Political and Strategic Roots of Sectarian Strife in Contemporary Times

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Gholamali Khoshroo, Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations


During the past few decades, Shia Muslims living in the Middle East have been able to get rid of the pressure which was put on them by either secular or Sunni governments. In doing so, they have been also able to stabilize their social standing through revolutions, resistance, and recourse to the ballot boxes. This process has been sweeping all Shia-dominant countries in the region from Iran, to Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. From the viewpoint of the Arab regimes in the region, Iran has been, and still is, expanding its area of influence into the heart of the Arab and Sunni world. The “Shia Crescent” is the name they have chosen to call this phenomenon. As a result, through fanning the flames of civil war in Syria by organizing and providing financial and military support to Takfiri groups in the Arab country, they are actually trying to control the influence of the revolutionary and Shia Iran. From the viewpoint of Israel, Iran is now the greatest threat to its existence in the region. Therefore, Tel Aviv argues, the backbone of Iran’s regional power should be broken in Syria in order to pave the way for laying complete siege to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement as a requisite for bolstering the security of Israel. The political and strategic root causes behind the sectarian strife in contemporary times should be considered to be related to three major strategic changes in the Middle East. In order of historical appearance, these three changes include:

A) The Islamic Revolution in Iran
B) The overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq
C) The Islamic awakening in the Middle East and North Africa

A) The Islamic Revolution in Iran

The Islamic Revolution which took place in Iran during the second half of the 20th century, paved the way for a return to Islamic values and paying more serious attention to people’s rights. It also brought the Shia ulema to power in Iran, led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and caused the country to distance from the United States and its hegemonic policies. The former Iranian regime was considered a strategic ally for the United States and Israel in the region, followed a Western approach in its policies, and was irreligious and secular in nature. Following the Islamic Revolution, the balance of powers greatly changed in the region. The strategic partnership which existed between Iran and the United States was suddenly replaced by outright confrontation between Tehran and Washington and, at the same time, Iran’s partnership with Israel turned into hostility. As a result, Israel is currently sparing no effort to aggrandize the so-called Iran threat by depicting the country as the biggest menace to the security of Israel and the entire Middle East region.

B) The overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq

Following the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the subsequent overthrow of the Baathist regime of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Shias that make up the majority of the population, got rid of the devastating suppression of the regime. The Shias in Iraq had experienced historical sufferings. They had suffered tremendous pressures under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and even under later governments that ruled them after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which invariably tried to suppress Shias. Given the fact that Shias make up the majority of the Iraqi population, political developments which followed the fall of Saddam led to the empowerment of Shias who grabbed a bigger share of the power in the new government. Therefore, the unwanted consequence of Washington’s invasion of Iraq was empowerment of Shias in the Arab country who, naturally, have good relations with the people and government of Iran.

In Lebanon, Shias were historically a forgotten and weak group. Gradually, as the Hezbollah resistance movement took shape in that country, Shias turned into a major and effective political current in Lebanon and emerged as one of the main players in the political scene of that country both in military and political terms.

C) The Islamic awakening in the Middle East and North Africa

As the wave of the Islamic awakening swept through the Middle East and North Africa, regional dictators that were affiliated to the Western states were overthrown by people who had decided to establish a new system of government based on Islam and democracy. This process, which had led to the growth of freedom seeking and independence seeking ideas, had also caused great concern among the officials of Israel. The government of Turkey, therefore, decided to make the most of the situation. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was totally averse to these developments. Some regional regimes, like that of Qatar, provided the process of change with financial and propaganda aid. On the whole, the Islamic awakening helped to promote the position of Iran in the region. In order to confront this process and stymie its further progress, the West targeted Syria.

Therefore, all the aforesaid countries, which were pursuing conflicting interests in the past, suddenly joined hands and became united in order to stoke the civil war in Syria. The Syrian regime, on the contrary of what they expected, decided to resist their efforts. On the other hand, the adversary states continued their support for Salafi, Wahhabi, and Takfiri groups and spared no effort for the promotion of their sectarian ideas while threatening and massacring Shias and especially the Alawites in Syria. In parallel to fanning the flames of civil war in Syria, they also incited anti-Shia sentiments in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq, which has so far made thousands of innocent women and children the victim of the sectarian war which they have waged. Al-Qaeda and their supporters, which are currently engaged in a proxy war against the Syrian government on behalf of certain regional and transregional states, are trying to make their strategic confrontation with the Syrian government look like a war waged by Sunni Muslims against the infidels and heretics.

Relations between the Shiite government of Iran and the secular state of Syria are not based on sectarian unity, but a result of the two countries’ similar approaches to Israel. It is the common anti-Israeli approach of both countries, not their theosophical and jurisprudential similarities, which has brought two countries of Iran and Syria close together.

Proximity between Shias and Sunnis

Shiism and Sunnism are two major branches of Islam, which have been present throughout its history and there has been good cooperation and interaction between ulema and people of both schools of faith. In historical terms, there have been constant disputes between Sunni and Shia scholars whose main goal has been to prove the rightfulness of their own faith and refute the other side’s faith. However, commonalties between the two major denominations of Islam had created a positive atmosphere under which the majority of Shias and Sunnis could live by exercising tolerance toward each other’s ideas. For instance, all Muslims have been conducting Hajj ceremony for many long years under a tolerant atmosphere.

In modern centuries, two different approaches have been recorded with regard to the differences between Shias and Sunnis.

