Through the cataclysmic violence taking place in Syria, where the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands accused of using chemical weapons against his own people in addition to tanks and aircraft, the age-old split between Sunnis and Shiites is surfacing at a terrible human cost.
As the country’s death toll reaches 100,000, what began as anti-government protests inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has morphed into the sectarian feud that stretches back to Islam’s origins, to an obscure dispute about the Prophet Mohammed’s legacy and the role of his successors. In the latest round of massacres in Syria, at least 30 Shiite Muslims were killed in the village of Hatlah in Deir al-Zour Province. Sunni oppositionists stormed the village and posted a video of themselves setting fire to homes and shouting slogans calling the Shiites dogs, apostates and infidels.
In Syria, a regime dominated by the Shiite-Alawite sect forms a crucial link between its leading sponsor, Iran, where Shiitism is the state religion; Shiite-dominated Iraq, where, as in Iran, Sunni minorities face exclusion and persecution; and al-Assad’s Lebanese allies, the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement, which the US has designated a terrorist organization. However, the feud resonates far beyond Syria or Islam’s Middle Eastern heartlands.
In Egypt, once homeland to the enlightened Shiite Fatimid dynasty (969-1161), the small minority of Shiites are now coming under attack from Sunni lynch mobs. On June 23, Shiite preacher Hassan Shehata and three others were killed in the village of Zawyat Abu Muslam, near Cairo, after sermons by Salafist preachers condemning them as infidels.
Two weeks ago, Lashkar-e-Jhangui, an extremist Sunni group linked to the Taliban, launched a suicide attack on female students traveling in a bus from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta, Pakistan, where many of the Shiite Hazaras are students. After killing 11 women on the bus, the terrorists machine-gunned the hospital where survivors were being treated, killing a further 14 people.
The specter of modern sectarian barbarism stands in stark contrast to an older narrative of tolerance and pluralism. Islamic history has its list of executions and atrocities, but nothing to compare with the Catholic Inquisition and Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648), which may have cost more than 7 million lives in Germany alone. Shiite dynasties that held power from the 10th century allowed Sunni systems of law to coexist alongside the Shiite versions. The Fatimids, who ruled in North Africa and Syria-Palestine as well as Egypt, never imposed their version of Shiitism (or indeed Islam) as state ideology. Even the dictatorial al-Assad regime, justifiably execrated for the brutality of its conduct in the war, had an impressive record of religious pluralism prior to the demonstrations that sparked the current crisis.
Why has the specter of intolerant fanaticism surfaced at this time? In the Syrian context, part of the explanation lies in the paradoxical way that a Shiite sectarian group from the margins — the Alawis, or Nusayris, from the highlands above Latakia — gained control of the avowedly secular Baath party, following a coup by then-Syrian minister of defense and air force commander Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) in 1970.
As a minority that had benefited from military training and entitlements under French colonial rule (1920-1945), the Alawis were well-placed to seize the levers of power in the chaotic post-colonial aftermath. The pattern is familiar to observers of Arab politics where clannism — rooted in authoritarian patriarchal structures — usually trumps the public good.
In Syria, clannism of the rulers is buttressed by their minority sectarian status. The Syrian model that is now disintegrating is a mirror image of one that applied in Iraq, before the US-led invasion, where the Sunni Arab minority surrounding then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein held sway over a majority of Shiites and Kurds. A similar model applies to Bahrain, where the Sunni al-Khalifas lord it over a majority of underprivileged Shiites, but not to Saudi Arabia, where Shiites are a repressed minority.
However, clannism is only one part of a much larger canvas of sectarian violence that is surfacing in many parts of the world. In some places, such as Burma and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is confounded with nationalism, it is Muslims who are victims. In others, from west Africa to Southeast Asia, it may be Christians who are under pressure from hardline Islamist groups or governments along with other victims of sectarian strife. In Nigeria, for instance, more than 50,000 people have been killed in ethno-religious violence since 1999.
Some commentators suggest that an overall explanation of this phenomenon lies in the common resurgence of religion in response to modern “materialism” and the global hegemony of secularism. However, a more useful analysis should be based around the idea of “default identities.”
Religious conflicts — whether in Northern Ireland or Syria — have less to do with competing theologies, differences in beliefs about “God” or religious leadership, than with the way in which group identities are formed by the centuries of cultural programming underpinned by religious practices. At the level of beliefs, differences between Sunni and Shiite, like those between Catholics and Protestants, are frequently addressed by ecumenical statements issued by religious leaders condemning violence. They cannot be resolved by them because belief as such is not the real question.
When civil or economic distress generates feelings of chronic anxiety, the quest for certainty is sustained by scapegoating the “other.” In a majority of the world’s regions, that “other” may be followers of an alternative religion, regardless of the theological or leadership issues.
Malise Ruthven is the author of A Historical Atlas of the Islamic World.
(The Guardian uses the old name of Burma for Myanmar.)