I am getting tired of this notion that so many commentators in the West refer to as the “Sunni-Shia” divide. And then these so called experts say that this has been going on for thousands of years! So they conclude that it’s inevitable that there be a “clash” etc. etc.
Dear readers, please be very clear – East Asia is not Europe, and Islam is not Christianity. You can’t weave European concepts like Protestants vs Catholics into Islam or pretend somehow that Mecca is the Vatican.
First of all, the Shiite faith has 10 sub-groups including the Twelver’s (of Iran), Lebanese Druze, Alawites of Syria, Seveners (Ismailis) of India, etc. The Shia groups were not united, nor uniformly practicing the Shia faith, and were very generally small, (local dynasties in fact), tiny in comparison with the Sunnis groups that number today in the billions. Shiites for centuries had been tucked away in villages far from many Sunni groups (and tribes) in places like Mazandaran near the Caspian Sea for example. My point is, there hasn’t been an open, bloody battle between Sunnis and Shiites since the succession battles of 680AD after Mohamed died.
And Shiite clans vary in their interpretations of Islam considerably. If anything, the Shiites are connected through one principal alone and that is an ‘opinion’ on who should have or did succeed Mohamed as a leader of the faith… not much else. This isn’t a unified ideology or centrally led faith. And by the way, Sunnis, are divided too, and Saudi”s Wahabist interpretation is not main stream (ask religious leaders in places like Egypt or Morocco or Malaysia).
Islam is a widely splintered faith – even within Sunnis or Shiites!
This ‘divide’ between Shia and Sunnis is a western concept (really it is). It has not been a deeply divisive issue for thousands of years with deep religious foundations. But it has now gotten new momentum as well as political and economic legs (in the 21st Century) largely through external meddling in the region.
It is interesting to note that the political value of ‘creating’ a division between Shia and Sunni faiths was first ‘identified’ by Iran’s Safavid dynasty (who had taken power) in the 16th century. Readers should note that’s about 400 years ago (not thousands of years ago).
When the conquering Mongolians and then Ottomans (who were both Sunnis when they vacated Iran) abandoned Iran, the ‘usurping’ Safavids from Northern Iran (Azerbaijan) used ‘religion’ as a differentiator to re-establish Iran (as a separate state) and their power base.
Interestingly the Safavids NOT only wanted to differentiate Iran from the “Sunni” invaders, but they also needed to fight off other regional Shia faiths like the Ismailis and Zadiyah ‘sects of Shiism’ with their own local ‘Twelver’ sect. My point is, it wasn’t just Shia vs Sunni, but Twelver vs Other Shia Sects – largely for political reasons. The Twelver’s by the way, were a local (regional) sect of Shiism in Northern Iran at the time, versus “Sunni” Muslims that populated virtually all the Ottoman empire and much of Arabia and North Africa. This is a demographic bucket of water versus an ocean of Sunnis! Do you see? Not quite a one- thousand-year religious rivalry of major branches of Islam!! And do you also see, the emergence of Twelver Shiism largely as a political tool to unify Iran against other Shiite sects and the remaining strongholds of Ottoman (and Mongol) influence?
Anyway in 1501, by Royal decree all of Iran was converted to Twelver Shiism, and by 1511 Sunni mosques were destroyed again by Royal decree. But having done all that, Iran’s Shia were effectively reasserting their Persian identity as a separate and distinct identity from Arabs and Turks. There wasn’t (and by the way, still isn’t) any talk of Shiites conquering Arabia or converting Arabs or Turks. Again, Shiism developed as a means of protecting and differentiating Iranian identity. Thus, over time, Shia and Sunni faiths lived side by side, without war! Again, there hasn’t been a Shia vs Sunni battle going on for the past 500 years.
Fast forward, to the 20th and 21st centuries. In early 1900’s Iran established a democratic constitution (the first in Asia by the way, until there was a British led coup). In that constitution, a political role was established for religious leadership (like Bishops in the UK who sit in the house of lords). And for the first time, the ‘political’ title of Ayatollah was established. It did NOT exist before then. These Ayatollahs from then on, have played various roles in the governance of Iran – including by the way – in siding with the CIA and Brits in the 1952 coup in Iran (and toppling Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister – Mossadegh).