The first approach was related to certain Islamic governments which tried to take advantage of the “self - other” dichotomy in order to mobilize the public in support of their political agendas. Such an approach has frequently led to widespread bloodshed and even destruction of religious and historical buildings and deepening of religious rifts.

The second approach, which made its debut somehow later than the first approach, is the one taken by such Muslim ulema and reformist figures as Seyed Jamaleddin Asadabadi, Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Tabatabaei Boroujerdi, and Sheikh Mahmud Shaltout. These reform-minded figures and ulema put the highest degree of emphasis on the necessity to bolster unity among all Muslims on the basis of common grounds and by avoiding animosity. Imam Khomeini, as an exceptional figure in contemporary history who managed to establish an Islamic government, followed a reformist approach and sought to make all Muslims united. He chose the time interval between two dates, which are considered by Shias and Sunnis as the birthday of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and designated that period as the “Unity Week.” Imam Khomeini also announced that the issue of Palestine was the most important issue facing the Islamic world and also the main axis around which all Muslims could achieve unity.

Extremist and Takfiri groups

In view of the above facts and the aforesaid analysis, one may say that what is currently known as Shia - Sunni conflict in the region is not, in fact, a conflict between two communities of Shias and Sunnis. In reality, it is a consequence of the spread of Wahhabi thought and the behavior of Takfiri groups that not only consider Shias as infidels, but also believe that their Sunni opponents and all other Islamic sects are unbelievers whose blood can be easily spilt.

Issuing fatwas which declare all the Muslim rulers as apostates, excommunication of all organizations set up by the Islamic states, incriminating all Muslim communities as being ignorant of religious commands, excommunication of all people who formulate and implement state laws, excommunication of all new parties and philosophical schools, and believing that jihad is an obligation for all Muslims in order to set up the true Islamic government, are all instances which differentiate new Salafis from the majority of other Muslims.

At present, the Islamic world is suffering from an upsurge in sectarian bloodletting. All the denominations of Islam have been there for over 14 centuries, but it has been only during the past decades that differences among them have turned into all-out conflict and religious massacre. This trend is quite dangerous for the following three reasons and should be categorically condemned:

- Firstly, a lot of innocent people, especially women and children are killed in these clashes and this is overtly against Islam. According to the teachings of Islam, killing any innocent person has been strongly prohibited and special punishments have been considered for it, let alone Muslims killing other Muslims.

- Secondly, such violence will mar the compassionate image of Islam and will pave the way for ill-wishers and enemies of Islam to take advantage of the situation.

- Thirdly, such ethnic massacres undermine the very foundations of the Islamic Ummah and also weaken the position and standing of the Muslim nations in global developments.

Solutions for unity

Unity has been undoubtedly the most important key to victory of Muslims throughout the history of Islam just in the same way that division has been the main cause of their failures. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), as the main axis of the unity among the Islamic Ummah, and the city of Medina, as a role model for the modern Islamic civilization, should be the focus of attention for all Muslims. The Holy Quran has invited Muslims to engage in logical and tolerant dialogue with other people in order to pave the way for everybody to attain the truth. All the denominations, sects and currents in the Islamic world should recognize and accept their existing theoretical and ideological differences. In this way, they will be able to prevent these differences, which can be potentially a blessing for the Ummah, from turning into political conflict, war and fratricide, which is the main goal pursued by the enemies of Islam.

The most important issue right now is not the presence of different Islamic denominations and sects, but is the potential for fostering extremism which is inherent to some of these sects. Such extremist currents believe that they are the sole monotheistic people and consider other people, even Muslims, as infidels. This is why they have no problem for issuing religious permit for the massacre of other Muslims. It follows from the above facts that all forms of extremism in the Muslim world should be denounced. Promotion of religious democracy is one of the major means which can thwart the efforts of certain people who intend to take advantage of religious and ethnic differences at the behest of foreign powers to pave the ground for further intensification of sectarian conflicts and massacres. Avoiding excommunication of other Muslims and incriminating them of being infidels and heretics, exercising religious tolerance, and respectful treatment of the existing theoretical differences constitute the sole mechanism which can not only prevent division among Muslims, but also block the growth and development of extremism and all kinds of violent approaches. Therefore, Muslims, especially their ulema and scholars, should take practical steps toward solving their differences through healthy dialogue in which all logical and ethical rules of negotiation would be observed. Under present circumstances, the most critical duty for ulema and scholars across the Muslim world is to expound and promote the goals and ideals of religious democracy. Achieving this difficult goal could be only possible through continued study of religious sources and extraction of new rules and regulations. If the awakening of Muslims could lead to the institutionalization of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa followed by increased respect for civil rights and establishment of a new political structure on the basis of the citizens’ votes, it would certainly raise hopes in the reduction of religious differences and sectarian conflicts.

*Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam. Former Deputy Foreign Minister for legal and International Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran (2002-2005). Khoshroo is assistant of President Khatami on “Alliance of civilizations” and Dialogue among Civilizations”. He has served as the Dean of the School for International Relations (1983-89); Ambassador to the United Nations (19890-95); Deputy Foreign Minister for Research and Education,  Member of OIC Commission of Eminent Persons on “Enlightened Moderation”. In recent years, he has extensively worked on the development of contemporary political Islam and its implication for western societies. As a sociologist he studied at Tehran University and New School for Social Research, New York, He has published several articles and books on political and cultural affairs.

Key Words: Political and Strategic Roots, Sectarian Strife Contemporary Times, Shia Crescent, Islamic Revolution, overthrow of  Baathist Regime, Islamic awakening, Middle East, North Africa, Shiism, Sunnism, Khoshroo

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