As the events continue to unfold in Iraq, a full scale sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites looks imminent. No surprise that Obama will not commit ground troops, and why should he. The US interest will be served by funding both sides behind the scenes, whilst politically it will appear to oppose ISIS and play out the role of a peacemaker, and nominal air strikes driven by political expediency will not change the underlying policy.
The flags, the banners, and the message of ISIS clearly convey they want to impose Sharia laws, and bring about the Caliphate, like it or not. It has sent out alarm bells, the Caliphate will pose a challenge to western hegemony in the region, and the existing regimes will feel the heat and it may destabilise the entire region. This is an overreaction and largely contributed by the self-created Islamophobic climate in the west.
For centuries, western Christendom fought the Caliphate, and later secular west removed the Caliphate with ease; the Muslims themselves had lost their attachment to the system for various reasons. And regardless of the initial success of ISIS in military terms, there are no signs that the masses in the Arab world want the Caliphate back. Even the moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could not sustain its power, because despite the military intervention, if it had sufficient support base, there would have been a significant reaction.
The potential conflict evokes memories of the Iraq and Iran war; a religious Shia state fighting the Godless Arab socialist regime of Saddam Hussein was the view projected by Iran, and the Arabs saw the conflict in terms of expansion of the Persian Empire threatening the existence of the Arab culture. This time the conflict will be along sectarian lines, Shia versus the Sunnis. Will Iran invade to protect the Shiites shrine and bolster the Shiite army? Will the Sunni world react in a similar way and will fighters rush towards a new Jihad financed by the oil-rich Gulf States, led by a new Bin Laden?
From the western perspective, the old philosophy of - nations have no permanent friends but only their interests - is at work. Hence, during the Khomeini era, the Shias were the minority fanatics beating themselves crazy, venting their anger with chants of “death to America, death to Israel”, whilst the Sunnis were the peaceful majority, and in Afghanistan they were the righteous Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets, not the terrorists. After the first Gulf war and 9/11 the tables have turned and the climate is now Shia friendly, especially after the departure of Ahmadinejad, whilst the Sunnis are now the problem, especially the Salafee Jihadists.
What lies behind the sectarian conflict goes back to the inception of the Shiite movement, as it seceded from the majority Sunni. A tiny group of people believed the Caliphate should have gone to Ali rather than Abu Bakr and their allegiance is with the divine Imams that succeeded from the family of the Prophet (ahlul-bayt), who can make no error in interpreting the divine text.
There may be some room for democracy within the Sunni Caliphate, where the masses chose the leader, but in the Shia school, this is impossible. But then why did Ali participate in the election after the demise of second Caliph (Umar bin Khattab)? The Shiite doctrine is a true theocracy that reflects the Catholic model of the infallible Pope; instead they have the infallible Imam, who passes on the leadership, no hysteria of mass election. So where is the infallible Imam now? The answer will follow shortly.
I am not sectarian, in that I do not view all Shiites as unbelievers, and I certainly do not subscribe to the Salafee Jihadist view that only the dead Shiites are the worthy ones, nor do I see all Sunnis as saints. However, I do struggle with the Shiite doctrine of political leadership of a divine Imam having the sole right to interpret and pass rulings. Once a Shia student of theology boasted to me how the Sunnis adhere to the democratic notion of election, where a donkey could come to power and make all sorts of mistakes. And there is some truth to that, plenty of examples in the Muslim and non-Muslim world, past and present, producing such leaders. In response, I asked him if you do believe that only the divine Imam has the right and ability to interpret the divine text and pass rulings, why are there so many Ayatollahs doing the same job? Where is this divine Imam? With a touch of sarcasm, I asked him, why you don’t bring your divine Imam online, as many of us looking for a quality error-free fatwa. Of course, he became defensive, a little embarrassed, the divine Imam is the Mehdi, he allegedly vanished in the 8th century and living in outer space somewhere, and when the time is right he will be beamed down to earth.
Apart from the political doctrine of leadership there are many other sensitive issues between the two factions, and bloodshed will not help either side, these matters needs to be resolved by Scholars over time, and they need to work towards creating consensus and unity at a political level; imposing a version of Islam through the barrel of a gun and killing those who disagree will not work, especially in this globalised era, where consensus and participation of the masses is a reality, and we take some level of personal freedom for granted which Islam has permitted in the first place.
Yamin Zakaria (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published on 26/06/2014
London, UK (www.radicalviews.org, http://yaminzakaria.blogspot.com)