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A Vademecum of Islam: Sunni And Shi’a


There are divisions within the Camp of Islam, both sectarian (Sunnis and Shia) and ethnic (Arabs and non-Arabs) that can and should be exploited by non-Muslims. It is in our interest not to help Muslims avoid conflict, but to keep Muslim peoples preoccupied with internal divisions and permanently off-balance. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years. It used up men, money, materiel, and morale, on both sides. It kept Muslim aggression directed against other Muslims. it ought to have gone on forever.

The main division, stemming from differences in Islamic beliefs, the one with which we are all familiar both because of the Iraq fiasco and the Syrian Civil War, is that between Sunnis and Shi’a. There are sects within sects: the Twelver-Shi’ism accepted in Iran is not the same as the Shi’ism practiced by the Zaidis in northern Yemen. The Sunnis are divided among four schools of jurisprudence. But these differences within Shi’a and Sunni Islam are inconsequential compared to the gulf between Sunnis and Shi’a.

That most important division, between Sunni and Shi’a, began in the first century of Islam as a violent quarrel over the rightful successors to the caliphate, and then metastasized to include other differences in both doctrine and practice. The conflict has waxed and waned; right now it is waxing, especially in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen. And even outside the Middle East the Sunni-Shi’a conflict continues with intermittent savagery. In Afghanistan the Sunnis of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacked the Shi’a Hazara, who were saved only by the arrival of American troops to Afghanistan. Attacks on the Hazara by the Taliban have been renewed in the last few years, as the American troops have been drawn down. In Pakistan, Sunnis prey continually on the Shi’a. There is even a Sunni terror group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, that devotes itself to attacks on Shi’a professionals and mosques.

The Sunnis constitute about 90% of the world’s Muslims. But on the east bank of the Persian Gulf, the two most powerful states, Iran and Iraq, are majority Shi’a. In Iran 90% of the population is Shi’a; in Iraq, 60-65% are Shi’a. There is now war raging in Syria between the Sunnis and Assad’s Alawites, who belong to a syncretistic branch of Shi’a Islam. The Alawites are based by Iran, while the Saudis send aid to the least secular of the Sunni rebel groups. In Iraq, where Sunnis still do not accept their loss of power after Saddam Hussein’s toppling, and where the Shi’a refuse to relinquish any of their newly-acquired power, there have been terror attacks by and against each side. In Yemen, the Saudis have been bombing Houthi (Shi’a) targets, while worrying about unrest among the Shi’a in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

Unsurprisingly, many Sunnis in Iraq blame the sectarian strife there on the American Infidels, and appear to believe that though Saddam was ruthless, he at least kept the country internally at peace. But a moment’s thought would remind us that the “peace” of Saddam Hussein was not a real peace. It was a Ba’athist dictatorship that pretended to be open to all sects and ethnicities, but in truth simply camouflaged a Sunni Arab despotism that remained in power by terrifying the Shi’a, and massacring the Kurds. Iraq’s Ba’athist party disguised, not very conviincingly, a Sunni dictatorship, just as Syria’s Ba’athist party disguised a Shi’a despotism.

In Syria, members of the sect of Alawites, though only 12% of the population, manage to retain power thanks to their monopoly on the officer class in the military. Mainstream Sunni Muslims – who made up 70% of the pre-war population of Syria – regard the Alawites with what is by now unalloyed and murderous hatred. The revolt against the Alawites began nearly three decades ago. It was led by the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, against the rule of Hafez al-Assad and was put down by Assad’s army, that killed tens of thousands of civilians in the city of Hama. The savagery of that suppression bought nearly 30 years of quiet, but the uprising against his son, Bashar Al-Assad, that began in March 2011, has ripped Syria apart, resulted in the deaths of 220,000, and driven 4.5 million people out of the country. It is impossible to imagine Syria ever being put back together again, no matter who might be the ruler. The Alawites cannot allow themselves ever to be ruled by the Sunnis, for they can well imagine what they would do in revenge for all the years of Assad’s atrocities. The Sunnis, on the other hand, will never again let themselves be cowed,as they once were, by an Alawite-run military. One suspects that Syria will remain dissolved, possibly with an Alawite-Christian canton in the west, and a Sunni-ruled canton, to its east, and a Kurdish canton in the northeast.

In Lebanon, the contempt felt by the Sunni merchant class for the lower-class Shi’a has become fear, now that the Shi’a have been outbreeding both the Sunnis and the Lebanese Christians. Once the smallest of the three main groups, the Shi’a have pulled even with the Sunnis. But more importantly, Hezbollah is now more powerful than the Lebanese army, especially with the support it receives from Iran. According to the Lebanese constitution, the President must be a Maronite Christian,the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a. The man selected last year as President, the Maronite Michel Aoun, is a close ally of Hezbollah. Open war between Hezbollah, with its Iranian backing, and the Sunnis, with their Saudi supporters, is now a distinct possibility. For the Lebanese Christians, that’s not necessarily a bad outcome.

The Truth Must be Told

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