Sectarian War, the Major Threat to the Middle East

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian

Despite their distinct theological differences, the two main branches of Islam, Shi’ism and Sunnism, have co-existed in relative peace for centuries. The current level of sectarian conflict is a modern phenomenon rooted in political opportunism, the spread of radicalism and the distortion of religious tenets in order to instill a constant state of insecurity in the region.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 ushered in the first Shi’a-led Islamic Government and led to fears in some Sunni countries that the “Shi’a revolution” could soon reach their shores. Post-revolutionary Iran, with its central Islamic identity, aspired to unite the Islamic world around three key fundamentals: independence, freedom and Islam. The political survival of unelected, Western-backed regional governments, coupled with attempts to limit Iran’s influence, led some to take advantage of historical differences between Shi’ites and Sunnis to incite sectarianism.

Next, the Arab Spring began to unravel the socioeconomic and political fabric of the region, with both positive and negative consequences. In this transformative process, sectarianism was regrettably advanced by some parties, leading to a level of violence unprecedented in its scope.

If sectarianism is not rooted out, there is a risk that the region will be scorched for the foreseeable future, with worldwide repercussions.

Fanning this extremism are the Salafists, whose narrow and strict interpretation of Islam considers all other Islamic sects, including the Shi’ites and even some Sunnis, as infidel. This categorization essentially opens the door for the mass bloodletting of Muslims. A follower and promoter of this doctrine is Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who issued a religious fatwa urging Sunni Muslims worldwide to join Syrian rebels in their fight against president Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah.

On June 1, Qaradawi said that “every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that must make himself available to support the Syrian rebels.” The cleric, who previously supported Hezbollah in its fight against Israel in 2006, also asked: “The leader of the party of Satan [Hezbollah] comes to fight the Sunnis. .  .  . How could 100 million Shi’ites [worldwide] defeat 1.7 billion [Sunnis]?”

Prior to the Egyptian cleric’s inflammatory comments, two other Lebanese Salafist clerics, Salem Al-Rafii and Ahmad Al-Assir, said that fighting against the Assad regime and Hezbollah was a “jihadist duty.” Recently, violent clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite communities in Lebanon has been on the rise, and the fighting has been exacerbated by the bomb detonated in the Shi’ite- and Hezbollah-supported southern suburbs of Beirut in early July, which injured dozens and added fuel to the sectarian fire.

With the militarization of the Syrian uprising complete, foreign fighters joining local armed factions will embolden radical Islamists of various ideological persuasions to dictate the course of the rebellion. This elevates the risk of the all-out civil and sectarian war in Syria spilling over into neighboring countries, especially Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. Salafist rebels recently desecrated the Damascus burial site of Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, Sayyidah Zaynab, who is revered in both Shi’a and Sunni Islam. This attack prompted thousands of protestors to gather in Tehran and voice their anger at the rebels and vow to protect other holy shrines. The targeting of Shi’ite and Muslim holy sites by Salafist rebels will only further fuel the violence and empower the extremists on all sides of the conflict.

In Iraq, coordinated bombings have torn through mostly Shi’ite areas of country, killing over 700 people in April and 450 civilians in May this year. As insurgents step up their operations throughout Iraq, there are clear signs of a rapid deterioration in the security situation: At least 60 people were killed and over 100 wounded as a total of 17 car bombs exploded in mostly Shi’ite areas across Iraq in the last week of July.

Sectarian tensions are also being exacerbated by anti-government protests and the ongoing Syrian conflict. In addition, Lebanon has not been spared from the instability in Syria. The recent deadly attack by religious extremists on Lebanese soldiers left 18 dead and 128 injured—sending a clear signal that Syria-related clashes could drag Lebanon, already grappling with political instability, back into a civil war.

Unrest in Egypt continues, and recently four Egyptian Shi’ite Muslims were killed and then set on fire by Salafist extremists in the village of Abu Mussalam. In the case of Egypt, this violent turn is a forewarning of the expanding extremist views in the country.

In Syria, thousands of foreign fighters are believed to have joined the fighting against Assad’s regime. The US, Europe, Turkey and some Arab countries are providing financial and military backing to the fractured opposition; Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Assad. With international and regional powers divided over involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, I do not see an end to these conflicts in sight. I am also concerned about the regionalization of the current conflict in Syria, which would have consequences far beyond the region.

In the last decade, thousands of innocent Muslims have been killed in feuds between extremist Sunnis and Shi’ites. Most likely, Sunnis and Shi’ites will never agree on each other’s interpretation of Islam and the history of their religion, but both Sunnis and Shi’ites can stop fighting and killing each other, for the sake of Islamic unity.

Prominent religious leaders from both Sunni and Shi’a sects should appeal to their followers to stop fighting and killing one another and to agree with each other’s interpretation. Recently, Iran’s former president, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad made a “Joint Appeal to Sunnis and Shi’as” to end the violence and bloodshed that have characterized Sunni-Shi’ite relations for some time.

The former Iranian president went a step further, writing to the head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, urging Islamic unity and seeking to take “the flames of grudge, extremism, and blind terrorism away from all the Islamic societies.” While violence has engulfed Muslim countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Sunni–Shi’ite animosity would clearly make Islamic countries all over the world more vulnerable to the current crisis.

Sunnis and Shi’ites—bound by the same faith in Allah, the Noble Qu’ran, and the Prophet Muhammad—are massacring one another and threatening regional peace, stability and security. Sunni–Shi’ite conflicts expand instability, civil war and sectarian conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

In the coming years, one of the most important security challenges for the Middle East will be the emerging sectarian and civil war in Syria spilling over into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. While a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear file is a must, the UN Security Council and regional countries should consider “sectarian war” the most imminent threat to the peace and security of the Middle East, with potentially disastrous consequences for the world. No country in the Middle East would be safe from the repercussions of a sectarian war. Delaying measures to mitigate the sectarian crisis facing the region will risk making its resolution impossible in the future.

The regional powers—Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq—should press the United Nation Security Council, which is responsible for peace and security in the world, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents all Muslims countries, to establish a task force to examine the Sunni¬–Shi’ite divide in depth and submit concrete proposals to end the current quagmire. Thousands of non-governmental organizations and all members of the Christian–Muslim–Jewish community have a similar responsibility to stop the violence and bloodshed and promote peace and understanding.

*Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a former Iranian ambassador to Germany (1990−97) and spokesman for Iran’s team in nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (2003– 05). From 2005 to 2007, he served as foreign policy adviser to Ali Larijani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. Mousavian was head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005. He is the author of Iran-Europe Relations: Challenges and Opportunities and most recently The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. He is currently a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat Daily Newspaper

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.  

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