WORLD

RISE OF THE SHIAS

Sunnis worry that their old adversaries are gaining the upper hand

MICHAEL PETROU October 9 2006
WORLD

RISE OF THE SHIAS

Sunnis worry that their old adversaries are gaining the upper hand

MICHAEL PETROU October 9 2006

RISE OF THE SHIAS

Sunnis worry that their old adversaries are gaining the upper hand

WORLD

MICHAEL PETROU

Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago, a dispute arose among his followers over who should succeed him. The majority of Muslims believed that his successor should be appointed by elders from within the new Islamic community, following the pre-Islamic traditions of the desert. This group became known as Sunnis, from the Arabic word sunna, meaning tradition. But a minority believed that the Prophet’s successors should come from his own family, and so they supported the leadership of his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. This group became known as Shias, meaning partisans of Ali.

The two groups faced each other in battle in 680 at Karbala, about 100 km from Baghdad, and the Shias were defeated. Since then,

Sunnis and Shias have frequently opposed each other—often with violence. And until recently it was almost always the Sunnis who held the upper hand. “Sunni Islam is the doctrine of power and achievement,” the British author Edward Mortimer wrote. “Shi’ism is the doctrine of opposition. The starting point of Shi’ism is the defeat of Ali and his house.” Mortimer argued that Shia Islam has therefore appealed to underdogs, to the defeated and the oppressed.

Reza Aslan, a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, has described historic Shia Islam as “essentially the protest movement within the Islamic world.” And Sayyid Muhammad Reda al-Ghurayfi, the overseer of Ali’s shrine in Najaf, Iraq, has said, “The Shia of Imam Ali are born to suffering. We have to be in a constant state of agitation. This agitation has made us what we are. We are born oppositionists.” For much of the history of Islam, this was usually the case. Some 85 to

90 per cent ofMuslims are Sunnis, and Sunni Islam was dominant almost everywhere in the Islamic world, with the most notable exception of Iran.

In the last few years, however, a dramatic shift has been underway. Most importantly, democracy has given the long-suppressed Iraqi Shias control of their country. Shias in nearby states have taken notice, and in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections last year, the turnout in Shia-dominated regions was twice as high as elsewhere. The Iranian regime, heir to a Shia Islamic revolution, is now almost certain to survive the Bush administration unscathed, and is consequently flexing its muscles and extending its reach into Iraq and Lebanon. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah, a Shia militia armed and funded by Iran, has stood its ground against Israel, thereby earning acclaim throughout the Islamic world.

The real power shift began, however, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The United States must have anticipated

that bringing democracy to Iraq would empower Shias in the country. But the hope was that a democracy in Iraq, built on a Shia majority, would marginalize dictatorial Iran next door, and might embolden democrats in the country. Instead, Iran, freed from the threat of Saddam Hussein, simply deepened its networks in Iraq.

It is a development that is breeding anxiety among Sunni Arab leaders in the region. Last year, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of a Shia “crescent” stretching from Tehran to Beirut that could destabilize the entire Middle East. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went further this April by implying that Shias were potential fifth columnists for Iran. “Shias are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live,” he said. When this latest conflict between Hezbollah and Israel erupted, both the Saudi cabinet and King Abdullah initially criticized Hezbollah for starting it—a significant move, given that the majority of their citizens will side with Israel’s opponent in any given war.

According to Hugh Roberts, a Cairo-based project director for the International Crisis Group think tank, Sunni Arab leaders are right to be worried by the support that Hezbollah is generating among their own Sunni citizens. “The Arab identity is vibrating at street level in enthusiastic response to the perception of Hezbollah having done very well,” he says. “From their point of view, this is a threatening development: a revival of panArab enthusiasm at a popular level that is being spearheaded by Shia-based movements. That underlines their loss of influence or purchase on popular Arab reflexes, even amongst Sunni Arabs.”

The fear of the Sunni political class in states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan is not that their people will convert to Shia Islam. The power play in question is much more earthly than divine. Sunni rulers simply realize that the more enthralled their populations become with Shia-based opposition to Israel and the United States, the more their own passivity is exposed, and their hold on power weakens.

But what of Mubarak’s claim that Shias are Iranian stooges, more loyal to Iran than to their own countries? This accusation, according to Joost Hiltermann, an International Crisis Group project director in Amman, “was both stupid and wrong.” He says that Mubarak, and King Abdullah in Jordan and the Saudi royal family, fear Iran’s growing strength and are trying to conflate that threat with resurgent Shia Islam elsewhere. But the problem with Mubarak’s warning, many analysts say, is that there is no such thing as a united Shia

community that stretches across the Middle East. Ethnic, national and local politics often trump religious loyalty. Some Shias outside Iran may look to the country with some admiration because it is one of the few places in the world where Shias have not been suppressed. “But this doesn’t mean they are in the service of Iran,” says Saeed Rahnema, a political scientist and Middle East specialist at York University who grew up in Iran.

In Iraq, frequently described as the crucible of Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East, Baghdad is dividing sharply along sectarian lines. But the two most powerful Shia militias—the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army—are not united. “The moment civil war becomes full-blown, it will pit these Shia groups against each other,” says Hiltermann. “Civil war in Iraq will not be a simple SunniShia deal. It will be total disintegration.”

Still, the fact that Shias in the Middle East

THE SHIA ARE BORN TO SUFFERING. WE HAVE TO BE IN A CONSTANT STATE OF AGITATION.’

are not all allied together or controlled by Iran does not change the fact that they are becoming more powerful, assertive and influential. Vali Nasr, whose recently published book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, is causing a stir amongst academics and analysts, says the rise of the Shias and a resulting Sunni backlash could grow into a region-wide sectarian conflict. This is, arguably, too pessimistic. What is undeniable, however, is that the foundations of power that controlled the Middle East for centuries are shifting. Shia Islam, the religion of opposition, protest and defeat, is poised to play a much more dominant role in the region’s future. M