By Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi
19 February 2014
This region faces a dark and bloody future if nations continue to allow themselves to slip into sectarian warfare. There are no winners from this type of conflict. It inflicts severe harm even on those who instigate it.
Divisions occur when groups of people eschew loyalty to their country’s laws and instead adopt dogmatic religious or ideological beliefs. Opportunistic politicians are the main culprits here because they manipulate people using religious rhetoric for their own dubious ends.
The great danger of this is that it can ignite conflict that lasts for generations. Under these circumstances, people tend to focus on petty issues, to the detriment of social and economic development.
Lessons from Past Sectarian Wars
This is the risk posed by the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Islamic world today. Religious extremists have exploited social media platforms to spread their divisive messages far and wide. There is no danger of being labelled a conspiracy theorist by acknowledging that some parties are benefiting from religious wars in the Arab world.
Saying this, however, does not excuse us from the responsibility to fight prejudice.
“Sectarian wars are the easiest way to divide states,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser. The quickest and most effective way to break up regimes, states and nations, according to Brzezinski, is deepening communal, sectarian and ethnic wars by empowering one sect over others.
This is exactly what ails the Arab world now, and it predicts a dark future.
History has cogent examples of the destruction caused by sectarian conflict.
In the Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and Protestants from 1618 to 1648 in Europe, Germany lost half of its male population, and a third of the country was destroyed, apart from the devastation of entire regions on the continent.
Today Europe is different. It is almost impossible to still hear about fights between Catholics and Protestants. One’s personal right to belong to a sect is still preserved, but in a way that doesn’t allow for any divisions. Europe, having learned from past mistakes, ensured that this did not happen again.
The Middle East has not benefitted from its history. In fact, we are now recreating conflicts that have occurred in the past.
An Unfounded Struggle
In earlier days, people were not really questioned about whether they were Sunni or Shiite. The origins of the Sunni-Shiite conflict are not even ideological. It was a political fight over the caliphate and could have been left at that.
Some people point fingers at Abdullah bin Saba for allegedly trying to keep the conflict going.
But there are many people who, often unintentionally, play the role of instigator. Many leading scholars and leaders have fallen into this trap, motivated by emotions or their own views on how to protect their religion.
It is very strange that we refuse to learn from history. The Sunni-Shiite divide is not new. The Ottoman-Safavid War of 1532 to 1555 in Iran remains a black mark on Islamic history because it cemented these divisions.
Today, in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, sectarianism has again reared its beastly head. And quite alarmingly, it has become a staple part of the speeches and slogans of politicians and activists.
Intolerance fuel battles in the region. Iraq is now such a dark place that no one really knows if it is ever going to see peace again. There are question marks over the future of Syria and Lebanon, countries that are paying a high price for their political and religious divisions.
Yemen faces challenges from the Houthis and is on the verge of breaking down and Bahrain fights external players inciting internal conflicts.
Politicians, intellectuals and journalists need to play their role to counter this cancerous tumor that threatens the very existence of countries in the region. Politicians should stop using religion to divide people and look beyond their narrow interests.
We have to learn from nations that have lost millions of lives to sectarian conflict in its various guises, which includes religious, ethnic, political, class and territorial disputes. The sacrifice will be great if we don’t.
Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is currently the editor-in-chief of Arab News and Sayidaty. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, Al-Harthi later moved on to establish Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose to the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.