Recent developments in Syria indicate that Iran has increased its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on more than one level. As Iran seems to have taken over military and logistical decisions, Hezbollah’s involvement has also expanded and intensified. This is very bad news for Lebanon, and unless the Lebanese government and the Shia community take drastic measures to dissociate themselves from Hezbollah, Lebanon will not be spared from an imminent, region-wide sectarian war.
Last month, in a significant prisoner exchange between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, forty eight Iranians were hand-picked by the regime for release by the rebels, and not a single Syrian. This caused a wave of discontent among Assad supporters and fighters, who felt betrayed. Assad no doubt realizes that ill will among his already-shrinking popular base will not help his cause. This questionable decision indicates that Assad had no real say in the matter, and probably doesn’t on other issues either.
Then last week, Iranian official Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base and a former Basij commander said that “Syria is [Iran’s] 35th [district] and a strategic province… If the enemy attacks us and intends to occupy either Syria or Khuzestan, the priority is that we keep Syria.” He also added that Iran suggested the Syrians establish their own Basij. “Syria then [must] set up its own Basij with an initial force of 60,000 Hezbollah forces and they [could] replace the regular army in dealing with the urban warfare.”
If this statement had come out a month ago, no one would have believed Taeb. However, it has become obvious today that Hezbollah is involved in the bloodshed in Syria up to its neck, whether under a “Basij” or in a different form.
A half world away, the politics of the Middle East can be hard to decipher. The myriad of cultures, societies and institutions can be even more mysterious the religious expression of Islam can seem indecipherable to even those who try and keep up with current events.
The Shia-Sunni divide can be especially difficult to comprehend.
Firstly, to really understand the chasm which separates the two versions of Islam (this is not the Baptist/Methodist divide) a bit of history is in order.
As Islam was going through it’s turbulent formative stages, there was much violence and killings directed at early religious figures. The most significant event was the murder of Ali, son in law of Mohammed. This single event was to have violent and repercussions that have lasted to this day. Ali’s death led to a huge schism between early Muslims. There were those who considered Ali to be the rightful ‘heir to the throne’ and as such, the rightful successor to Mohammed, and there are those who refused the idea of that kind of succession. Followers of Ali morphed into the Shiites, while the majority of Muslims became the Sunnis.
The Sunni persecuted the Shiites, referring to them as non believers or a corrupter of Islam. Within the Sunni Islamic world, the Shiites are considered a sect, a breakaway group that has forsaken Islam.
Each culture defines conflict differently. What may be grievous offenses in one culture are mere slights in others. Cultures also can be differentiated in how they deal with conflict. Some cultures demand violence and confrontation, others insist on negotiation and accommodation.
As long as cultures and societies remain relatively isolated, those comparisons meant little, because most societies and cultures were unaware of what was going on ‘outside.’ Their reality was their existential four cubits. Over the last two hundred years, that was to change dramatically. As technology, travel, trade and political/economic exchanges developed, the isolation of backward Arab societies (in relation to western cultures) from the rest of the world was to come to an end.
With the advent of sunlight, we are offered a glimpse into how some of the Middle East conflict, in the context of the Arab Spring and current events, are played out.
Saudi Arabia may have at first appeared untouched by the 2011 Arab uprisings, but the apparent calm belies a simmering crisis. Shia and Sunni sectarian tensions are arguably at the highest level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and a harsh government crackdown is mobilizing radical elements in the Shia community and undercutting its pragmatists. The United States faces no shortage of crises in the region, but it would do well to not let this one slip too far off the radar. Aside from obvious concerns about human rights and reform, the continued unrest in the predominantly Shia Eastern Province of the Sunni-led kingdom presents a potential strategic threat to U.S. interests. Iran has historically sought to aid beleaguered Shia communities in its neighborhood, and, as evidenced by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and, more recently, the cyberattack on Saudi Aramco in August of this year, it has the capability and intent to hit Saudi Arabia. Currently, there is little evidence of Iranian material support of Shia groups in the Eastern Province, but continued unrest could change that. The mounting frustrations of Saudi youth could translate into a ready pool of recruits, or prompt the reincarnation of the Saudi Hezbollah.
Comprising ten to 15 percent of the kingdom’s population, Saudi Shia have long faced religious discrimination, political marginalization, and economic hardship. Although the Eastern Province contains the majority of Saudi oil reserves, the Shia population there has yet to benefit economically, especially when compared with Sunnis living in the central Najd region, the historic seat of Saudi power. It is therefore unsurprising that the 2011 revolts in Tunis and Cairo reverberated strongly in the east.
Riding on the wave of change in the region, moderate Shia activists rekindled long-dormant relationships with Sunni reformists in the Najd and Hijaz provinces and planned countrywide protests for March 11, 2011. But the so-called Day of Rage fell apart, undermined by mutual distrust among Sunnis and Shia. As the day approached, Web sites and Facebook pages appeared proclaiming uniquely Shia demands and calls for reform. A number of Web-based Sunni activists lambasted the Shia organizers for pursuing a narrowly sectarian agenda that diluted the overall movement and played into the hands of the regime. This development later proved a watershed in the fracturing of the opposition and, arguably, the demise of the Saudi Spring.
Even after the historic election, this marginalised minority risk daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.
Sitting cross-legged on the threadbare sofa in his living room, Abu Hasan gestures to the bare walls behind him, apologising for the sparseness of his home. He breathlessly explains that himself, his wife, and their three children had to flee their previous apartment here in Alexandria only a few days ago after a neighbour posted a note under their door threatening to kills them.
“This is third time we have had to move in four years,” he says, offering me a plate of steaming bamiye (okra).
Abu Hasan and his family are Shia - a small and marginalised minority in predominantly Sunni Egypt. He says that they face daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.
Since Mohammed Morsi was declared President of Egypt, there has been growing speculation about what the future of Egypt’s Coptic minority will be under an Islamist government, but little has been said about the even smaller (and arguably equally threatened) Shia community. In the run up to the elections, I spent time in both Cairo and Alexandria speaking to the Egyptian Shia community and gauging their response to the likelihood of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammed in AD 632, but the historical nature of the split does little to lessen the reality of Shias living and worshiping in Egypt. Although there are no official statistics about the number of Shia in Egypt, it has been estimated that they constitute roughly one per cent of the population: around one million people. Because of their relative obscurity, and the fact they tend to shy away from public or political activism, they are often overlooked in discussions about Egypt’s religious minorities.
“There are no Shia in Egypt, we are a Sunni country,” said one woman I spoke to outside Cairo’s Al Hussein mosque.