June 22, 2014
By Saeed Qureshi
The mindless blunder of invading Iraq in 2003 by the then American President G. W. Bush is now boomeranging in the form of a renewed civil war between Shias and Sunnis; the two irreconcilable Islamic sects? Excepting Iran and Lebanon, in most of the Islamic countries, Sunnis are a majority sect while Shias are in minority.
Historically since the demise of the founder of Islam prophet Muhammad, these two sects have been at daggers-drawn decimating and killing each other mercilessly. The destruction, sack and plunder by the Mongol army under Hilaku Khan’ command in 1258 was the result of the conflict between a Sunni caliph Al-Mustaasim and his Shia adviser and grand vizier, Ibn al-Alkami.
The entire city of Baghdad, an abode of learning, research and advancement in all branches of knowledge for seven centuries, was razed to the ground and burnt in six weeks with massacre of 1.5 million inhabitants.
Historically, the Shia or the Sunni dynasties alternating in power have been routing each other with rare abandon since they deem each other infidels and out of the pale of Islam or apostates. The Shia-Sunni unbridgeable rivalry has spilled over to many other Muslim countries most notably in Pakistan.
Pakistan is predominantly a Sunni state and Shias have been on the receiving end from the Sunni fanatics by way of target killings their abductions or group massacres. In many instances Shias were caught, beheaded or slain that can be watched in hideous video clips on the YouTube. The Shia caravans of pilgrims going from Pakistan to Iran or to the Arab lands are waylaid and killed en-masse.
Such is the level of ideological rift between these two sects whose most of the beliefs are common barring the question of succession after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Shias believe it was only Hazrat Ali the cousin brother and son of law of the prophet to be the legitimate successor because he was from his bloodline. The Sunnis believe that the four successors were the rightful caliphs as they were elected and were pious and virtuous.
Saudi Arabia is the sacred center for the Sunnis because of several holy places out of which are two most venerated. One is the holy Ka’aba or the house of God in whose direction the Muslims pray. The other is the mosque of the prophet adjoined by the burial place or tomb of Prophet Muhammad.
For Shias too these are sacred and venerated religious places but in addition to those they go to Iran where most of their Imams or the spiritual successors of their religious creed are buried. They are all from the progeny of Hazrat Ali and idolized as spiritual guides because of being from the lineage of the prophet.
Baghdad and Syria have most of the sacred shrines of the Shias. But the rulers here are mostly from the Sunni sect. Any caliph or the head of the Islamic state in these regions would invariably use extreme coercive power to subdue either Sunnis or Shias subjects.
However, these are the Shias who have been mostly suppressed. Like fanatic Sunnis they also believe that embracing martyrdom was pre-destined for them a kind of faith based obligation because most of their spiritual and religious guides were also martyred by their opponents.
The Bush blunder was that after overpowering Taliban Militants in Afghanistan, president Bush and his war mongering aides including his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice president Dick Cheney, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and other Republican neoconservative hawks wanted to replay the same gamble in another Islamic country where an obdurate tyrant Saddam Hussain was ruling that sectarianism infested land for 24 years.
However, in their misplaced brimming propensity to invade Iraq, they lost sight of the historical sectarian divide that resurfaces from time to time in that perennially strife torn country. The American forces occupied Iraq, and later got hanged Saddam through a Shia head of State. Thus a Shia regime has been at the helm in Iraq for over a decade now. But this regime was of the minority sect and not brought about through a veritable democratic process. Maliki has been more a surrogate of the United States than the true and popular head of the government.
Now the “Arab spring” has also its fallout on Iraq. Syria is like Iraq where another minority Alavi Shia regime has been in power for decades. The rebellion against Syrian Bashar al Assad was kept at bay by Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia forces. But while Syria was kept on the life support by her allies one of which is Russia, the regime and country has turned into a wasteland with hundreds of thousands people killed in that horrendous civil war still raging.
While the western and particularly the American support for both these factions has not been even handed, in Saudi Arabia they supported a Sunni regime, in Iraq they were behind a Shia minority dispensation. By supporting Saudis they antagonized Iran and by supporting Malki regime and half way Shia Syrian regime they soured their relationship with Saudi Arabia.
This was an inherent contradiction in the American policy in dealing with these two countries of Saudi Arabia and Iran spearheading two colliding faiths. Their mutual relations have always been dogged by simmering and incessant religious feud and also because of being Arab and non-Arab respectively. This hostility goes back in the history ever since the passing away of the prophet.
Presently the United States is not in a comfortable position to intercede militarily in the fast deteriorating inferno of civil war in the Middle East. The U.S. policy in the Middle East seems to be held up in a closed alley. Of late, America seems to be softening her posture towards Iran for help in case of Iraq or even Syria.
But the surge of the new Jihadist force ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant), consisting of Sunnis, and other Islamic militant groups, the coming days seems to be extremely frightening. If ISIS assails Baghdad their victory might come over the piles of the dead bodies of Shia defenders. Same could be predictable in case of Syria.
We have seen that the military interference and occupation by America and western power of the countries in Far East to stem communism has resulted in physical and conceptual division of those countries. Now Hanoi and Saigon are two centers with communist and capitalist ideologies. North Korea and South Korea too have, irreconcilably, drifted apart. Same bleak and baleful situation could reshape the Middle East.
There are visible signs that Iraq faces the probability of being divided into three independent regions. These could be one for Sunnis, one for Shias and the third for Kurds. How the situation in Syria would emerge can be anybody’s guess.
Yet it could prove to be a blessing in disguise for a durable peace in this volatile region. Confined to their aspired independent geographical units, these warring factions within Iraq and Syria may not remain mutually annihilating and destructive as they have been all along. May be with re-demarcation and division along sectarian or ethnic lines, the peace that has been elusive in these lands for ages descends finally and permanently.