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Syria: A New Battlefield For Shias and Sunnis

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By Manish Rai* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - Islam as a religion was divided between Shias and Sunnis after the death of Prophet Mohammad in 632 A.D. Shia followed Ali Mohammad’s son-in-law and Sunni went behind Abu Bakr, Father of Prophet Mohammad wife Aisha. This political divide between the Muslims turned into bloody sectarian clashes which claimed millions of human lives over a long period of time. This battle is still continuing in various countries of Middle East like Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

The new country in this list which has witnessed a large-scale sectarian violence in recent times is Syria. Syrian revolution, which broke out in February 2011 as a democratic mass revolt against the dictatorship after the Arab spring, has now turned into a power struggle between the two sects – Shias and Sunnis – to remain in power.

On one side the Shia front has been formed with Bashar Al Assad’s Regime, Iran, and Hezbollah with Russian Support and Sunni Front consists of Free Syrian Army (FSA), Al Nusra Front, Islamist rebel groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and Hamas with Support from Sunni-dominated regimes of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the west.

The age-old split between Sunnis and Shias is surfacing at a terrible human cost. As the Syrian death toll reaches 100,000, what began as anti-government protests inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has morphed into a sectarian feud that stretches back to Islam's origins.

In the latest round of massacres in Syria, at least 30 Shia Muslims were killed in the village of Hatlah in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Sunni rebel Fighters stormed the village and posted a video of themselves setting fire to homes and shouting slogans calling the Shias dogs, apostates and infidels.

In Syria a regime dominated by the Shia-Alawite sect forms a crucial link between its leading sponsor Iran, where Shi’ism is the state religion, Shia-dominated Iraq, and President Assad's Lebanese allies, the militant Shia Hezbollah movement which the United States has designated as a terrorist organisation. But the feud resonates far beyond Syria or Islam's Middle Eastern heartlands.

This conflict of Syria is spilling over to other places as well. In Egypt, once homeland to the enlightened Shia Fatimid dynasty (969-1161), the small minority of Shias are now coming under attack from Sunni mobs. Neighbouring Lebanon, where the Damascus regime and the rebels both have supporters, Alawite and Sunni militias from the rival Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods regularly exchange fire.

Mid-July Lashkar-e-Jhangui, an extremist Sunni group linked to the Taliban, launched a suicide attack on female students travelling in a bus from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University in Quetta, Pakistan, where many of the Shia Hazaras are students. After killing 11 women on the bus, the terrorists machine-gunned the hospital where survivors were being treated, killing a further 14 people

Spectre of modern sectarian barbarism

The spectre of modern sectarian barbarism stands in stark contrast to an older narrative of tolerance and pluralism. Shia dynasties, which held power from the 10th century, allowed Sunni systems of law to co-exist alongside the Shia versions. The Fatimids, who ruled in North Africa and Syria-Palestine as well as Egypt, never imposed their version of Shi’ism as state ideology. Even the dictatorial Assad regime, justifiably execrated for the brutality of its conduct in the war, had an impressive record of religious pluralism prior to the demonstrations that sparked the current crisis.

Why has the picture of intolerant fanaticism surfaced at this time? In the Syrian context, part of the explanation lies in the paradoxical way that a Shia sectarian group from the margins – the Alawis or Nusayris from the highlands above Latakia – gained control of the avowedly secular Baath party, following a coup by the defence minister and air force commander Hafez al-Assad (father of Current President Bashar Al Assad) in 1970.

As a minority that had benefited from military training and entitlements under French colonial rule (1920-45), the Alawis were well placed to seize the control of power in the chaotic postcolonial aftermath. The pattern is familiar to observers of Arab politics where ‘clan-ism’ rooted in authoritarian patriarchal structures usually trumps the public good.

The Syrian model that is now disintegrating is a mirror image of one that applied in Iraq, before the American-led invasion, where the Sunni Arab minority surrounding Saddam Hussein held sway over a majority of Shias and Kurds.

A similar model applies to Bahrain, where the Sunni Al-Khalifas lord it over a majority of underprivileged Shias, but not to Saudi Arabia, where Shias are a repressed minority. Clan-ism, however, is only one part of a much larger canvas of sectarian violence that is surfacing in many parts of the world.

In some places such as Burma and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is defined in context with nationalism, it is Muslims who are victims. In other countries, from West Africa to Southeast Asia, it may be Christians who are under pressure from hard-line Islamist groups or governments along with other victims of sectarian strife.

In Nigeria, for instance, more than 50,000 people have been killed in ethno-religious violence since 1999. Some anthropologists suggest that an overall explanation of this phenomenon lies in the common resurgence of religion in response to modern "materialism" and the global hegemony of secularism. In my view, a more useful analysis of this sectarian violence should be based around the idea of "default identities".

Religious conflicts whether in other parts of world or Syria have less to do with competing theologies, differences in beliefs about "God" or religious leadership, than with the way in which group identities are formed by centuries of cultural upbringing underpinned by religious practices.

Some religious scholars always try to play down the Sunni-Shia differences to the level of beliefs by stressing global Muslim brotherhood, and drawing a parallel with differences between Catholics and Protestants, which are frequently addressed by ecumenical statements issued by religious leaders condemning violence. They cannot be resolved by them because belief as such is not the real question. Islamic sectarian divide which in real sense was just a political divide over the legacy of Prophet Mohammed has a long list of sectarian executions and atrocities – and this conflict in Syria is just a new chapter involving a huge human cost.

*Manish Rai is a freelance journalist with a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) and founder president of Youth For Nation (YFN). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the editorial board or of editorial advisers. The author can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 21, 2013]

Photo: Demonstration in Homs against Assad | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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