SPEAKING FREELY Politics fuels a rising sectarian fire
By Shireen T Hunter
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In the last few years, there has been a sharp rise in sectarian conflicts involving Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in the Middle East. Similar tensions in South Asia, especially Pakistan, have existed for at least more than a decade. Last month, for example, sectarian conflicts exacted a price of nearly 1,000 lives in Iraq. The overwhelming majority of these victims have been Shi'ites.
Sectarian tensions have also extended to countries such as Egypt and Turkey which, until recently, had not experienced such conflicts. In June, a leader of Egypt's Shi'ite minority, Imam Hassan Shehata, was brutally beaten and killed by a band of Salafis.
Most observes and analysts, especially in the West, have
attributed this phenomenon to the long-standing theological and political disputes between Islam's majority Sunnis and minority Shi'ites. Clearly, these differences and animosities generated by them create a fertile ground for rekindling sectarian passions.
By themselves, however, these differences do not explain the recent rise of sectarian tensions and their intensity. Differences and deep disputes have existed for as long as Islam, itself, but only periodically have resulted in sectarian conflict. In fact, tensions were dormant for nearly three centuries, and those that did turn to conflict were not of the ferocity and intensity of the latest round. Thus why the sudden surge and why now?
The answer lies principally in the changing political dynamics of Muslim countries, married with regional and international developments following the demise of the Soviet Union.
First, since the late 1960s, there has been a revival of religion as a political factor in Muslim societies, partly in response to disappointing performances of secular governments and ideologies. Two important manifestations of this phenomenon were the 1979 Iranian revolution and Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq's Islamization policy, which began in 1978. The Iranian revolution with its Shi'ite undertones led to a reassertion of Shi'ite identity and a demand for greater rights for Shi'ite minorities, including in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Zia ul Haq's Islamization policy, which was clearly prejudicial to the Shi'ites, led to a revival of sectarian tensions.
Similarly, Iran's revolutionary rhetoric generated fears of contagion among some Sunni countries, especially the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Renewed Shi'ite activism and Sunni fears exacerbated both traditional Arab-Persian rivalry and Saudi-Iranian competition which had already begun by the late 1960s.
Second, Saudi Arabia's rise as a regional power in the late of 1960s and its increasing use of religion, notably Wahhabi Islam, as an instrument of its policy has greatly contributed to sectarian tensions. Unlike other Sunni schools, such as Hanafi and even Shafei, Wahhabism is viscerally anti-Shi'ite and even considers the Shi'ite to be non-Muslims and the shedding of their blood permissible. Of late, the emergence of Qatar, the only Wahhabi Gulf sheikhdom, has also contributed to Sunni-Shi'ite tensions.
Third, with the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan war, the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia and with it Wahhabi Islam in that country and in neighboring Pakistan exacerbated sectarian tensions. The decade-long Afghan Civil War, the rise of the Taliban, and the intensification of regional rivalries, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, were also contributory factors.
Fourth, the hardening of US policy towards Iran in the 1990s and beyond and, in particular, the George W Bush administration's policy of regime change in Iran, also helped exacerbate Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian tensions, as the US used groups such as the Taliban (until 9/11), Pakistan's Sunni radicals, and Iran's own Sunni minority to pressure that country.
Fifth, one of the most important catalysts for sectarian tensions was the US invasion of Iraq and the dynamics it set in motion. Most significant was the perceived change in the balance of regional power in favor of Iraq's new Shi'ite-dominated government. Israel's attack on Lebanon in 2006 and Hezbollah's impressive resistance to Israeli forces further intensified this perception of a shifting balance of power in favor of Iran and the region's Shi'ites.
Sixth and perhaps most important, was the US policy to create a Sunni-Israeli coalition to check Iran's influence and to deflect attention from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Sunni-Shi'ite dispute.
Finally has been the civil war in Syria, which has brought together all these elements.
In short, the main cause of rising sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite tensions has been politics and not religion, along with the abuse of religion as a tool of policy. Incidentally, the Sunni powers have resorted to using religion for political purposes than either Iran or Iraq. Also, Shi'ites everywhere, from Iraq to Pakistan, where killing Hazara Shi'ites has become a favorite sport of the country's Wahhabis, have borne the brunt of sectarian warfare.
However, the Sunni countries will not benefit from the rising sectarian tensions, given that many of them have substantial and disgruntled Shi'ite minorities. Nor will regional peace be promoted. Thus the rise of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions will not lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it will also exacerbate the internal problems of many countries and feed on other causes of regional tensions.
At some point, this rising use of religion for political ends can also have a major negative impact on the West's interests, a point it needs to contemplate seriously in fashioning policies toward the Middle East and Southwest Asia regarding the geopolitics of hoping to gain from Sunni-Shi'ite tensions and even conflict rather than seeking means to help damp them down.
Shireen T Hunter is Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University in Washington DC, United States. She is also a distinguished scholar (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.