Islam’s Ancient Divide Fuels Middle East Conflicts

Graphic: Areas populated by Shiites in the mainly Sunni Middle East.

They began as a cry for freedom in the Middle East, but the Arab rebellions have become increasingly characterized by an ancient sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. SPIEGEL examines how the power struggle between the two groups is sparking new fears along old frontlines.

In the countries that follow the Muslim faith, the lines between past and present often blur, making it seem as though the past is not over, and certainly not forgiven. Indeed, the past can come terribly alive here, and it can turn terribly deadly, again and again, every day.

When representatives from around the world convened in the Iranian capital of Tehran last Thursday for the start of a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an annual meeting of 120 nations that view themselves as not aligned for or against any major powers, the focus was suddenly on 1,300-year-old battles, murders and power struggles. The host was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Shiite. Next to him on the dais was Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni.

Morsi began his opening address with a mention of the Prophet Muhammad, but then continued, “May Allah’s blessing be upon our masters Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.”

Iranian media immediately took the statement as a provocation. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were Muhammad’s successors after the Prophet’s death in 632. Sunni Muslims venerate them as the first caliphs — but Shiite Muslims consider them usurpers and traitors to the faith, hated figures whose very names should not be spoken. Muhammad’s true successor, Shiites say, was Ali, their first imam, who later fought against the other three before being murdered.

Morsi went on to discuss the present situation in Syria, where Bashar Assad is overseeing the massacre of rebels who are mostly Sunni. Assad and his clique belong to the country’s Alawite minority, which is more closely aligned with the Shiites. “The bloodshed will not stop without intervention from outside,” the Egyptian president declared, saying that Assad’s regime had lost all legitimacy. Morsi, a Sunni, made these statements while sitting next to the Shiite Ahmadinejad, who has been providing the Syrian regime with weapons and now fighters too.

Morsi must know that any country that intervenes in Syria risks ending up at war with Iran as well. The frontlines of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites run through many countries in the Middle East, and those who fan the flames in one part of the region may find themselves under fire in another part entirely.

Power and Faith

The war that the regime in Damascus is waging against Syria’s mostly Sunni rebels is increasingly taking on denominational characteristics, and not just within the country. The struggle is also drawing in external participants belonging to both camps. Soldiers from Lebanon’s militant Islamist group Hezbollah, which is Shiite, have come to help the regime, as have elite forces from Iran, while Libyan volunteers have joined the rebels, who also receive significant amounts of money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Iraq, attacks by Sunni radicals are on the rise once again as the Shiite government forces Sunnis out of positions of power. Sunni terrorists groups in Pakistan murder Shiites, and even a Shiite mosque in Belgium was the target of an arson attack this March that killed the mosque’s imam. The presumed attacker, a radical Sunni, declared after his arrest that he had acted out of revenge for Iran’s military aid to Syria.

Shiites make up only 10 to 13 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, but their representation in the states around the Persian Gulf is significantly higher. Shiites account for 90 percent of the population in Iran, 70 percent in Bahrain, over 60 percent in Iraq, 35 percent in Kuwait and around 10 percent in Saudi Arabia.

In the Islamic world, where power and faith have always commingled, political conflicts often become religious ones, turning into a question of power that cuts along one of the region’s most important frontlines.

Iran, led by Shiite Muslim Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supports Syrian President...

A Dangerous Rebellion

Yet in a sense the Sunnis’ rise to power in the face of Assad’s coming downfall is little more than an adjustment to reflect the demographic situation in Syria, which is home to considerably more Sunnis than Alawites.

Something similar happened in 2003, when the Shiite majority took over power in Iraq at the same time as Hezbollah, also Shiite, was making gains in Lebanon. In 2005, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a Sunni, warned of a “Shiite crescent” that would soon stretch from Baghdad to Tehran. Now the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction.

For a time during the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it seemed that the divide between Sunnis and Shiites didn’t play a significant role. But things look different in Syria, which is another reason why this is a particularly dangerous rebellion.

There is an apocalyptic prophecy in Islam, which some attribute to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s only a fragment, the legend of an evil being known as the Sufyani, which will one day arrive to sow death and ruin among the faithful. This tradition, supposedly ascribed to Muhammad, says the Sufyani will rise from the depths of the Earth beneath Damascus.


Spiegel has the full extensive article

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