Shias and Sunnis: The Widening Gulf?

Amid Sunni fears of a growing “Shia arc”, tensions between the main Muslim sects are widening, while some governments are exploiting them

ISRAEL and America are stirring conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims so as to plunder their wealth, declares Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Israel and America are stoking Sunni fear of Shias to distract from the true cause of Palestine, says the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mehdi Akef. Evidently, there is a meeting of minds between the leader of the most powerful Shia state and the head of the world’s most influential Sunni political movement.

On the ground across much of the Middle East, the spectre of fitna, or sectarian schism, has rarely loomed larger. This week in Iraq, yet another round of bombs deliberately targeted Shia civilians, killing scores. Shia militias responded by lobbing mortars into Sunni districts and by snatching and executing Sunni men. A series of deadly attacks against Shia mosques in Pakistan added a dozen more victims to the estimated 2,000 killed over 15 years of sporadic sectarian violence. In Lebanon, a row in a college cafeteria snowballed into running street battles between followers of rival Sunni and Shia parties; four were killed. The preacher at a slain Sunni youth’s funeral described him as a “martyr to Arabism”—a subtle jibe at the ostensibly “Persian” Shias and their leading party in Lebanon, Hizbullah.

This was the week of Ashura, a Shia festival that commemorates martyrdom and has often proved a tense period in places where Islam’s two main sects both reside. Yet communal feelings are rising even where Shias, around 15% of the world’s Muslims, have little or no presence. In December, Sudan’s authorities closed Iran’s stall at a Khartoum book fair after Sunni activists accused it of spreading Shia propaganda. Algerian newspapers say Shia missionaries are inveigling Sunni children to convert. Supporters of Fatah, a secular Palestinian party, have taken to chanting “Shia! Shia!” at backers of the Islamist (and Sunni) Hamas party, in a dig against its strong ties to Iran. In Jordan, villagers turned back pilgrims going to a local Shia shrine. Shias say that last month’s attacks by vandals in the American city of Detroit on two Shia community centres and some Shia-owned businesses were sectarian.

Some of the alarm appears to be orchestrated. In the culmination of a month-long barrage of innuendo against Iran in Egypt’s state-owned press, a recent editorial in the staid Cairo daily, al-Ahram, charged the Islamic Republic with undermining chances for peace in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. The goal, it suggested, was to weaken Sunni Arab states so as to realise “Safavid dreams” of Shia expansion, a reference to the 16th-century dynasty that enshrined Shiism as Iran’s state religion. Citing unnamed Egyptian officials, the same newspaper floated charges that Iranian intelligence agents were responsible for the kidnap and murder of Egypt’s ambassador in Iraq in July 2005.

A similar campaign has unfolded in Saudi Arabia, where increasingly internet chat sites, several of which are widely believed to be infiltrated by police agents, are rife with spurious tales of Shia perfidy. A typical item affirms that, when told of Sunni fears of a “Shia crescent” spreading across the region, Iran’s president said he envisioned not a crescent but a full moon. While a columnist in one Saudi daily asserted, falsely, that Shias believe they must perform ablutions if they happen to touch an “unclean” Sunni, 38 senior Saudi clerics issued a call to arms in defence of Iraq against the “Crusader-Safavid-Rejectionist plot” that seeks to uproot Sunni Islam.

Such alarmism reflects, to a degree, a desire by the Sunni, American-allied governments of countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to staunch what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence. The capture of power by Iraq’s long-oppressed Shias is perceived as having, for the first time in history, removed the main Arab bulwark against Persian expansion. Much as most loathed Saddam Hussein, the style and timing of his execution, on a day celebrated by Sunnis as their main annual feast, smacked to many of an ugly Shia triumphalism. Iran’s wider assumption of leadership for Islamist “resistance” movements, underscored by the electoral success of Hamas and by Hizbullah’s spirited fight in last summer’s war with Israel, gives Arab leaders even worse jitters.

At the same time, their American ally is demanding support for its policy of boxing in Iran. Unable to lend much material weight to America’s efforts, fearful of a negative backlash should America actually strike Iran, and unwilling to be seen as acting in Israel’s interest, Arab countries appear to have chosen to exploit sectarian feelings to send a shot across Iran’s bows.

With typical circumlocution, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently said as much. “We have advised them not to expose the region to dangers,” he said, declining to name the country to which he referred. “We don’t interfere in anyone’s affairs, [but] any state which resorts to unwise acts must bear the responsibility in front of the other countries in the region.”

Bark against the arc

The Saudi intent to thwart Iran’s regional ambitions is clearest in Lebanon. The kingdom has lent strong financial and diplomatic support to the government of the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, whose coalition of Sunni, Druze and some Christian parties has been deadlocked in a duel with a grouping headed by Hizbullah. But what has squeezed the Shia party most is loss of the stature it recently gained among a wider Arab public. Seen last summer as the vanguard of the struggle against Israel, it is now viewed by many Sunnis as little more than a cat’s paw for Iran.

As Iraq’s agony has made clear, sectarianism is a dangerous genie. It was with a view to cooling recent excesses that Qatar, a rich Gulf emirate, invited some 400 top Sunni and Shia religious figures to a dialogue last month. In the event, rhetoric at the conference proved embarrassingly hot. Iran’s chief delegate, Ayatollah Muhammad Taskhiri, was besieged with accusations. Iran was failing to stop the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s Sunnis, he was told. It persecuted its own Sunni minority. Its agents were trying to convert Sunnis and spread Shia texts that insult historic figures revered by Sunnis. Why, retorted Shia delegates, did Sunni clerics so rarely condemn the slaughter of Iraq’s Shias? And what of the disenfranchised Shia minorities in Sunni countries?

A message from a senior Lebanese Shia cleric, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, provided a useful cold shower. If Sunnis and Shias did not cease their wrangling, he said, Muslims would end up turning to secularism as their saviour.

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