The Coming Islamic Enlightenment
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most Americans probably had no idea about the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Many likely still don’t, but the terms are at least familiar. Religion wasn’t that important under Saddam’s secular Ba’athist regime. Despite the Ba’ath Party’s secular credentials, they still favored Saddam’s Sunni relatives while brutally oppressing the Shia majority. Saddam’s motivation was more tribal than religious though, so often these two communities lived peacefully side-by-side. A new blend of Muslim, that many called Sushis, was actually growing, due to the inter-marriage of Sunnis and Shias in many neighborhoods.
The Sushi trend has been drastically reversed though, and Sunni/Shia tension is threatening to break out into an enormous regional war involving virtually every country in the region. America may have unwittingly unmasked some old tensions smoldering under the surface. Soon after the American intervention, Sunni Al Qaeda-inspired jihadists from around the world began flooding in. In retaliation, Shias sought Iranian money and arms to fund militias like the Badr Brigade and Muqtada al Sadr’s large Mahdi Army. When Iraq seemed poised to descend into a bloody civil war of sectarian bombings and death squads, coalition troops stood in the gap and were able to force a peace.
Although immediate crisis was averted in Iraq, that fight is now one of the cooler hot-spots of Sunni-Shia violence around the region. The calm produced by the surge in Iraq has faded and the Arab Spring’s revolutionary furor has turned to sectarianism as all sides vie for control of the streets. Increasingly, all the region’s alliances and hostilities can be assumed based on whether one is a Sunni or a Shia.
Sunnis are getting most of their funding from the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shias get their support from the Iranians. Both have become wealthy from oil profits and can now use that wealth to influence the neighborhood.
In northern Yemen, the Houthi rebels, who are Shia in a mostly Sunni country, are fighting a revolution to gain their own homeland. As expected, they are funded by their fellow Shias, the Iranians, while the Saudis are helping the Sunni government.
In Bahrain, the Shia majority, also backed by Iran, is trying to overthrow the Sunni monarchy. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia has sent in troops and tanks to bolster the Sunni government.
The most likely conflict to spark a larger regional conflict though, is the expanding civil war in Syria. Bashar Assad, the dictator of Syria, is an Alawi Muslim, a heterodox subset of the Shia. The vast majority in Syria are Sunni and want him removed. Syria is Iran’s most important regional ally and a fellow Shia-dominated nation, so they are pouring in loads of arms, money and other resources to prop up Assad’s regime. Predictably, Sunnis from around the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis are funneling cash and arms to the Sunni rebels.
As this particular conflict escalates, it is very likely to spread to Iraq, Lebanon, and could possibly lead to direct conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose proxy-war is now far from secret. Some of the neighboring countries are already being pulled into the Syrian conflict. Sunni jihadists from Iraq, for example, are pouring across the border to help their co-religionists.
Early signs are that the same ethno-religious divisions in Syria are also spreading to their smaller neighbor Lebanon as well. Gun-battles between the Shia bloc, which includes Hezbollah and Alawis, and the Sunni bloc, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and most Christians, are heating up in many Lebanese cities. Increasingly, the whole region resembles a war zone.
With multiple fronts opening up across the region, it looks like almost no country will avoid being drawn into the conflict. This could be the beginning of a war comparable in scale to WWI in Europe. Many are likely asking, what is the historical root of this deep-seated hate, and can an amicable solution be found to bring it to an end?
It all goes back to the very beginning of Muslim history in the Arabian Peninsula. After the death of Mohammad, the question arose, who should be the successor to the growing empire and its political and religious power. The Shias believe that Ali, Mohammad’s brother-in-law, was the rightful heir. Ali was side-lined though, and Abu Bakr, who was Mohammad’s closest companion and friend, ended up as the first successor, or the second Caliph (Mohammad being the first). Ali ended up actually being the fourth Caliph, so he did get his chance at the throne, but this early dispute created a divide between the two camps that is still argued over to this day.
The Shias (or Shiites) therefore require that their leaders have a direct family lineage all the way back to Mohammad in order to be a prominent leader, called Ayatollahs. You can draw somewhat of a parallel to Protestant and Catholic Christians. Catholics require priests to receive “Apostolic Succession,” which they believe to be seamlessly passed down all the way from the Apostles. Protestants, on the other hand, can start up their own churches apart from any formal power structure.
