Sectarian Confrontations in Middle East: Why Iran Is Incriminated?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

As sectarian tensions keep escalating in Syria, incriminating Iran, in particular, and Shia groups in the region, in general, of making efforts to flare up sectarian confrontations among regional nations has become the main axis of regional media propaganda against the Islamic Republic. This has been especially true since the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah, officially announced its involvement in the war against Syria militants in the strategic town of Al-Qusayr; a town which plays a strategically important role in keeping up Hezbollah’s contacts with its regional allies in other parts of the Middle East. But has Hezbollah gotten engaged in the war in Al-Qusayr on the basis of a sectarian approach? It would be better if this question was put forth within a broader framework: Are Iran and its allies in the region actually trying to add fuel to sectarian tensions across the region as is alleged by certain regional media and many foreign analysts? A glance at sectarian developments and tensions which have plagued the Middle East region during the past two decades will provide us with a more comprehensive image which may help us in giving an answer to this question.

Iraq has traditionally enjoyed, and still enjoys, a special position in sectarian tensions. Despite its secular nature, the former Baathist regime of Iraq [under the executed dictator Saddam Hussein] had practically marginalized the Shia community, which accounts for the majority of the Iraqi population. The discrimination against the Iraqi Shias even got worse after their botched uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991 following which the systematic repression of the Iraqi Shias started. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the terrorist Al-Qaeda group and its regional allies focused their activities on Iraq. As a result, and based on the argument that the new Shia government in Iraq is cooperating with the United States, Al-Qaeda made fighting against the Iraqi government part of its agenda of anti-American struggles. As a direct consequence of that mentality, a spate of bomb attacks swept through Shia cities of Iraq. Also, the holy Shia shrines, which sometimes host hundreds and thousands of pilgrims, became a regular target for the sectarian violence stoked by Al-Qaeda and its regional allies, so that, Iraqi Shias were major victims of sectarian violence in the country. The director of As’hab Al Kisa Organization, which is in charge of counting and registering the names of people who fall victim to terrorist operations in Iraq, has recently announced that a total of 1,005,200 people have been killed as a result of one decade of terrorist operations in Iraq, adding that almost 80 percent of the victims come from Shia regions of the country.

Pakistan is another country in the region which has been witnessing gradual upsurge in sectarian tensions during the past two decades. The situation has gotten so bad that periodical massacre of Shias has become quite an ordinary event during the past few years. Killing 45 Pakistani Shias in a bomb attack in 2008, a bomb attack in the port city of Karachi in 2009 which left 46 Pakistani Shias dead, an explosion targeting a religious ceremony in 2010 claiming 49 lives, another bomb attack targeting Quds Day ceremony in Quetta (the capital city of Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan Province) in 2010 which left 80 people dead, and a suicide operation in Parachinar region in 2012 which killed 50 people, are just a few examples of the routine massacre of Shia Muslims in Pakistan.  It goes without saying that terrorist operations against Shias, which form a big minority group in Pakistan, still continues on both daily and weekly bases and the aforesaid cases are only a few examples of major operations targeting Shias. The extremist Taliban elements play the pivotal role in the massacre of Shias in this country. They mostly rely on the financial assistance from Arab states in the region for the continuation of their anti-Shia efforts.

Shias in Saudi Arabia live in the country’s biggest province, the Eastern (or Al Sharqiya) Province. The province contains almost all the country’s oil wealth though the share of Shia citizens from that wealth is much less than non-Shia citizens. Shiism is among the oldest religious denominations followed in Saudi Arabia, but it is not recognized by the Saudi government even as an Islamic faith. As a result of that discrimination, Shias have been systematically deprived of the social advantages which have been even considered for the People of the Book (which include Jews and Christians). The Shias are often called infidels by member of the Board of Senior Ulema, which is the official religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and whose members are also advisors to the Saudi royal court. The Board members have so far issued many fatwas (religious decrees) in this regard. In Saudi Arabia, two forms of security and social suppression is applied to Shia people who took to the streets to demand their rights. This means that in addition to the Saudi security apparatus, the Saudi society in general has been also mobilized against the justice seeking discourse of Shias which has been introduced to the Saudi public as a sectarian discourse. The Saudi regime, therefore, takes good advantage of this public mobilization to suppress social and political demands of Shias.

Bahrain is another country in the region which has been of high importance in the spread of sectarian tensions across the region. In this tiny island state, Shias that account for an 80-percent majority of the population are under severe suppression of the Sunni regime of Al Khalifa. The discrimination against Shias in Bahrain has been under way in various forms. The Sunni minority in Bahrain is in control of all high-level political posts of the regime and Shias have never been allowed to occupy but inferior posts. As a result, about 90 percent of governmental posts and all the high-ranking positions of the government of Bahrain have been monopolized by the Sunni minority. The security and military forces in Bahrain are also under the effective control of the Sunni minority. Under these conditions, political repression easily changes quality and becomes a form of religious repression. As a result of this development, a group that accounts for the majority of the population in the country is easily marginalized and in addition to being deprived of the advantages that the minority enjoys, is also put under severe repression without having any right to protest. From this viewpoint, the suppression of Shias in Bahrain should be analyzed with more care and in the light of the popular uprising which began in the Persian Gulf state in 2011.

