed that this 12th imam will return one day as the enforcer of God’s will.
But if any legitimate authority on Earth must wait until the return of the 12th imam, what does that mean for real world powers? Nothing good, it turns out, since Shiites’ true loyalty is already committed elsewhere.
The result is an everlasting sense of mistrust on the part of Sunni rulers toward their Shiite subjects. The two groups’ roles and tensions remained largely the same: Sunni caliphs ruled over Shiite subjects, who were often denied entry into the military or top positions at court.
Then, in the 16th century, the Safavid dynasty came to power in Iran and forced its subjects to adopt Shia Islam. This was the beginning of the rivalry that still smolders today between Shiite Iran and the Arab countries, with their majority Sunni populations. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world’s religious center shifted toward the Arabian Peninsula, where Mecca and other holy sites are located, and where, in 1902, young Ibn Saud took advantage of a religious alliance established by his forefathers to conquer large parts of the peninsula--an area that became Saudi Arabia, with Ibn Saud as its king.
Here, the particularly narrow-minded Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam became the state religion, and Shiites from the conquered eastern provinces were condemned as heretics. Then came oil. With each new source discovered, the Saudi kingdom grew to become one of the world’s largest energy suppliers, and was then able to put enormous sums of money toward financing Wahhabi preachers around the world.
But Saudi Arabia’s enormous oilfields are all located in the east of the country--where the Shiites live. If the Shiites were to break away from Saudi Arabia, it would spell the end of the country’s oil wealth. Yet simply making the Shiites citizens with equal rights would amount to a declaration of war against the country’s religious establishment, as well as against large parts of the population, which have been raised in a culture of hate. Saudi Arabia’s general population is far more conservative than its 88-year-old monarch Abdullah--and even he has not yet managed to allow women the right to drive a car.
The same conflict between Sunnis and Shiites also runs through Iraq. In the decades under the ironclad dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, religion in Iraq was a private matter--not because the Iraqis themselves had decided it should be, but because any show of partisanship amounted to a challenge to the state, and that was a dangerous thing. Even during the eight years of war with Iran that began in 1980, participants on both sides shot at enemies who shared their faith. Many of the Iraqi soldiers were Shiites--as were most of their Iranian opponents.
Soon after the US Army swept out Saddam’s regime over the course of 19 days in 2003, Iraqi Sunnis began fighting the Americans who had forced them out of power. Shiites also fought against the US troops. But more than that, fanatics from both sides began killing each other. Starting in 2004, Baghdad alone was often rocked by multiple attacks a day.
Iraq remains a divided country to this day, with neighborhoods, local governments and even garbage collection split along denominational lines. Currently, power is in the hands of a Shiite government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraq is ruled by the fear that its Sunni minority could take strength from the coming downfall of Syria’s regime and threaten the Iraqi government once again.
The conflict between these religious factions has become so virulent partly because perceived enemy forces from outside the region are growing weaker. The West, and especially the United States, no longer plays such an important role. The occupation of Iraq is over, the US would prefer not to get involved in Syria either and, in general, the Arab revolutions caught the country off guard. When the GCC approved the invasion of Bahrain, it didn’t even ask the US, although the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy is stationed there. Saudi Arabia was far more concerned with the possibility that a Shiite takeover in Bahrain, located so close to Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite minority, would jeopardize the Saudi rulers’ control over oil production.
Yet, in a sense, the Sunnis’ rise to power in the face of Assad’s coming downfall is little more than an adjustment to reflect the demographic situation in Syria, which is home to considerably more Sunnis than Alawites.
Something similar happened in 2003, when the Shiite majority took over power in Iraq at the same time that Hezbollah, also Shiite, was making gains in Lebanon. In 2005, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a Sunni, warned of a “Shiite crescent” that would soon stretch from Baghdad to Tehran. Now the pendulum is swinging back in the opposite direction.
For a time during the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it seemed that the divide between Sunnis and Shiites didn’t play a significant role. But things look different in Syria, which is another reason why this is a particularly dangerous rebellion.
There is an apocalyptic prophecy in Islam that some attribute to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s only a fragment, the legend of an evil being known as the Sufyani that will one day arrive to sow death and ruin among the faithful. This tradition, supposedly ascribed to Muhammad, says the Sufyani will rise from the depths of the Earth beneath Damascus.