The majority of casual observers in the West have taken some time to realise that one of the most serious dimensions to the current unrest now reaching boiling point in places in the Middle East is a replay of the age old conflict between the Islamic sects of the Sunni and the Shia. This should of course be seen in context of the numerous ethnic and tribal differences which add to the factional uncertainties, but because the Shia and Sunni groupings are so marked in their difference of outlook, any analysis must take this difference into account.
Although the Shia sect is vastly outnumbered throughout the Middle East, sitting as they do astride many of the best oil producing parts of the region in what some call the Shia crescent, they represent a potentially powerful emergent force. As many readers will know, the areas where the Shia are seen as a majority are in the old Persian Empire of Iran and neighbouring Iraq, through part of Jordan, into Lebanon, with a distinct and apparently unhappy minority in Saudi Arabia, with a narrow band of majority Shia along the oil rich Persian Gulf Coast (eg 65% Shia in the Island US Naval base of Bahrain),North Yemen and a thinning wedge westward into Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While the Sunni is still in a clear majority in much of the rest of the Middle East including the rich and powerful Saudi Arabia and the more ethnically diverse Egypt, until comparatively recently for several decades the colonial interests of the West has been one factor in keeping the two antagonistic groupings somewhat apart, but as these colonial interests gradually diminished particularly with the erosion of the British influence and more recently the weakening of direct US influence, the sometimes sullen truce between the two very different religious and political alliances has shown signs of real strain.
Like the Irish religious rift between Catholics and Protestants, the Sunni – Shia demarkation has its roots back in history. The initial dispute was one of succession to the Prophet Mohammed. According to the Shi’ites, the Prophet’s grandson Ali Hussein was the rightful heir, but as far as the Sunni are concerned it was rather Mohammed’s father in law the caliph Abu Bakr on whom the mantle had fallen. As with the Irish Protestant Irish divide, the resulting civil war culminated in a vicious battle in which Hussein together with 87 of his warriors and three Christian allies were defeated and slaughtered by a much strong force at the battle of Karbala. This fight at Karbala was the event that marked the beginning of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, and the increasingly bold attacks on one-another’s religious ceremonies show the depth of feeling which exists today. Although the differences between the two groups probably seem relatively trite to most observers from outside Islam, what we must acknowledge is that as far as both groups are concerned, their views and beliefs are part of their separate self perception of their identities and are unlikely to be resolved without major effort.
In reality, the ethnic difference between Persians and Arabs may prove more important than the Shiite religious bond, particularly in Iran and Iraq. But the prospect of a Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian war seems as close as ever in Iraq, and it is clear intense security measures are often needed to protect both groups on their respective religious festivals. Over recent years in particular there has been a real issue in trying to protect the worshippers for the Shi’ite celebration of their Ashura holy day when they remember the battle of Karbala. Both groups have some extremist leadership and although the majority in both are relatively peaceful it is clear that the extremist elements can be very dangerous. It is hard to know what to make of the rhetoric coming out of Iran particularly the statements made about the peaceful intentions of the nuclear programme. As with Christianity there are many shades of Islam, and the Islamic politicians are no less likely than the leaders from the West to be speaking for diplomatic purpose rather than with a focus on the truth. There is also growing alarm on the part of the Western onlookers as the Shi’ites have grown in strength, in that a unified Shia group in control of Middle East oil production and backed by the now real prospect of a powerful Iran with some nuclear capability potentially endangers Western interests and certainly endangers the interests of Israel.
Some analysts have gone so far as to claim that it was clearly in the interests of the US to foment unrest between the two groups which is then put forward as a possible, if unlikely explanation for the earlier ostensibly ham fisted way in which Iraq was invaded by the US then plunged into chaos. While it is true that Kissinger was said to have earlier expressed the private wish that the two sects would fall at each other’s throats, and that it is now a matter of record that the US had helped arm both sides in the earlier Gulf War, a more plausible explanation is that in the matter of the invasion of Iraq, George W Bush and his advisers had simply grossly misjudged what was going to happen. There seem a prevailing Western assumption that a Western style democracy is preferred whereby a majority should determine leadership and control political outcomes. Unfortunately this presupposes a Western style population and more importantly the Western experience of fixed borders is irrelevant when vested interests make it possible for help to be readily summoned across the border. When majorities do not follow borders it is much harder to guarantee results. For example allowing the majority Shia to rule in Iraq when many of the power brokers in the Middle East are Sunni seems to create complications and guarantee a degree of outside interference.
Churchill in effect set up many long term problems when he redrew the borders through the Middle East in 1922. For example, with what he later boasted to be lines drawn on an atlas on a Sunday afternoon, he decided that Kurdistan should no longer exist and created Kuwait to give Britain port access to oil. The simmering discontent of the Kurds continues to this day particularly in their attempt to reclaim a homeland in Turkey and Iraq.
The West sometimes pays lip service to democracy. Thus in the US naval base island of Bahrain for example Sunni foreign troops were brought in to control the Shia majority uprising, to enable the Sunni ruling group to continue in power and continue their oil sharing arrangements with the US.
Another area where foreign mercenary troops played a key role is Libya. Here however the Shia have such a small percentage of the population the unrest had little to do with an attempted Shia uprising. Although Gaddafi had exploited tribal rather than religious differences, by selling his dictatorship as one opposed to Osama bin Laden, he earlier indirectly won some grudging approval from the West. Gaddafi (one of the numerous Western spellings of his name) was at least partly bad and mad but he was sufficiently aware of the nature of dictatorship to have managed to retain power for many years by a number of simple tactics. First he kept the local military as small as possible to reduce the dangers of a successful coup. Second he rewarded loyalty with money and status and removed his patronage at the least sign of disloyalty thereby leaving a number of key supporters reluctant to give up personal advantage, and thirdly he used the oil wealth of Libya to buy protection, flying in foreign troops to exact revenge on any rebellion. Unfortunately the West was in effect been bought off with oil concessions and until very recently was prepared to turn a blind eye to his obvious faults. The fractured interests of the disparate rebels now the rebels have apparently won leave Libya far from settled.
Syria is my final example of the Sunni Shia divide. Here a small minority Shia sect (representing less than 10% of the population) is grimly hanging on to power in the face of a large majority of disenchanted Sunni, the rebels certain they have been disenfranchised. The appalling over reaction of the army to the widespread revolt can also be interpreted as a grim struggle for survival because few commentators give them any chance of retaining position (or perhaps even survival) when the Sunni take control. Since the Arab league represents Sunni interests it is far from clear they will be objective in assessing the two sides of the trouble.