In the Middle East, an ancient war is new again

A bitter, violent clash between Islam’s two major sects is dividing and, increasingly, defining the region

by Michael Petrou

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Of the various slurs and insults that opposing sides in Syria’s civil war fling at each other, there are some so archaic, they seem not to belong in a modern conflict. Among them is the Arabic and Persian term Majous, used by Sunni Muslim rebels against supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. Those familiar with the Christmas story might recognize its similarity to magi, as in the three wise men who came from the East with gifts for the baby Jesus.

The term originally referred to followers of Zoroastrianism, a now all-but-vanished religion that predates Islam. Rebels employ it today to deny the shared Islamic faith of their adversaries. Assad’s family and many of his supporters are Alawite Muslims, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam. “It means they’re not Muslims, because they’re still these weirdo Zoroastrians,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “And they’re not even Arabs. They’re crypto-Iranians.”

It is language that speaks to the deepening sectarian fault lines running through Syria and, increasingly, throughout the Islamic Middle East. In Iraq, for example, al-Qaeda leaders boasting about prison breaks near Baghdad last summer said they had damaged the country’s “Safavid” government. The Safavids were a Persian dynasty that brought Shia Islam to what is now Iraq some 400 years ago.

Divisions between the Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam are almost as old as the faith itself. But what’s happening now is a particularly bitter and often violent clash, and one that is intensified by a geopolitical power struggle between the two dominant nations in the region, Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, each acting as standard-bearers for Islam’s two major sects. Some have likened the struggle to a Middle Eastern version of the Cold War, with Iran and Saudi Arabia playing the roles of America and the Soviet Union, and other states in the region lining up behind them.

For the Sunni-ruled countries of the Arabian Peninsula, any sign that Iran is becoming stronger—by improving its nuclear capabilities, or even by moving toward normalizing its relations with Washington—stokes anxiety. They fear Iran itself, and the possibility that a more powerful Iran might embolden and stir up dissent among their own Shia populations. Repercussions of the struggle within Islam are not limited to the Muslim world, either. America and Israel, motivated by their own standoff with Iran, side with the Sunni camp. Russia, seeing an opportunity to counter Western influence in the region, backs Shia Iran and Alawite-led Syria.

The Shia-Sunni conflict “is not just a hoary religious dispute, a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam’s unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities,” Vali Nasr writes in The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. “Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.”

The Middle East’s sectarian divide sharpened following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Until then, Sunnis dominated the region, with Shia strength concentrated in Iran. When America toppled Saddam Hussein and brought democracy to Iraq, it also liberated the country’s Shias, who had long been suppressed by Saddam and his mostly Sunni power base, despite forming a majority of Iraq’s population.

“This was a tremendous earthquake in the regional balance of power,” says Landis. “It strengthened Iran tremendously. It made the Sunni powers extremely fearful of this growing Shia menace—at least what they saw as a menace.”

The Shia’s ascendency in Iraq was neither smooth nor peaceful. Sunni extremists resisted with suicide bombings and attacks on Shia religious processions and mosques. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was clear about his movement’s goals. The Shia, he wrote in a 2004 letter, are “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom.

“If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to waken the inattentive Sunnis, as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of Sabeans.”

Zarqawi, like Syrian rebel commanders today, reached far into history for an anti-Shia slur. The Sabeans were pagans of southwest Arabia. The Shia of today, he implied, are similarly godless. Zarqawi succeeded, to some degree, in provoking a sectarian war in Iraq whose bloody reverberations continue today. He also pulled Iran deeper into the conflict. In 2005, a cleric there described Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq as “wolves without pity,” and vowed, “Sooner, rather than later, Iran will have to put them down.”

Since then, Shia prime ministers with close ties to Iran have governed Iraq. A once Sunni-ruled state has shifted into Iran’s sphere of influence. It was this reality that prompted King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004 to warn of a Shia “crescent” stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that would alter the Sunni-Shia balance of power and risk destabilizing the region.

At the time, Abdullah’s comments sounded alarmist, says Matteo Legrenzi, an associate professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Today, they seem prescient. “Sectarianism is now one of the defining characteristics of the current moment in Middle East politics.”

The hot centre of this divide is Syria, where Sunnis form a majority, but where the Alawite Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years. It might have been possible, early in the uprising, for the country to avoid the religious animosity now tearing it apart. The popular movement against Assad was not initially a rebellion against the Alawites and, for a time, Assad’s regime maintained the loyalty of many of his Sunni soldiers.

Assad’s decision to arm Alawite civilian militias helped shape the conflict as a religious one, creating the perception among Alawites that the uprising was against them and not just Assad’s regime, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Clerics and media outlets in the Gulf augmented the war’s sectarian nature by “demonizing” Alawites and focusing on Iran’s support for the Assad regime, says Wehrey, who is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising. “The Gulf [states] and the Saudis see this as a pivotal moment in checking Iran’s regional influence. This is the strategic prize. The rest of the Arab world’s position hinges on what happens in Syria.”

This belief has pushed Sunni governments and private donors in the region to support Sunni rebel militias in Syria—some of whom subscribe to an extremist version of Islam and include foreign fighters in their ranks. Iran, for its part, has sent advisers from the Revolutionary Guards to fight for Assad, along with the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.

“It’s a regional war. All the militias in Syria have become proxies for a much broader Sunni-Shia struggle,” says Landis. “You could look at this like Central Europe during the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics, because, in many ways, the Middle East is in the pre-Enlightenment world. Sunnis and Shias have not accepted each other as equal partners in Islam.”

