Creating people's geographies
Neil Macfarquhar, Damascus | August 5, 2006 | The Age (Melbourne, Aust)
He said he recoiled at the destruction across the border, less than 16 kilometres from his village home. But deeper down, he worries that any Hezbollah triumph would come at the expense of his own Sunni branch of Islam.
“Since the Americans invaded Iraq, we have all become aware of the danger from the Shiites,” said the professor, who asked not to be identified because discussing sectarian rivalry is taboo in authoritarian Syria.
“Ordinary people only think of Hezbollah as fighting against Israeli aggression. But the educated classes think that if Hezbollah controls the region, then the Sunnis will be abused.”
Intensifying Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq has already raised sectarian awareness across the Middle East in ways not experienced since the Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran in 1979. The fighting in Lebanon promises to further increase Sunnis’ unease about Shiites challenging their dominance.
Mushrooming public support for Hezbollah has overshadowed the issue somewhat, with public anger focused on Israel for the civilian deaths and destruction. Yet sectarian disquiet persists in whispered conversations, on websites, in the corridors of government and in mosques.
Governments such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan use “Shiite” as a euphemism for Iran’s waxing influence; the religious put more emphasis on doctrinal differences.
Zabadani, a Syrian resort in the mountains facing Lebanon, fills with Gulf Arabs each summer. Many interviewed along the main street said they supported Hezbollah in its fight with Israel, but some made their distaste for Shiites clear.
“They think they will be the leaders of all Muslims, and I don’t want that,” a 45-year-old high school maths teacher from Riyadh said. “Hezbollah is Iranian; everyone knows that.”
He described some of the rituals Shiites perform, including beating and cutting themselves during the Ashura festival. “This is wrong! I don’t want to see all this blood.”
The Sunni-Shiite rivalry dates back almost 1400 years, to Islam’s earliest decades. After the prophet Muhammad died, the group that became the Shiites backed his son-in-law, Ali, as his rightful heir. Shiite means partisan, as in partisans of Ali. Ali and his sons died in a series of battles lost to the caliph.
Shiites make up about 15 per cent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. There is little difference between Sunnis and Shiites in basic rituals such as prayer and fasting, but Shiites have a more hierarchical system. Fundamentalist Sunnis label some Shiite practices as blasphemy.
Since the beginning of this outbreak of violence, extremist Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda have tried to portray their struggle as parallel with Hezbollah’s, as a fight against Zionism and the sinful West. But the late al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued long screeds that labelled all Shiites heretics deserving death. Even mainstream Sunni leaders such as King Abdullah of Jordan spoke darkly of a “Shiite crescent” emerging from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Syria has long adhered to a secular, pan-Arabist viewpoint. Here, even in official news reports about Iraq’s sectarian fighting, a bombed mosque is not identified as Shiite or Sunni.
But recently Sheik Mohammed al-Bouti, a populist imam, was allowed to address the differences.
The Sunni cleric interrupted his usual televised Koran lesson to describe the whispered fears he was hearing that a Hezbollah victory would expand the “Shiitisation” of the Arab world.
“Oh, my followers.” he said. “This is wrong. This is what Israel wants. These sectarian differences will only lead to strife.”
NEW YORK TIMES
■ Tensions that led to the split between Sunnis and Shiites first emerged during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad and after his death in AD632.
■ Sunnis believed any senior figure in the Muslim community could become caliph (Muhammad’s temporal and spiritual successor).
■ Shiites believed the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali bin Abi Talib, (600-661) and his descendants had a special place as successors to the prophet, or imams.
■ Sunnis form 85 per cent of the Muslim population, and Shiites most of the remaining 15 per cent. Shiites are a majority in Azerbaijan, Iran and Bahrain.