|Politics deepens Sunni-Shi'ite
By N Janardhan
DUBAI - The nearly 14-century-old differences
between Sunnis and Shi'ites are undergoing another phase
in the battle for power in Iraq, but analysts say that
it is political considerations that are heightening the
religious nature of the conflict between the two strands
"The differences, no doubt, have a
religious basis with either side branding the other as
rigid, distorted and inferior," says a United Arab
Emirates-based Sunni artist who did not want to be
named. "But it has been hijacked by political leaders
and encouraged to manifest in sectarian violence around
"At the same time," he adds, "there
is a semblance of amity between the two sects, partly
due to societal realities." Like Catholics and
Protestants among Christians, "there are instances of
inter-sect marriages; and going to each other's mosques
isn't too uncommon, though it is not a norm."
Nouri al-Sagban, a UAE-based Shi'ite doctor of
Iraqi origin, bears testimony to that assertion. "My
mother and wife are Sunnis. The differences, especially
in Iraq, are negligible and more political in nature."
After the Prophet Mohammad's death, Muslims
split into followers of caliph Abu Bakr and those who
supported Mohammad's closest relative, his son-in-law
Ali ibn Abi Talib. The division was formalized following
the deaths in 661 of Imam Ali and his son, Imam Hussein
19 years later - both at the hands of Sunnis.
Although both share most of the customs of
Islam, divisions persist even today over Shi'ites'
emphasis on the cleric's guiding role. While Shi'ites
believe that God chose Ali to be the caliph and that the
position should be inherited, Sunnis are against
Sunnis revere Mecca and
Medina in Saudi Arabia, just as Iraq's Najaf and Karbala
are the symbols of martyrdom for Shi'ites, who number
about 135 million - 10 percent of the world's Muslim
population - and are concentrated mostly in Iran, Iraq,
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan.
their numbers, only Iran has a Shi'ite-dominated
government in the world and the city of Qom in Iran
assumed more religious importance than the Iraqi
shrines. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the
years of persecution under his regime, the Iraqi Shi'ite
leadership is attempting to re-establish itself.
As religious Shi'ite parties and militias in
Iraq fill the vacuum after the collapse of the
Baathists, especially in Najaf and Karbala, Washington
has warned neighboring Iran against interfering with the
efforts to form a government in Iraq.
"secular traditions" of Iraq - a reflection of Baathist
ideology - and its pluralism is often cited to convince
skeptics that its people and politics are different from
that of Iran. One example of the Iraqi Shi'ites' secular
mould is their allegiance to Saddam during the 1980-88
Iran-Iraq war. The vast majority of the Iraqi army was
Shi'ite and remained loyal to Saddam, rather than to the
Islamic revolution across the border.
Differentiating between Iraqi and Iranian
Shi'ites, Sagban says, "Most Iraqi Shi'ite spiritual
leaders in Najaf have long opposed [Ayatollah]
Khomeini's notion that Shi'ite clerics should be in
power. They think this has corrupted the clergy in Iran
and angered the people. The contest now will be between
Iraqi Shi'ite leaders believing in the separation
between mosque and state, and the pro-Iranian clerics
wanting to run Iraq Khomeini-style," he says.
Referring to the term "Shi'ite repression" in
Iraq under Saddam, the doctor says, "Those who rush to
declare Saddam's regime as Sunni are wrong. Baghdad
wasn't associated with a religious camp. None of the
religions were spared, whether Muslim, Christian,
Kurdish, Arab or Turkmen. Even Sunnis were killed and
Sunni-ruled Kuwait was attacked. The regime stood for
the benefit of one person."
however, treat those "secular" credentials of Iraqi
Shi'ites with doubt. "Their secular feelings were a
product of the environment they lived in. They were
denied the freedom to practice their brand of Islam.
With Saddam gone, the recent religious ceremonies in
southern Iraq indicate that Shi'ites will resort to all
those practices that have become their trademark around
the world," the Sunni artist says, referring to some of
their blood-letting rituals. "Religious affiliation is
such that one can never rule out the possibility of
Shi'ites in Iran and Iraq aligning against a common
Sunni enemy," he adds.
The events in Iraq are
worrying Gulf Sunnis, too, because an Iraqi Shi'ite
government would change the balance of power between the
sects. Bahrain, which like Iraq has a Shi'ite majority
ruled by Sunnis, has overcome more than two decades of
sectarian strife by conducting parliamentary elections
just last year.
The re-emergence of Iraqi
Shi'ite movements is already being viewed as a source of
hope for the Saudi Shi'ite minority in the oil-rich
eastern sector. A Saudi Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Hasan
al-Saffar, said in a statement that the kingdom's
Shi'ites were determined to combat the discrimination
faced by the community, such as "a ban on practicing
their religious rituals and cultural activities and
absence of representation in key political posts", and a
ban on Shi'ites "serving their country in the military,
security and diplomatic fields".
mood, analysts say, Gulf countries are trying to limit
US influence and Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq by
promoting former Iraqi foreign minister Adnan Pachachi,
a Sunni who has been living in exile in the UAE for over
But even if Iraqi Shi'ites can work
towards fulfilling their political aspirations, it does
not mean that a state will emerge in Iraq where the
majority rules, says Muwafaq al-Rubeie, an Iraqi
political analyst. "Any policy which calls for the
division of power on the basis of overt sectarianism -
such as is the case in Lebanon - cannot work within the
Iraqi context. The division of the spoils according to
demographic formulae will result in communal
sectarianism turning into a social and political
reality" Rubeie said.
According to Egypt's
latest al-Ahram weekly, Rubeie added, "Iraq has always
suffered from a sectarian system and not from communal
sectarianism per se."