By Lee Keath
June 27, 2013
It is not hard to find stereotypes, caricatures and outright bigotry when talk in the Middle East turns to the tensions between Islam’s two main sects. Shiites are described as devious, power-hungry corruptors of Islam. Sunnis are called extremist, intolerant oppressors.
Hatreds between the two are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria’s civil war. Last Sunday, officials said four Shiites in a village west of Cairo were beaten to death by Sunnis in a sectarian clash unusual for Egypt.
Hard-line clerics and politicians on both sides in the region have added fuel, depicting the fight as essentially a war of survival for their sect.
But among the public, views are complex. Some sincerely see the other side as wrong — whether on matters of faith or politics. Others see the divisions as purely political, created for cynical aims. Even some who view the other sect negatively fear sectarian flames are burning dangerously out of control. There are those who wish for a return to the days, only a decade or two ago, when the differences did not seem so important and the sects got along better, even intermarried.
And some are simply frustrated that there is so much turmoil over a dispute that dates back to the death of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in the 7th century.
“Fourteen centuries after the death of the prophet, in a region full of destruction, killing, occupation, ignorance and disease, you are telling me about Sunnis and Shiites?” scoffs Esmail Al Hamami, a 67-year-old Sunni Palestinian refugee in Gaza. “We are all Muslims. ... You can’t ignore the fact that (Shiites) are Muslims.” Struggling with anger that is increasingly curdling into hatred, Shiites and Sunnis across the region offer a variety of viewpoints.
The Sunni-Shiite split is rooted in the question of who should succeed Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in leading Muslims after his death in 632. Shiites say the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was his rightful successor but was cheated when authority went to those the Sunnis call the four “Rightfully Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and, finally, Ali.
Sunnis are the majority across the Islamic world. In the Middle East, Shiites have strong majorities in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain with significant communities in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other parts of the Gulf. Both consider the Quran the word of God. But there are distinctions in theology and religious practice between the two sects.
Some are minor: Shiites pray with their hands by their sides, Sunnis with their hands crossed at their chest or stomach. Others are significant. Shiites, for example, believe Ali and a string of his descendants, the Imams, had not only rightful political authority after Mohammad but also held a special religious wisdom. Most Shiites believe there were 12 Imams — many of them “martyred” by Sunnis — and the 12th vanished, to one day return and restore justice. Sunnis accuse the Shiites of elevating Ali to the level of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) himself — incorrectly, since Shiites agree that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was the last of the prophets, a central tenet of Islam.
The bitter disputes of early Islam still resonate. Even secular-minded Shiite parents would never name their child after the resented Abu Bakr, Omar or Othman — or Aisha, a wife of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), who helped raise a revolt against Ali during his Caliphate. When outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt earlier this year, the shaikh of Al Azhar, the bastion of Sunni theology, told him sharply that if the sects are to get along, Shiites must stop “insulting” the “companions of the Prophet [PBUH]”.
But only the most hard-core would say those differences are reason enough to hate each other. For that, politics is needed.
Iraq: ‘There Is No Magical Solution’
If Syria’s war has raised the region’s sectarian hatreds, the war in Iraq played a big role in unleashing them. After the United States-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussain in 2003, the long-oppressed Shiite majority there saw a chance to take power. Sunnis feared the repression would flip on to them. The result was vicious sectarian fighting that lasted until 2008: Sunni extremists pulled Shiite pilgrims from buses and gunned them down. Shiite militiamen kidnapped Sunnis, dumping their tortured bodies later.
Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jaber, 56, is a Sunni cleric who occasionally preaches at the prominent Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni-dominated Azamiyah neighbourhood of Baghdad. Two of his sons were killed by Shiite militiamen. He blames the United States and Iran for Iraq’s strife.
“Right from the beginning, the Americans were trying to create sectarian rifts,” he said. “Iran is a country of regional ambitions. It isn’t a Shiite country. It’s a country with specific schemes and agendas.” Now he fears the strife is returning, and he blames the Shiite-dominated government. “We feel the government does not consider us part of the Iraqi nation,” he said. “There is no magical solution for this. If the Shiites are convinced to change their politicians, that would be a big help.”
Ahmad Saleh Ahmad, 40, a Sunni, runs a construction company in Baghdad mainly employing Shiites. He is married to a Shiite woman. They live in the Azamiyah neighbourhood and raise their two daughters and son as Sunnis.
Still, his wife prays with the small clay stone that Shiites — but not Sunnis — set in front of their prayer rugs. She often visits a Shiite shrine in another Baghdad district. Ahmad sometimes helps his wife’s family prepare food for Shiite pilgrims during religious ceremonies. But he admits that there sometimes is tension between the families.