Fast forward to 1976. Jimmy Carter’s national security team entered office with a ‘theory’ that communism could be defeated by religion. Somehow, we had a Polish Pope. And, eventually (after the Guadeloupe conference), the Shah of Iran was toppled by Carter (and his western partners) and Khomeini was installed (who had been a renegade religious leader living outside Iran, initially in Iraq and then eventually in Paris).
Khomeini had been plucked by western intelligence, (and his team fully trained and briefed in the U.S.) as someone that could provide a strong (western backed) alternative ideology to Iranian youth and thus ward off communism (inside Iran) and in the region. After Khomeini was flown into Tehran on an Air France 747, paid for by the government of France, the U.S. had second thoughts about their strategy, and invited the Shah to the U.S. (ostensibly for medical treatment). This led to polarization between the two governments and the rest as they say is history.
But, one thing is for sure, Khomeini (and his Western backers) fully appreciated the role religion could play in governing Iran and influencing regional events. With small pockets of Shiites in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria (ruling Alawite clan that Assad is from), and virtually the whole population surrounding the Persian Gulf, from Southern Iraq, to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia … it didn’t take geniuses among Iran’s Shiite leadership (and their Western backers) to discover that they could leverage religion to expand their influence beyond Iran itself. And events that followed, such as the Iran-Iraq war (which by the way Iran did not start) and even the establishment of threatening ISIS caliphate on its border, led to precisely this outcome… it forced Iran’s Shiites to leverage their religious ties regionally and to take up a larger regional role.
Expanding their influence regionally, by using religion, became a matter of survival for the regime in Tehran. Initially in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s government felt completely isolated (by the whole world) and could leverage their connections among the Shiites in Southern Iraq for intelligence and to establish a sympathetic internal force within Iraq to ward off Saddam Hussein – who by the way, was fully financed by the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Emiratis (all Sunnis) and the West! Interestingly, Syria’s Assad (who is from the Alawite Shiite clan in Syria) became an Iranian ally during the war (largely because of major run-ins with Saddam Hussein prior to the war, which had nothing to do with religion).
Almost the same could be said of the impact that ISIS had on Iran. Again, to ward off ISIS, Iran found itself cooperating with Assad and Iraq’s militia (and to also employ Hezbollah). Let’s not forget a few key facts, (1) Iranian forces also came to the rescue of (Sunni) Kurds, Yazidis and Christians by fighting ISIS and (2) ISIS had taken over northern Iraq and had Iran in its cross hairs. ISIS was literally at Iran’s borders, with a plan to invade. Again, Iran had no choice but to fight back. If ISIS had been a Hindu or Christian force ready to invade, Iran would have acted in precisely the same way. This had nothing to do with Shia vs Sunni. Except that ISIS were a bunch of Wahabist, extremists financed by Saudi Arabia (and its allies).
So, what we are seeing today, is Iran’s Shia leadership is in effect coming to the help of other groups in the region – in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and in Yemen – NOT because of any rivalry with the Sunnis, but because they have been thrust into this role regionally (i.e. attacked) by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then Saudi Arabia (and its partners – including “Sunni” ISIS). This is a political issue not a religious one.
If Saddam Hussein or Saudis had been Hindu or Christian – the political outcomes would basically be the same. And Iran was not attacked because it was Shiite!
The reasons why for example Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein were complex (and may have had something to do with Zbigniew Brzenski’s meeting with the Iraqis during the U.S. embassy hostage crisis; and the fact that Saddam Hussein only really wanted Iran’s southern oil producing provinces). It had nothing to do with Iran’s Shiite faith. In fact, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is a majority Shiite nation.
You see, today, Iran’s leadership, is assisting Turkey’s Erdogan (and his Sunni religious party) stay in power. And Iran has excellent relations with Sunni Pakistan and Afghanistan.
So, please refrain from saying Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for thousands of years, its bullshit. Its untrue. And it’s too simplistic – too Western of a concept – to add any value to setting policies for the region. This isn’t Northern Ireland.
This is all about money, oil, super-power chess and regional politics – not differences in faith.