Shi'ites and Sunnis find common cause
By Jeffrey Donovan
From Gaza to Kabul, signs are mounting that the age-old feud between Sunni and
Shi'ite Islam is easing, despite violence yet again marring Ashura, the holiest
Shi'ite holiday that culminates this week in the Iraqi city of Karbala.
In Baghdad on January 4, a female suicide bomber killed 35 people near a key
Shi'ite shrine during the run-up to Ashura. No one has claimed responsibility,
but speculation has invariably pointed to Sunni terrorists, among other
Sunni attacks, after all, have long been a common feature of Ashura, which
commemorates the martyrdom in AD 680 of Imam Hussein and his followers in a
battle that sealed Islam's split
between Shi'ites loyal to Hussein, Prophet Mohammad's grandson, and the Sunni
But as Shi'ites by the hundreds of thousands poured into Karbala - beating
their chests and flogging their backs with chains to recall Hussein's ordeal -
the political divide between Islam's main branches has narrowed. At the heart
of the change, analysts say, is Shi'ite Iran, which has backed Sunni militants
like Hamas and become the recognized champion in the Muslim world for the
Palestinians, at a time when the interests of "moderate" Sunni states like
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are perceived to be more in line with those of Israel
and the United States.
Just two years ago, experts such as Tufts University's Vali Nasr speculated
that the chaos in Iraq might lead to a Shi'ite-Sunni conflagration across the
region. But history has taken a very different turn, says Mai Yamani, a
London-based, Saudi-born anthropologist and analyst.
"A very interesting change has taken place, especially after this Gaza
conflict: that is, the alliance of all the Islamists, be they Shi'ite or Sunni,
against the so-called moderate Arab regimes, who are the allies of the US,"
The Gaza conflict, in which Israel is fighting Iranian-backed Hamas, a Sunni
Palestinian Islamist group, highlights this new alliance, the seeds of which
were sown by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, analysts say. That revolt's
ecumenical vision for Islamism was heard in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's
famous slogan, "Neither East nor West, But Islam!" That call to arms is now led
by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
While Tehran's hopes of leading all Islamic radicals regardless of sect dimmed
during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Shi'ite-dominated Iran has enjoyed a new lease
on life in the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. Shi'ites control the government
in Iraq. And Ahmadinejad has used that favorable hand of cards to up the ante
across the region, helping to empower Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as
In 2005, Ahmadinejad shocked the West when he said Israel should be "wiped off
the map". But in the Muslim world, such populism worked from the Iranian
leader's perspective. "If the Palestinian cause is the beating heart of the
Middle East and of Muslim Arabs," says Saudi author Yamani, "then the Iranians
[have now replaced] Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Arab regimes as its
As Sunni Hamas takes on the Israeli army, its Shi'ite Iranian backers
invariably soak up praise from Muslims everywhere - even as Tehran's clerical
regime remains deeply unpopular in many quarters. Syrians protested Israel's
Gaza ground offensive in Damascus on January 5.
The same goes for Hezbollah. The Shi'ite movement was lionized by Muslims of
all stripes after standing up to Israel in their 2006 war. Iran, in turn,
basked in the afterglow of the group's achievement. Tehran stands to gain in
similar fashion, analysts say, if Hamas emerges with its own "perceived
victory" from the Gaza conflict.
Yossi Mekelberg, a London-based Israeli analyst, says Iran has made itself
leader of the radical Islamic camp, regardless of sect. "It's between those who
support radical Islam; those who don't like or resent the involvement of the
West or external forces, who want Islamic fundamentalism and sharia within the
region; and those who want something else or just dictatorship, like Egypt or
Libya or to an extent Jordan. That's more the fault line."
But the Gaza events also suggest that Iran's most militant supporters extend
beyond Hamas. Last week, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, head of the Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, told the Kuwaiti daily al-Nahar
that he supported the cause of the Iranian Shi'ites in the Middle East. He also
said Iran had a right to develop nuclear weapons.
Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all oppose Iran's alleged drives for the atomic
bomb and regional influence. They also oppose Iran's client, Hamas, and face
their own terrorist threats. When Hamas drove rival Fatah from Gaza in 2006,
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak famously quipped, "Egypt now shares a border
But the Gaza conflict has embarrassed Sunni leaders, who ironically find
themselves on "the wrong side" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Islamists slammed Mubarak for meeting in Cairo with Israeli Foreign Minister
Tzipi Livni two days before the Gaza conflict erupted. After Mubarak was quoted
by Israeli daily Ha'aretz as telling visiting European envoys Israel must
defeat Hamas a statement Egypt denied he made - the Muslim Brotherhood's Akef
accused him of planning the invasion with Tel Aviv and Washington. Hezbollah
leader Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, openly branded Mubarak an "Israeli
Arab League chief Amr Musa has called reports of Arab government support for
Israel "disinformation". But the Sunni regimes, already facing domestic
turmoil, are squarely on the defensive, analyst Yamani says: "The people today
we see it from the demonstrations, very visible continuously on al-Jazeera and
other satellite channels - see no difference any more between a Shi'ite
Hezbollah, a Sunni Hamas, or a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. All the people are
demonstrating against the occupiers and against the moderate [Arab] rulers who
look ineffective; in fact, they are asking them to do something or to get out."
Stopping 'the spread'
Of course, as Shi'ites celebrate Ashura, their centuries-old tensions with
Sunnis are not simply going to disappear. Among others, the influential Sheikh
Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, a spiritual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and
host of a popular religion program on satellite television, has spoken out
strongly against "the spread" of Shi'ite and Iranian influence in Sunni
countries. The Egyptian Brotherhood has renounced his statements.
Still, there are other signs of new bridges being built: Radio Free Afghanistan
reports that Kabul's Sunni-led government allowed the "flag of Hussein", which
rests on the Imam's tomb in Karbala, to be flown to Afghan capital for January
7 worship by Shi'ites, who make up between 15 and 20% of the population.
Under the Taliban, Afghan Shi'ites were persecuted, in keeping with the radical
Sunni view best exemplified by the Wahhabis' invasion of Karbala in 1802, when
they slaughtered 2,000 Shi'ite worshipers on Ashura.
Indeed, Osama Bin Laden has also long attacked Shi'ite Islam. In an audiotape
in May 2008, he criticized Nasrallah for not taking his 2006 fight with Israel
to the Palestinian territories and allowing the United Nations to deploy
peacekeepers to Lebanon. He also slammed Iran for trying to "dominate the
That, in theory, puts the al-Qaeda leader in the same camp as Israel, the Sunni
regimes, and the United States - at least with regard to Tehran's bid for
regional power. That's paradoxical - but so is a lot these days as
Persian-flavored populism seeks to chip away at Islam's oldest divide.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this story.)
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