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Do not let sectarianism rip the Middle East apart

What the western liberators sowed with the Iraq war by pitting Sunnis and Shiites against each other has come to bear a rich harvest of hatred

Gulf News

What about the long wars fought between Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran, demanded a perceptive reader questioning my argument that the Sunni-Shiite schism and growing conflict between the two sects of Islam is largely a western construct. Of course, Turkey and Iran did fight long and bitter wars spanning several centuries. However, those were essentially between two competing empires — Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia—for regional hegemony and can hardly be seen as sectarian in nature.

The same is true of the decade-long war between Saddam Hussain’s Iraq and the post Revolution Iran in the last century--another senseless conflict that richly contributed to the coffers of western arms manufacturers—and other Arab-Persian encounters. They were nothing but regional power struggles.

Indeed, never in the 15 centuries of Islam’s history have the two sects been engaged in the kind of tussle seen today. Their followers have co-existed in harmony without being excessively conscious of each other’s identity or their minor difference of opinion that had its genesis in the early history of Islam. In any case, they never let it affect their relations with each other. The Sunnis and Shiites share a rich history and have contributed equally to the golden age of Islam for more than a thousand years. That shared history and legacy is at stake today.

Sectarianism, coupled with extremism, has emerged as a potent threat to Muslim societies. From Anatolia to Maghreb, the spectre of Sunni-Shiite conflict now stalks Muslim lands. Indeed, the whole of Muslim world now sits on a ticking time bomb of sectarian strife and violence with battle lines being drawn from Palestine to Pakistan.

The lynching of four Egyptian Shiites in Giza and the spectacle of their bodies being dragged in the streets by a cheering mob this past week, prompting a strong New York Times editorial, is not just acutely disturbing, it puts in sharp focus the clear and present danger lurking just below the surface.

While Pakistan has in recent times seen an upsurge in attacks targeting the Shiites as with other minorities — there were three major strikes in June within six days, not to mention the latest Quetta bombings killing scores of Hazaras — what is happening in the Middle East is truly unprecedented. And without doubt the Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has played a critical role in igniting and fuelling the long simmering sectarian and regional tensions.

What began as a people’s uprising, obviously inspired by the winds of change blowing across the region, against the long decades of Baathist tyranny and repression has been transformed into a free-for-all sectarian and regional conflict of terrifying proportions. The Baathist regime, the assorted rebel groups, Al Qaida terrorists, militias and sects are all continually competing to add to the misery of the Syrian people.

The Syrian conflict has been dramatically different from other Arab Spring movements as well as regional wars. It has sharply polarised the volatile region and has already spilled over into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq with proxy battles being fought at several levels.

While the Arabs, Turkey and much of the Muslim world along with the US and European powers have rallied around the Syrian opposition and people’s revolt largely in response to the barbarity and brutality unleashed by the regime against the peaceful protesters, the embattled Bashar Al Assad has Iran, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and Russia of course rooting for him because of their traditional alliance with the regime and shared geopolitical interests.

If Al Assad has managed to survive this long, it is essentially thanks to this vital support. Hezbollah, once admired for taking on Israel and driving it out of Lebanon, has outraged many across the region by fighting on the side of the old ally in Damascus. Hamas, on the other hand, finds itself in the opposite camp. It is getting chaotic out there, blurring old loyalties and dividing lines and creating new ones.

As a defiant Al Assad hangs on to power defying all predictions about his early end, the country around him crumbles and melts away. The UN has put the toll at a staggering 100,000, not to mention the all-round devastation that the great Levant country, one of the oldest and historically richest in the world, has witnessed in the past two and a half years. Millions have been driven from their homes and are fighting for survival in the neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq etc.

Yet this may be a small price considering the larger disaster that stalks the vast region in the form of sectarian violence. What the western liberators sowed with the Iraq war successfully pitting the Sunnis and Shiites against each other has come to bear a rich harvest of sectarian hostilities never seen in the past.

What happened in Iraq under the benign gaze of international champions of freedom with the Shiite killer squads and Al Qaida terrorists targeting the two communities and in the process wiping out entire neighbourhoods is now being replicated across the region. The world powers, with the help of their useful media, have successfully preyed on long dormant regional rivalries and sectarian insecurities, playing the Arabs and Iranians against each other.

While Iran and its nuclear aspirations are painted as the clear and present danger to the Arabs, the Iranians have been persuaded into believing that the whole of the Sunni Arab world has ganged up against them and is out to destroy them with the help of the West.

This game has been played on for so long and with such finesse and dexterity that both sides and their media have now more or less embraced the same divisive agenda and narrative, little realising how they are being used like pawns in the hands of you know who, and where all this will eventually end.

As Ramzy Baroud argues, Iraq’s historical dilemma, exploited by the US for immediate gains, has now become a pan-Arab dilemma. The Middle Eastern media is fomenting that conflict using terminology loaded with sectarianism and obsessed with erecting the kind of divides that will bring nothing but mistrust, misery and war.

If the sane majority on both sides does not act to rein in the extremists in their midst and stop this mindless, mutual demonisation and bloodletting, it could have catastrophic consequences for the region and the world beyond.

What Sunnis and Shiites share is much too precious and stronger than what divides them. They worship the same God and follow the same Prophet and the same Book. Is that not enough to bring them together? The genie of sectarianism must be coaxed back into the bottle before it wreaks more havoc.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs. Follow him on