Ashura is a very important religious festival for the Shia's in Iraq. A few days ago, at its climax, a suicide bomber killed 19 people. The sectarian attacks going on in Iraq need to be assessed properly so as to understand the impact they are going to play in intra-Muslim relations across the region. Like the Catholics and Protestants before them, these ongoing wars of religion threaten to burn down the Middle East, unless, like their Christian counterparts, they come to some sort of lasting peace agreement. A recent three day conference held in Doha, Qatar, 'Conference for Dialogue among Islamic School of Thoughts’ to address the growing divide between the Sunni and Shia, only served to highlight their differences that have grown due to the lethal mix of religion and politics in the region.
The majority of the world's Muslims are Sunni, only about 10-15 per cent of the 1.6 billion are Shia. However, most of the Shia are centered in the Middle East itself – you won't find any in Indonesia, Nigeria or Senegal – and this makes numbers in the ME fairly balanced between the two sects. They are a majority in Iran and Iraq, and historically, outside of Iran they have always been treated as a minority, whatever their numbers have been. One must also remember that Iran is the only non- Arab state in the region, while pre-dominantly Shia in terms of religion, its people are Persian.
Now, when it comes to Iraq, the Sunni's were in control under Saddam Hussein, although they were a minority. With its recent conversion to democracy, the Shia have emerged as winners. However, sectarian violence has not made this readjustment easy. Perhaps the Shia did not expect the ferocity of Sunni resistance to this transfer of power. However, if carried forward through voting and public participation, Iraq could be a model for how the relationship between the Sunni's and Shia should develop -- it could be the first Shia Arab country.
However, nothing is as simple as it seems. Powers around Iraq have vested interested in who maintains the balance of power. Take for instance the two big players – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran most certainly wants the Shia to regain control because it would like another Shia ally in the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would want the Sunni's to retain control (because, among other factors, they are Sunni, and have always kept their Shia minority in check, and, moreover, they would not want to come up against a united Iran-Iraq). In fact, reportedly, the King of Saudi Arabia told Dick Cheney that if the US does pull out of Iraq, then Saudi Arabia is going to back the Sunni's in Iraq.
Daggers have been drawn for a while. When, recently, a top Saudi cleric issued a fatwa against 'the rejectionists' (the Shia) calling them the Islamic nation's worst sect, two things happened. One, that it was an indication that tensions are in fact on the rise. The other that no one followed this statement up with a denouncement (except for obligatory eyebrow raising in the Western media) is very indicative of the acceptance of where this conflict is headed.
Further, proxy wars in the region do not help matters either. In Palestine, Shia are a negligible number. In the country, the two political groups, Hamas and Fateh (both Sunni) came together to make a democratic government work. But progress dissolved into violence. One of the reasons is that Hamas is been increasingly being viewed as a tool of Iran (and therefore Shia in character.
Again, when the Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers in the summer, catapulting Israel and Lebanon into a devastating war, similar accusations were made. In fact, a former secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheik Subhi al-Tufeili, has gone on record to criticise the organisation as a tool for Iran.
The Sunni- Shia question becomes even more complex. Arab arguments about Lebanon today center more on regime conflict than Sunni- Shia. And Middle East commentators believe that despite the conflict between them in Iraq, it appears that the appeal of the Shia Hezbollah movement is increasing. Al-Jazeera, described as a Sunni channel, has been sympathetic to the Shia.
But is there a real threat by the Shia to the Sunni world? Iran's actions (and proxy wars) certainly indicate that the gap is very wide. But Arab commentators have also begun linking anti- Shia sentiments to American foreign policy. Is it true that mainly pro-American 'moderate' Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have driven this trend? American position refutes this saying their concern is Iran, not the Shia.
But the hanging of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator in a Shia state, changed the dynamic again. Should the Shia have been able to come into power democratically? Hussein's dying curse of Iran certainly did not help matters. States are moving along sectarian lines, and not state lines. And if there is a 30 years war between the Sunnis and Shia in the making (or perhaps underway), then suggestions that like the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the strife between the Catholics and Protestants, the Middle East also needs to be reintroduced to the concept of being sovereign nations and a modern international system are apt. Otherwise, like crabs, they will keep pulling each other down.