In times of conflict, religious, ethnic, linguistic traits are accentuated and the sectarian dimension is no exception. With the direct involvement of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, the Syrian conflict accelerates towards becoming a sectarian one and small skirmishes along the sectarian line have already occurred across the border in Lebanon. The Shia axis of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Alawite regime is balanced by the Sunni dominated rebels, supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf states. Assad is no more an Alawite Shia as was Saddam Hussein a devout Sunni, both subscribed to the doctrine of socialist orientated Arab nationalism, devoid of Islam. A dubious ideology when you consider that Arab civilisation began with the birth of Islam.
The US intervention in Iraq and the subsequent altering of the balance of power has resulted in the Shia-Sunni tensions; a dominant Shia-led regime emerged replacing the Sunni denominated Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein bringing a long line of Sunni rule to an end. The end result is seen through the tit for tat bombings between Shia and Sunni killing many innocent civilians. Across the border Iran has been building up its military capability to its credit, increasingly asserting itself as a regional power.
The US stance has shifted from a pro-Sunni position during the heyday of Ayatollah Khomeini, when Shias were the extremists, to a more pro-Shia stance in Iraq, against the militant Sunni inspired Al-Qaeda type movements of the post 9/11 era. It is reminiscent of a former British Prime Minister’s remark - no nation has permanent friends or enemies but only its interests.
The Sunnis in Saudi Arabia have also suppressed the large Shia majority located in the lucrative region of the eastern part where the oil fields are. During the oil embargo in the 1970s, the US even entertained the idea of dividing Saudi Arabia along sectarian lines, which also reflects division of resources in line with US oil interests. It also gives credence to the recent conspiracy theory of an emerging of a Shia crescent that encompasses Iran, eastern Iraq, Bahrain, Eastern Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. This is unlikely to be the work of Israeli dominated US foreign policy, since a strong Sunni or Shia state does not serve Israeli hegemony. In that light, one has to ask, is there an impending conflict brewing that threatens to engulf the entire region?
Divide and rule - it worked well for the British empire; thus, igniting and prolonging the war along sectarian lines would serve the Israeli-US policy best – the only caveat being, the oil fields and its protectorates (the wealthy Sheikhs) are not to be touched. We all witnessed the US resolve to protect the Kuwaiti elites back in 1991.
Despite the motive, one cannot just blame foreign powers manufacturing a wider sectarian conflict; the roots of this schism go back to the early period of the Islamic Caliphate. The Shias argued the line of succession should go through the Prophet’s family, whereas the Sunnis argued that leadership should be based on consultation and merit. I may be accused of being biased as a Sunni, but any neutral observer will see that hereditary rule has no place in any monotheistic religion, because nepotism is one of the sources of corruption. Even Imam Ali, revered by the Shia as the legitimate divine successor to the Prophet, obeyed the first two Caliphs and participated in the election, but he lost to the third Caliph and continued to obey him as a ruler according to both Shia and Sunni sources. In subsequent years, the political differences combined with theological differences have led to the gap between the Shia and the Sunni becoming wider.
Historically, Shia-Sunni conflict zones have been confined to Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Saudi, and in recent times, this has been seen in Afghanistan (Hazara Shias v Taliban) and in Pakistan which has a significant Shia community who are suffering from the indiscriminate Sunni bombings. Over the centuries the balance of power has altered in various ways. The Shia rule over Egypt and North Africa during the Fatimid era was brought to an end by the Sunnis during the crusade era. In contrast, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain became Shia dominated state post 1500. Iran became the first Shia dominated state of our time, despite the glaring contradiction with Shia theology, which states only the divinely inspired Imam can rule. The more Orthodox Ayatollahs argued against Ayatollah Khomeini for taking up political leadership as they believed they should wait for Imam Mehdi to arrive.
From a position of minority, the Shias had been working to gain Sunni converts, Iran has always suppressed its Sunni minority despite all the rhetoric of unity, and its media channels are always propagating the Shia point of view, and attack the Salafee orientated movements supported by Saudi-Gulf petro dollars, concealing a subtle wider attack on the Sunni world. In recent times, Shia missionaries have been targeting the large Sunni Muslim population in Africa; Nigeria has a nascent Shia community now. If gaining political unity is the real issue then why spend so much time and effort on theological and historical differences. The rhetoric of Saudi being an American puppet is no more than Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq siding with the US, through his infamous fatwa of not resisting the US forces, during the US-led invasion of 2003. Iran also cooperated with the US over the invasion of Afghanistan.
With the passing of time, the notion of unity at any level in the Muslim world vanishes. A sectarian conflict – regardless of its origin would be another nail in the coffin.