“We were able to contain it and solve it in a civilised way,” Ahmad said.
Iraqis like to talk politics, he said, and “when things get heated, we tend to change the subject”.
When their children ask about sectarian differences, “we do our best to make these ideas as clear as we can for them so they don’t get confused”, he said. “We try to avoid discussing sectarian issues in front of the children.”
Ahmad believes sectarian tensions have been strained because people have abused the democratic ideas emerging from the Arab Spring.
Democracy “needs open-mindedness, forgiveness and an ability to understand the other”, he said. “No human being is born believing in democracy. It’s like going to school — you have to study first. Democracy should be for people who want to do good things, not for those who are out for revenge.”
Hussain Al Rubaie, 46, a Shiite, was jailed for two years under Saddam. His Shiite-majority Sadriya district in Baghdad saw considerable bloodshed during the worst of the strife, and he fears it is returning. “The whole region is in flames and we are all about to be burnt,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are ignorant and easily driven by sectarian feelings.”
He sees it among his friends, who include Sunnis. “My friends’ only whisper about sectarian things because they think it is a shame to talk about such matters,” Al Rubaie said, “but I am afraid that the day might come when this soft-talking would turn to fighting in the street.”
Lebanon: ‘Ignorance Feeds Hatred’
Among some of Lebanon’s Shiites, it is fashionable to wear a necklace with a medallion in the shape of the fabled double-bladed sword of Ali. It is a mark of community pride at a time when the Shiite group Hezbollah says the sect is endangered by Sunni extremists in the Syrian uprising.
During Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the main fight was between Christians and Muslims. But in the past decade, the most dangerous divide has been between Shiites and Sunnis.
For much of Lebanon’s existence, Shiites, who make up about a third of the population, were an impoverished underclass beneath the Christians and Sunnis, each roughly a third also. The Shiite resentment helped the rise of the militant force Hezbollah, on whose might the community won greater power. Now, many Sunnis resent Hezbollah’s political domination of the government. The 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni, increased Sunni anger after Hezbollah members were blamed. Since then, both sides have clashed in the streets.
Syria’s civil war has fuelled those tensions. Lebanon’s Sunnis largely back the mainly Sunni rebellion, while Shiites support President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which is dominated by his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. Hezbollah sent fighters to help Assad fight the rebels, enraging Sunnis region wide.
Rania, 51, is a Shiite Lebanese banking executive, married to a Sunni and living in Ras Beirut, one of the capital’s few mixed neighbourhoods.
When she married, at age 22, “I didn’t even know what the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is.” Now she is inclined to support Hezbollah. While not a fan of the hardline group, she believes that Hezbollah and Syria are targeted because of their stances against Israel. She said her husband is anti-Hezbollah and supports Syria’s rebels.
Rania, who gave only her first name because she doesn’t want to be stigmatised about her social, religious or marital status, said she doesn’t talk politics with her husband to avoid arguments.
“I support one (political) side and he supports the other, but we’ve found a way to live with it,” added Rania, who has a 22-year-old daughter.
She said education plays a big role. “I find that the people who make comments about it are the people who are just ignorant, and ignorance feeds hatred and stereotyping,” she added.
Khalid Challah is a 28-year-old Syrian Sunni businessman who has lived for years in Lebanon. He comes from a conservative, religious family but only occasionally goes to mosque. He said the only way he would be able to tell the difference between a Sunni mosque and a Shiite one would be if the cleric talked about Syria in the sermon.
“A Shiite imam would speak against the rebels, and call to resist them, and a Sunni shaikh would talk against the government in Syria,” he said.
He said he still doesn’t understand the Shiites’ emotional fervour over the battle of Karbala, in which Ali’s son, Hussain, was killed by the armies of the Sunni Ummayad dynasty in the 7th century. Hussain’s martyrdom is a defining trauma of their faith, deepening their feeling of oppression. Every year, Shiites around the world mark the battle with processions that turn into festivals of mourning, with men flagellating themselves.
“It means much more to Shiites, this battle’s memory, than to Sunnis,” Challah said. He said Sunnis “behave sometimes like they are the only Muslims”.
Challah called this “very silly. Sunnis and Shiites come from the same root, they worship the same God.”
Iran: ‘The Top of Their Agenda’
The Shiite powerhouse of the Middle East is home to a government led by Shiite clerics with oil wealth and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Tehran has extended its influence in the Arab world, mainly through its alliance with Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Iran has presented that alliance not as sectarian but as the centre of “resistance” against Israel.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies have been trying to stem Iran’s influence, in part by warning of the spread of Shiism. Saudi Arabia’s hard-line Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam views Shiism as heresy.
