When the Prophet Mohammed died in June of 632, a power vacuum was created and two factions emerged, one following the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and one following the Prophet’s father-in-law Abu Bakr. The dispute between the two factions involved the choice of a successor to the Prophet as the leader of Islam’s society and conquering armies. The Prophet, it seems, had failed to lay out a clear method of succession.
The Prophet’s daughter Fatima was probably 27 when her father died. She and Ali had been married about 9 years and had four children. She was pregnant with their fifth. Six months after the death of the Prophet, Fatima died. And everything else is disputed – how she died, how her last child died, who if anyone was responsible for her death. All that is known for certain is that the death of Fatima is that the Christian year 633 saw the schism of Islam into Shia and Sunni.
For 1380 years, they have been fighting each other.
In the 20th century, once the nations of the Middle East and North Africa were established, once colonial rule was overthrown, the pattern was simple. Any country with a Sunni leadership oppressed the Shia. Any country with a Shia leadership oppressed the Sunni. The status quo became a problem when the leadership’s sect was the minority in the country. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was Sunni and his government oppressed the Shia (and the Kurds, but they are more an ethnic than religious minority). When we removed Hussein from power, all holy hell broke loose. The Shia went on a revenge rampage attacking Sunni communities when they weren’t attacking us and our allies because we were occupying their country.
Sunni are the majority sect in Islam. Shia are the minority and are the majority population only in Iran and Azerbaijan. They are a plurality in Iraq and have concentrations of population in central Afghanistan, coastal Syria and southwest Yemen.
In Syria, the government is Shia, specifically the sub-sect called Alawite. The majority of Syrians are Sunni. What began as protests against the government’s lack of action in assisting the people of southern Syria who had been suffering for a couple of years because of a drought, the protest evolved into demonstrations against the Alawite control of the government and the lack of Sunni representation. It has devolved into a very sectarian battle, as Shias from Iran and Lebanon (members of Hezbollah) are both arming the regime and sending in fighters while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the Sunni rebels and Sunnis are flocking to Syria to fight with them. Syria is dying, not just its people, but the country is dying. There has been so much structural damage – homes, shops, public buildings, roads, airports – that the cities resemble Germany after the Allied bombings of World War II….rubble spreading for miles, people sheltering wherever they can, tens of thousands, if not millions, on the roads trying to find safety.
To a large extent, the basis of the protests, the reason people started fighting, has faded behind the sectarian war. It is no longer just people fighting for equality and a regime trying to hang on to absolute power. It is a Sunni people fighting to overthrow a Shia regime. It’s a nation being turned into a proxy for the war Saudi Arabia and Iran are not overtly fighting with each other.
The implications are serious. This has the potential for spreading into a regional war, a final clash to bring an end to 1380 years of hatred. But this isn’t 16th and 17th century Europe, where Catholics and Protestants fought over a century of wars for dominance of individual countries and the continent. This is the 21st century and a regional war will not be fought in a geographical bubble, especially since one of the interested parties, Pakistan, already has nuclear weapons and another, Iran, is developing them. It is unknown what kinds or amounts of biological or chemical weapons might be held by other countries, though the Syrians are known to have them.
The range of this war would be global. Islam is the dominant religion in 49 countries from the west coast of Africa to Malaysia, from the equator in Africa north into Kazakhstan. It’s 1.3 billion people bound by a faith, divided by that faith as well as by nationalism and tribalism.
The most at risk from this sectarian war are those countries which are within that Muslim zone – Israel, India, the Southeast Asian peninsula, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Benin, Ghana and Togo.
We in the West should understand this dynamic, but we have a habit of ignoring our own history. Scots still talk about the Battle of Culloden as though it were yesterday, and Shi’ites talk about the death of Ali the same way. We should understand centuries of hate kept simmering through folklore and song, through vicious stereotyping and characterization, but we don’t. That’s why the Bush administration didn’t understand what they were unloosing in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Obama is not President Bush. The right wing has tried for the past five years to portray him as a Muslim, to make him an object of blind, bigoted hatred. They miss the point. The President’s knowledge of Islam is a positive thing for the situation the world is facing today. It explains his reluctance to commit troops to any of the Arab Spring rebellions.
Frankly, there is very little we can do as the Muslim world reaches the crescendo of their schism. We can cut our dependence on foreign oil, but that is going to take something our country will not agree to – cutting our ties to multinational oil companies and the international oil market. Our government would have to seize control of our oil and keep it out of the international market. Never happen.
We can provide humanitarian aid when possible. It’s not a simple task, and we really don’t want to lose American lives in the process. Providing military support to those countries who border Syria is a tricky situation. Some are allowing weapons smuggling to one side or the other. On the other hand, we need to restrict immigration from these countries. It does not help them for the leaders of various groups to hide out in the West, and it does not help for the people who are most effected by these wars to have places to escape to. Only in facing the reality will people make the right choices.
And that’s about it. It’s not our war, and we really, really need to understand that.
We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into this to battle “terrorists.” In fact, the less we get involved the better the chances that we will not be the targets of terrorism. We have no more right to determine the winner of this war than the Chinese would have had a right to choose the winner of the Wars of the Protestant Reformation or any other European war.
We need to re-educate our own people, put a stop to the stupidities of people like Glenn Beck who are sounding false alarms about the rise of the Second Caliphate, make people see the facts about Islam, its sects and divisions and the causes of these conflicts. That’s a harder task than cutting ourselves free of Middle Eastern oil. People resist having their myths and conspiracy theories challenged.
There is only one thing that is going to end the conflicts in the Middle East – the people who live there must choose to end them. They must reach the same kind of treaty that the Catholics and Protestants reached in Europe, with a few extra provisions to cover political and civil equality that the Europeans didn’t include. They must choose to stop killing each other over deaths that occurred 1300 years ago. They have to choose the future of their children over the schism.
Probably the only thing we can realistically do is keep pounding away at the participants that they are throwing away their children and their future, sacrificing them on the altars of people who died over a thousand years ago. I doubt they will listen.