Wednesday, July 19, 2006

News Analysis of the Current Conflict

Currant news commentators seem to be on the money about the basic Sunni vs Shia conflict going on in the Middle East. I'm a little uneasy though.

There is real reason for taking Sunni-Shia conflict seriously. It has created long lasting religious war frequently in the past. In fact, even beyond the early divisions, there have been a number of periods of intense Sunni-Shia conflict.

  • By Sunni Muslims (especially the Seljuk Turks) against the Fatamid Caliphate (10th-12th centuries in Egypt). The descendants of the Fatamid Caliphate are "Sevener" of Ismaili Shia (the Aga Khan is the current leader of the group). The Druze also seem to be descendants of the Fatamids, but of a heretical group which proclaimed the Fatamid Caliph Hakim as God. (Hakim, by the way was responsible for the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in the early 11th century, and event later used in Crusader propaganda).
  • Between the Ottoman Turks and the Safavid dynasty (which was Turkish, but ruled in Iran from the 16th to 18th century). This last one was fought explicitly by the Ottomans as a religious war, and indeed only Armenians were allowed to travel between the two empires (the border was roughly that of modern Iran).
  • There is continual religious violence between Shia and Sunni in Pakistan (remember India/Pakistan/Bangladesh contain around half the world's Muslims)
  • Iran is run by Twelver Shia (i.e. they believe in the descent of infallible Imams up until the 12th Imam, who is now in hiding, but who speaks through the Shia Ulema [religious judges - more like Orthodox rabbis than Catholic priests]). They account for around 80% of world Shia, and are also the dominant group in Iraq. Hezbollah is a Twelver group.

    One can see why Sunni Muslims might be worried.

    But there are problems with a merely religious analysis of what is going on.

  • Syria is mostly Sunni, but the Assad dynasty belongs to a group called the Alawites, who are not regarded as Muslims by most other Muslims, either Twelvers or Sunnis. The Alawites are defined by the others as extremists because they seem to have regarded 'Ali as a kind of incarnation of God. (This is a little unsure because most Alawites don't know the tenets of the faith: like the Druze these doctrines are kept as esoteric knowledge by a small group of older males.) There is no real reason for the Shia in Iran to regard the Alawites as allies.
  • In Hama/Homs in 1982, Bashir's father killed around 20,000 members of the very distinctly Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (the number includes bystanders) when the rose against his secularist Ba'ath Party (founded jointly by an Eastern Orthodox and a Sunni).

    The odd things here are.

  • Why is Syria supporting Hezbollah, when, as Twelvers, they are not in line with most of the Syrian population?
  • Why is Syria supporting HAMAS. HAMAS (the acronym comes from "Islamic Salvation Front) is simply the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (the same group that the Assads' massacre in 1982.

    I have no conclusions here. Merely that the analysis going on right now seems simplistic. Most commentators seem to assume there is just "Islamic radicalism" with understanding the vast difference between Sunnis and Shia. And even those who understand that do not seem to grasp that Syria is a Sunni country with a minority leadership whose sect is not considered Muslim by either Sunni or Shia ulema.


    Andrew Sullivan points to a Slate magazine article on this topic.
  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    FYI. The Council on Foreign Relations website has some interesting articles analyzing the background of the current situation as well as analysis of the relationships between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. See and and