The power-structure passed down from the prophet’s family is not an important requirement for leadership in Sunni Islam. Since Abu Bakr was simply a friend, not a relative of the prophet like Ali, Sunnis are more open to diversity in leadership. Any Sunni Muslim male can be an Imam (which literally means “front” because they are the ones who lead the prayers from the front of the assembly).
This more equitable distribution of power has led Sunni Islam to be the Islam of the masses. 85% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni, while less than 15% are Shia. In the heart of the Middle East though, the Shias have a much greater representation than they do in places like Indonesia, Pakistan, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the local Muslims are almost entirely Sunni. There are significant Shia populations in almost all Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt.
Open hostility exists between the groups in almost every country though, where they exchange insults like infidel and heretic. In Egypt, many hoped that after the revolution the small Shia minority would be treated better. It looked briefly like this might be the case. However, the Grand Sheikh Mohammad Ahmed El Tayeb said just this week that to prevent Egypt from falling into “sectarianism” all Shia congregations in the country must be shut down.
This order holds great sway since he is the closest thing the Sunni Muslim world has to a Pope. El Tayeb leads the Al Azhar University, which is considered the highest Sunni authority for legal pronouncements on Shariah (called fiqh). Outlawing a rival sect to prevent sectarianism is very interesting logic to those of us from areas of the world with religious liberty. The message to the Shia powers in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere is clear though. It would be like the Pope saying all Protestant churches in Italy must be shut down.
The muscle-flexing and local skirmishes are only heating up. Is it possible that both sides will come to their senses and this will all blow over? Possibly. But another possibly more likely scenario is open war between virtually all Middle Eastern countries.
This apocalyptic reality is very reminiscent of the European Wars of Religion that waged from the early 16th century until the mid 17th century. Religion and state were so connected that to have multiple religions within one state was unthinkable. If your king was a Catholic, then you were obliged to be Catholic. If he was a Protestant, you should be the same. After fighting for over a century, a period now known as the Enlightenment emerged. Christians of all kinds began to think that maybe they can live with a Catholic neighbor, or vice-versa. Maybe they would be fine under a king from an opposing sect. The kings began to think, maybe we can allow our subjects to choose their own religions.
It was a slow process, and a bloody one, but a level of tolerance blossomed. Many states kept their officially established state churches, but those who wanted to go somewhere else on Sunday were now allowed that privilege. It would be nice if this process takes a simple century in the Middle East. It’s unclear if that hope is warranted though.
The difference to me is that in Christianity, there was nothing theologically that necessarily required the Christian to marry their religion to their state. Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, and never really attempted to effect government power. Christians then can point to Jesus’ life as justification for a personal and cultural, but not political religion. Islam on the other hand, has always been synonymous with government. Mohammad set up an empire that was both religious and political. Year one on the Islamic calendar actually is not when Mohammad was born, or when he had his first revelation. Islamic year one is 622 AD, when he wrote the Constitution of Medina and gained political authority.
This power has been passed down from Mohammad to Abu Bakr, all the way to the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed in the early 20th century. The official world-wide Islamic empire may have been defeated in WWI, when the Ottoman Turks joined the eventually-losing side, but Islamic theology has not even begun to question whether they should try to implement God’s Law, the Shariah, on the communities they inhabit.
For this reason, I think the Islamic Enlightenment may take a bit of time. Serious strain will be put on the faith of Muslims as violence becomes a reality in their daily life, and as the world watches in shock and judgment. It may turn out that the clerics never arrive at a way to live with their rival sects, but this failure would ultimately lead to the destruction of their faith.
This is a path that the Muslim world will have to walk on their own though. The West is in the habit of trying to police conflicts of this scale. We will be very tempted to jump in when bloody images come across our TV screens, and when our oil prices are affected. However, whose side should we pick? Is there any reason to back the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabi Saudis, and Al Qaeda over Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah? Neither version of Islamic theocrat is a friend of the West or our liberal democratic ideals. For that reason, we may have to sit helplessly and watch the Muslim world as they descend into unthinkable violence. We can only hope they emerge as a people we can live with, trade with, and befriend.