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Islam and Sectarianism ( 9 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Trying For a Sectarian Division


By M A Niazi

October 05, 2012    

Away from the debate over whether or not the protests over the blasphemous film were in the right form or not, it is worth keeping in mind that the protests overrode all other issues confronting the Muslims, though those problems are pressing enough. Perhaps, the two most pressing issues were the Arab Spring as it was unfolding in Syria; and the US-Israeli standoff with Iran. The Rohingya problem had still not disappeared though it appeared that the intensity had gone out of the massacres, as in the case of Israeli occupation of Palestine, while the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continued much as before.

However, while those on whom the crisis had actually fallen continued to feel its weight, the blasphemy issue had clearly made other Muslims the need to turn their attention away from them. Indeed, at one level, this shifting of attention itself illustrated how the Muslims took the blasphemy issue seriously. As a matter of fact, they took it seriously enough that even those actually facing the various crises joined in the protests, clearly placing the blasphemy issue ahead of their own.

But that should not distract attention from the fact that the USA, which has a finger in most Muslim pies, and which not only has a strong interest in the oil producing Middle East, but is also drawn in by Israel and its domination of American domestic politics, has been trying to play the sectarian card, both in Syria and because of Iran. While the number of those killed has reached 31,000 in 21 months, in a conflict which has rendered 710,000 people refugees, the narrative being pushed is that of a majority Sunni rebellion against a Shia regime.

While it is true that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, it is also to be noted that the Prime Minister is always a Sunni. However, Assad’s father Hafez, who was President before him, did not owe his position as Air Force Chief to being an Alawi as to being prominent in the Ba’ath Party. However, being an Alawi certainly helped in developing ties with Iran, also in American crosshairs at the moment, but the Sunni-rebellion explanation does not take account of the fact that the regime is repressive.

It should also be noted that Iraq is governed by a Shia-led government, and there, for what it is worth, the Ba’ath Party was a vehicle of Sunni dominance. Iraqi Shias are more influenced by Iran than those in Syria, though it is noteworthy that Iraq had been the Abbasid capital; and back in the 8th century AD, when the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads, whose capital was at Damascus, their support base included the Shias, who were at the time those who had supported Hazrat Ali and Imam Hussain in their struggle with the early Umayyads.

There, however, have been two further influences in the subcontinent. First, conversion was mostly via Iran, which was Shia when the subcontinent’s Muslims mostly converted. Second, the vast majority of rulers, both pre-Mughal and Mughal, belonged to the Hanafi school of thought.

It is no coincidence that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both ruled by followers of the Salafi Ahle Hadith School, are accounted the greatest enemies of the Syrian regime. There is the sectarian dislike of Iran to motivate them, to which is added the Arab dislike of Persians. However, the sectarian issue is not some kind of identity marker, because Saudi Arabia has a rivalry with Iran that is rooted in oil.

Though there can be no denying the Shia-Sunni tension within Islam, it also remains less intense than the Catholic-Protestant equivalent within Western Christianity. However, it has been used in Syria as a kind of lever by the West. One prime example is Lebanon, which was part of Syria until the 19th century, and which has a Christian majority. The French got it through a League of Nations mandate after World War I. The distribution of power is confessional: the President is always Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker a Shia. There has been a rough equivalence in Syria under the Assads, but one effect of this closeness has been that the Arab Spring in Lebanon has looked much like in Syria, with the Shia Hezbollah militia taking a pro-Assad position.

Like Lebanon, Syria does not just have the sectarian Shia-Sunni divide; it also has the communal Muslim-Christian divide. There has been much concern expressed in the West about the potential harm to the Shias and Christians in Syria, even though those actually dying now are Sunnis.

There has been an attempt to worsen sectarian divisions, notably in Pakistan, especially in Quetta, where the Taliban’s Mullah Omar is supposed to be headquartered, and where there has been a campaign against Hazaras, with many killed in the fresh wave of violence. That the violence serves American ends as it prepares to go after Iran raises questions about those doing the killing. These questions extend to the attack in Karachi, which targeted a minority with a minority Shia group. It was the first time there had been an attempt to involve them, and because they are more heterodox, targeting them would be easier than to target Isna Ashari Shias, who are much more common in Pakistan.

Israel has apparently committed not to attack Iran till after the US presidential election. A war against Iran would be immensely unpopular in the USA, as would any commitment to a war against a Muslim country, specifically Syria. However, the US would probably be obliged to follow suit if Israel attacked – probably, an attack on its nuclear facilities like with Iraq’s. However, the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactors did not spark a war of any kind, though it may well have presaged the Gulf wars, with the WMDs supposedly then destroyed used along with al-Qaeda as an excuse for an attack.

Mixed in with the uncertainty about Israeli intentions is also the realisation that Israel is looming large in the American political process, what with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s not-so-hidden support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is seen as more sympathetic to Israel than incumbent Barack Obama. One of the US preferences for such an attack would be to prevent the outbreak of Muslim sentiment against it, which could be most easily achieved if Iran was presented as ‘other’.

M A Niazi is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of The Nation.