Shias in Bahrain actually started their uprising to demand social and political reforms as well as more political freedoms. They did not seek to topple the ruling regime. The regime, however, embarked on heavy-handed suppression of the opposition and during its suppression, Manama availed itself of all-out, including military, support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional allies. In fact, the effort made by the Al Khalifa and Saudi regimes to make a distinction between the uprising of the Bahraini people and other freedom seeking movements in other regional countries, which was followed by military intervention of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain for the suppression of the uprising in an independent country, should be considered the beginning of a new round of sectarian tension in the region. As a result of violent suppression of the popular uprising in Bahrain, tens of Shias were killed while hundreds more were injured or taken into custody who were later exposed to inhumane torture by interrogators who, due to religious differences with Shias, considered torture of Shia protesters as a kind of sacred jihad.

During the past two decades, all such cases of sectarian confrontation have been on the rise and have been further intensified through popular uprisings which have taken place since the beginning of 2011. Throughout those two decades, these tensions were mostly directed against Shias and Shia Muslims were their main victims in the region. Since the beginning of the ongoing crisis in Syria, however, this crisis has been taken advantage of to fan the flames of conflicts between Shias and Sunnis. In line with this policy, accusing Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, and the Syrian government of committing massacre in Syria has been used as a tool to justify foreign intervention in Syria. The interesting point is that regional media run by Saudi Arabia have been at the helm of this propaganda campaign against Shias. On the one hand, the Saudi regime has been openly sending troops to the neighboring Bahrain in order to suppress freedom seeking forces. On the one hand, and in an effort to topple the government of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Riyadh has been willingly or unwillingly supporting the Al-Nusra Front and other extremist forces whose rising power throughout region has been a major challenge facing regional countries during the past two decades.

A comparative review of the situation of Shia Muslims under the rule of Al Khalifa in Bahrain and the situation of Sunni Muslims in Syria under the rule of Bashar Al-Assad, or a comparison between the situation of the Sunni minority in Iran and the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, will produce a more transparent picture. While in Syria, Sunni Muslims are present at top government posts, both administrative and military, and they have been even appointed as the prime minister, or to other ministries and high military ranks, achieving such posts for Shias in Bahrain is certainly impossible. In fact, if lack of political liberties is taken to be rampant in Assad’s Syria, it is quite clear that the lack of liberties has been applied to all Syrians regardless of their religion or sect. At the same time, Shias have been under tremendous political and social pressures in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia just because they are following Shia faith. As for Shias in Saudi Arabia, it would suffice to note that Shias in that country are considered infidels by the official religious apparatus and have been deprived of the minimum degree of social and civil rights which have been conferred on the majority. The public mobilization against this Shia minority has faced them with increasing social difficulties. At the same time, in Iran, all Sunni sects are not only officially recognized, but have been represented since a long time ago at the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament), as well as in the city and village councils (since 2005), and have been enjoying the full extent of social and civil rights on an equal level with the rest of the population.

The above facts clearly prove that there is nothing new with the sectarian tensions in the region. At the same time, Shia Muslims, who are currently being accused of making efforts aimed at fanning the flames of sectarian war across the region, have been regularly among the main victims of sectarian tensions and discrimination in various regional countries. In fact, the recent intervention of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in Syria war took place on the basis of political and military, not sectarian, reasons. The fall of the strategic town of Al-Qusayr, would mean that the town had fallen under the control of the enemies of Hezbollah and [anti-Israel] resistance. This situation would have a serious effect on Hezbollah’s reaction to Israel in critical junctures. The fact that Hezbollah withdrew its forces from Syria after the end of the war in Al-Qusayr is further evidence to this reality.

On the whole, turning political confrontations into sectarian tensions, both in the media reports and in the real world, is a tactic used by Arab states to make up for the serious losses which have been incurred on the so-called “axis of moderation” as a result of the popular uprisings in the past few years. They have also resorted to this tactic in order to weaken the anti-Israel resistance axis in the region. But what has been the main outcome of this situation? Obviously, the most notable outcome of the existing situation of sectarian strife has been further escalation of sectarian tensions, which on the one hand, have worked to strengthen Al-Qaeda and its allies, especially in Syria, and increased the possibility of their operations in other regional countries. On the other hand, heighted sectarian tension has also diverted attention from the issue of Palestine, which has been traditionally the most important issue in the region. It has also reduced resilience of regional states which is requisite for achieving an agreement on such issues that stoke regional tensions, including the situation in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. In other words, escalation of sectarian tension has not only failed to help involved parties to find solutions for regional problems, but has also led to further escalation of regional tensions as a result of reduced flexibility, tolerance and cooperation, which are necessary components for the elimination of the existing misunderstandings and differences among regional states.

Key Words: Sectarian Confrontations, Middle East, Iran, Hezbollah, Al-Qusayr, Al-Qaeda, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

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*Power Struggle in Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt and Difficulty of Finding a Way Out:

*Restructuring Yemen’s Security and Military Institutions and the Faceoff between Supporters of Hadi and Saleh:

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