15 August 2014
The relationship between Sunnis and Shiites has reached a low point in many countries. According to Shia Rights Watch, more than 80 Shiites are killed every day in the Middle East. Why has this fourteen-hundred-year-old conflict flared up?
Over the centuries, Sunnis and Shiites have usually lived together peacefully, next to each other and sometimes with each other under one roof. But violent conflicts between the two sects are unfortunately not unusual and because the Shiites have always been in the minority, they have often been the victims. As a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq, tensions between the two groups are now rising again in the Middle East and even in Europe and other parts of the world.
“Discrimination and oppression of Shiites is increasing because of the anti-Shiite propaganda that is being distributed with financial support from Saudi Arabia”, said Mustafa Akhwand, executive director of Shia Rights Watch. This organisation was founded in Washington in 2011 to defend the rights of Shia Muslims worldwide and to counter increasing discrimination, hatred, oppression and violence against Shiites.
The split between Sunnis and Shiites emerged from a conflict over who was to be the successor of the Prophet Mohammed after his death in 632. The Sunnis believed that any devout Muslim could become the leader or Caliph of the Muslims, while the Shiites believed that God had reserved this position for Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and his descendants. Ali's adherents were given the name ‘party of Ali’, shi'at Ali or Shiites. The other group were the Sunnis, those who follow the habits of the Prophet.
Later, dogmatic differences also arose between the movements, though Sunnis and Shiites largely follow the same religious ideas: the five pillars of Islam, the Koran and the belief that Mohammed was the last Prophet. Some Hadiths, the stories about the Prophet, are interpreted differently, just like certain parts of sharia, or Islamic law. There are several branches of Shiism, such as the Alevi in Turkey, the Alawites in Syria and the Druze in Lebanon. Sunni Islam has its own branches: among others, the conservative Wahabi and Salafi in Saudi Arabia.
Approximately 10 to 20 percent of the around one and a half billion Muslims today are Shiites. In Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, they form the majority of the population. Large groups of Shiites also live in Syria, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“Every Shia Muslim who lives in Arab countries faces Anti-Shiism one way or another”, said Mustafa Akhwand. He himself has lived in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and now in the United States. “Each country had their own special ways to discriminate against me and my family because of our religion.” According to him, false propaganda from their governments makes some Sunnis afraid of Shiites. “When you tell the ordinary Sunni that you are Shia, the first thing that comes to their mind is that you are ‘kefir’ (infidel). Sunni and Wahhabi scholars, with the help of their governments, brainwash their people to make them believe Shia are infidels and they worship a different God.”
Some of these conservative religious leaders spread anti-Shia hate propaganda via YouTube, social media and television stations, such as Safa TV and Wesal TV, which are funded by Saudi Arabia. They call Shiism a heresy ‘worse than Christianity or Judaism’ and call for a holy war between Sunnis and Shiites. Some of them have millions of followers on Twitter, such as Nabil Alawadhy (4.5 million followers), a Kuwaiti cleric who hosted a religious programme that, in addition to being anti-Shiite, was also critical of the Kuwaiti State. For that reason, Kuwait recently revoked his citizenship.
Mustafa Akhwand points to the danger of this type of propaganda against Shiites: “A few years ago a fatwa was issued stating that killing Americans in Iraq or Shia Muslims will take you to heaven. And now the ISIS orders their soldiers to kill Shia men and rape their women.” In Egypt, where Shiites make up only 2 percent of the population, Mohamed Zoghbi called for the destruction of the Shiites in a sermon televised in May of last year. A month later, four Shiites, including an imam, were lynched in broad daylight in an Egyptian village. Akhwand: “This shows how terrorist groups are influenced by their scholars.”
Anti-Sunni propaganda also exists on social media and on Shiite Iranian TV channels. In Iran – as in Iraq after the government’s fall in 2003 – the Sunni minority, which makes up only 10 percent of the population, is discriminated against and disadvantaged. Although Christian churches are tolerated, the millions of Sunnis in Tehran do not have their own mosque, are often unemployed and cannot reach top positions in their fields. The Director of Shia Rights Watch responds: “The treatment of Shias towards Sunnis is not even comparable to how Sunnis are treating Shias in their nations.”
According to Akhwand, the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites got especially out of hand after the fall of Saddam Hussein. To the displeasure of neighbouring countries, a Shiite government came to power in Iraq. King Abdullah of Jordan and the former Egyptian president Mubarak feared that a ‘Shia crescent’, a power bloc of Shia from Lebanon and Syria via Iraq and Iran to Bahrain, would come to pass.
Sectarian apartheid and minorities
For political reasons, Arab rulers have often emphasised the ‘Shiite danger’, the risk that the Shiite minorities would revolt and that the power of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon would grow. The Bahraini Royal family – Sunnis who reign over a population that is two-thirds Shiite – claimed that Iran was behind the revolt in Bahrain in 2011, but there was never any evidence found to support that claim. In Bahrain, as in Saudi Arabia, a kind of sectarian apartheid against Shiites exists: for example, they cannot reach high positions in government, the military or the police.
To counter the feared spread of Shiism from Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Sunni rebels of the Free Syrian Army. For the same reason, Kuwaiti nationals are the largest financers of the Sunni jihad fighters. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia still support the Alawite-led Syrian government and thousands of Shiites are fighting with it on the side of the Syrian government army to protect Shiite shrines against destruction by Sunni extremists. So what began in 2011 as a fight for more freedom and better living conditions has become a dire and hopeless international and sectarian conflict.
Shiites and other minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, have become victims of the fights in Syria and Iraq, especially after the recent, successful advance of the IS (Islamic State), formerly known as the ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq). Mustafa Akhwand believes that Al Azhar University in Cairo, the main authority in Sunni Islam, should condemn the murders of Shiites and explain that the followers of the ISIS and similar violent groups are not Muslims. “Why don’t they do that? Shia scholars such as Sistani and Shirazi not only condemn the killings, they also send help to Yazidis, Christians and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.”
The Director of Syria Rights Watch is not optimistic about the future. “The future of the Shia is like its past. The Shia willed be killed as long as they exist.” But he also says: “The only solution is to awaken the Sunni population, show them that they don’t have to be afraid of Shia and that they can be good neighbours.”
Despite everything, self-confidence among Shiites is increasing, according to Akhwand: “In the past, Shia Muslims feared prosecution, so they never declared that they are Shia Muslims. But now with more attention for their cause in the media, from human right groups and even the United Nations, more Shia are coming forward, which is why you see the population of Shia increasing (for example, in Egypt).” He adds: “Shia are not silent anymore. We are finding ways to raise our voices and take our rights peacefully.”