Reza Tajabadi, a Shiite cleric in Tehran, blames the Wahhabis — and the related ultraconservative Salafi movement in Sunni Islam — for stoking sectarian hatred. “If Wahabis withdrew from creating differences, then Shiites and Sunnis will be able to put aside their minor differences, which are not considerable.”
Abofatah Davati, another Shiite cleric, points to the historical difference between the two sects. Since Sunnis have been dominant through history, Sunni clerics became subordinate to the rulers. The Shiite clergy, he said, has been independent of power. “Sunni clerics backed rulers and justified their policies, such as the killing of Imam Hussain. Even now, they put their rulers’ decision at the top of their agenda,” he said. “In contrast, Shiites have not depended on government, so Sunnis cannot tolerate this and issue religious edicts against them. This increases rifts.”
Egypt: ‘People Are Always Surprised’
In a country where the Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni, many Egyptians know little about Shiites. The Shiite population is tiny and largely hidden — so secretive that its numbers are not really known. But ultraconservative Salafis, many of whom view Shiites as infidels, have become more politically powerful and more vocal since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They often preach against Shiism, warning it will spread to Egypt.
Mona Mohammad Fouad is a rarity in Egypt: Her mother is an Iranian Shiite, her father an Egyptian Sunni. She considers herself Sunni.
“People are always surprised and shocked” when they find out her mother is Shiite, said Fouad, 23, who works for a digital marketing company. “But usually as soon as they know, they are very interested and they ask me many questions.”
Fouad said her sister has heard work colleagues criticising Shiites. In her fiance’s office they distributed leaflets “telling people to beware of Shiite indoctrination”, she added.
“People should read about Shiism. We make fun of foreigners who believe all Muslims are terrorists and we say they are ignorant, but we do the same thing to ourselves,” Fouad said. “There is a difference in interpretation, a difference in opinion, but at the end of the day, we believe in the same things.”
She told her Sunni fiancé from the start that her mother is Shiite. “I told him to tell his family, so if they have any problem with that, we end it immediately.”
Anas Aqeel, a 23-year-old Salafi, spent the first 18 years of his life in Saudi Arabia, where he would sometimes encounter Shiites. “We didn’t ever argue over faith. But they alienated me,” he said.
“I once saw a Shiite in Saudi Arabia speaking ill of one of the companions of the Prophet [PBUH] near his tomb. That one I had to clash with and expel him from the place,” Aqeel said.
He worries about Shiites spreading their faith. While he said not all Shiites are alike, he added that “some of them deviate in the Quran and speak badly of the Prophet’s [PBUH] companions. If someone is wrong and ... he insists on his wrong concept, then we cannot call him a Muslim.”
Palestinian Territories: ‘A Religious Conflict’
Palestinian Muslims are also almost all Sunnis. Their main connection to the Shiite world is Hamas’s alliance with Iran. But those ties were strained when Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, broke its connections with Syria because of the civil war.
Ahmad Mesleh, a 28-year-old blogger from the West Bank town of Ramallah, says he met Shiites on a trip to Lebanon and encounters them via Facebook. But some have de-friended him because of his online comments.
“If we take Shiites from a religious point of view, then we can describe Shiites as a sect that has gone astray from the true doctrine of Islam. I consider them a bigger threat to Muslims and Islam than Jews and Israel,” Mesleh said. He cited the Shiites’ processions mourning Hussain’s death, saying: “The way they whip themselves, it’s irrational.”
The Middle East conflict “is in its core a religious conflict. The Shiites want to destroy Islam. In Lebanon, they are the ones controlling the situation, and the ones who are causing the sectarian conflict.”
Esmail Al Hamami, the Palestinian refugee, who lives in Gaza’s Shati camp, said politics not religion is driving sectarian tensions.
“In Gaza, Iran used to support the resistance with weapons. Now they support Al Assad. ... In Iraq, they (Shiites) executed Saddam Hussain, who was a Sunni, and they took over the country with the help of the Americans. Now they are working against America in Iran and Syria.”
“So is that related to religion? It’s all about politics.”
The beneficiaries of sectarianism, he said, are “those who want to sell arms to both sides ... those who want to keep Arab and Muslim countries living in the dark. The beneficiaries are the occupation (Israel) and the people who sell us religious slogans.”
“God knows who is right or wrong.”
AP correspondents Adam Schreck and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Barbara Surk and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Tony G. Gabriel and Mariam Rizk in Cairo and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.