By the time the Thirty Years War was over in 1648, millions were dead. The death toll from ongoing Sunni-Shia disputes—even in the charnel house of Syria—is much smaller. And while religious differences are an accelerant, the clashes are also about power and wealth.

“The grievances always stem from actual situations of disempowerment and of the nature of authoritarian systems of government,” says Legrenzi, citing as an example Bahrain, where a Sunni minority that includes the king dominates a Shia majority. Public demonstrations in 2011 were put down with help from Saudi troops and armour, and police from the United Arab Emirates.

Despite attempts by some commentators at the time—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—to frame the unrest as an Iran-backed plot, Legrenzi and Wehrey both describe the uprising as an indigenous one fuelled by a genuine desire for a more just and equitable society.

Sunni and Shia powers have also co-operated when it suited them. Saudi Arabia and Iran were allies against Communism prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. More recently, Iran backed the Palestinian Sunni militia Hamas against Israel—though this partnership has unravelled because of Iran’s support for Assad.

The Muslim world, in other words, is not condemned to unending antagonism between its major sects. But the divide today is deep and violent, even at street level. Faith-driven lynchings have claimed victims from Egypt to Pakistan. There is little reason to believe this acrimony will soften soon.




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In the Middle East, an ancient war is new again

  1. Well the West can’t talk after our centuries of war between Catholics and Protestants….and all the other squabbles between ‘christian’ groups.

    However, the Shi’ite Crescent formed right under Bush’s nose….because he was too busy being dumb as always. He lost his ‘crusade’ before it even started.

    • So, you think Bush to be a Sunni?

      Well, that doesn’t entirely surprise me.

        • So you do or do not think Bush to be a Sunni?

          Which is it?

          • Bush is an ass….always was.

          • But do you think him to be Sunni?

            Or not?

            Pick one. It’s easy. Even for you.

          • I said nothing about Bush’s religion….you’re confused again.

            Talk to your family.

          • No, you clearly referred to the Shia, in the story in opposition to the Sunni, as being in opposition to Bush.

            So, are you retracting that remark?

            Or at least repudiating it?

          • I said the Shi’ite Crescent formed under his nose.

            Pay attention.

          • So now you’re obsessed with his nose… or did you actually mean something else by it?

            Why do you think he would care if he’s not Sunni?

          • You shoulda talked to your family over the holidays Gramps.

            Adios.

          • So, no answer?

            Or have you not yet decided what it was you thought you meant?

          • I think he got some good weed for Christmas.

          • LOL is that what it is? His posts should come with warning labels!

          • They do, his name.

          • LOL I keep hoping for a moment of lucidity.

          • Dreamer.

          • Are liberals feeling sore today as the reality is catching up to Obama the golden mouth but no other skills but to appease Sunni 911 Islam??

          • You and Glyn are a matched set of crazies.

          • Bush put the bomb materials on the table and Obama made and executed the debt bomb that will cripple the USA for a generation or two.

            Or another way to look at it is Obama debt spend by the end of his term will be more than all presidents before him combined including both Bush former presidents. A dubious honor, the legacy of debt on people, their kids and grand kids.

            Bernanke too, in 2006 he started promising “free” money for debt and fraud low rates. This caused the USD decline and 2007 credit crisis and unemployment. 2008 crash was for currency fraud as people with less value money get less goods and services that drive jobs. GDP doesn’t drive jobs if its gains are inflationary, only Keynes idiot liberal economist think that way and it has failed for over 7 years now.

            They are all asses well honed in the art of deceiving people. That is how they got these positions with back room money and media propaganda.

          • That may be, Emily,
            But it must tick you off that he is an ass that is far more accomplished than you, or most of his other detractors.

          • Bush was owned, Saudi own a lot of USA, and also are a big benefactor for Harvard where Obama/Bernanke/Caney/Ignatieff/Nenshi and others came from.

            Obama on the other hand was a Muslim all along so bowing to a Saudi King came naturally as his golden handshake. Its why Obama supports Sunni/Saudi/UAE 911 like terrorism in Syria.

            Remember all 911 perps were Saudi or UAE and were ALL Sunni Islam.

            Yes, I know what this implies.

        • Obama giving the masonic handshake followed by the Saudi Sunni Islam bow…..

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CseUglupmZk

          You judge, it sure looked like a masonic handshake with a Islam bow to the King…. Yep, Obama bows to a Sunni Islam King. Now you know why Obama supports 911 like Sunni-Saudi/UAE terrorism in Syria and Iran.

          • Yer as crazy as Glynn

      • Bush was Saudi owned by Saudi. Look up daddy’s involvement with Carlyle group and how they owned a lot of GM debt and stock. It corrupted Bush for the bailouts. How one company was bailed out and another not was by the client billionaires and Saudi in their lists.

        Saudi are the largest owners of stock and corporate bonds in the domestic economy of USA, and why when Saudi talk, a USA presidents listens. If Saudi exited the USA and sold off USDs to other currencies, it would be a bigger crash than 2008.

    • I will say this, except for Islam, most religions have evolved since 640AD as not to include direct murder and persecution of others. But Sunniu Islam seems not to get along with anyone, especially the more passive Shia in Syria/Iran. THey behave as if my Islam or death from barbarism is the only option.

      Yes, even Obama supports Sunni Saudi/UAE 911 like terrorism. Sad day when USA supports the same terrorism as 911 and the Russians, Chinese, India and others oppose the USA/Saudi corruption and we don’t see it as it isn’t politically correct medias position.

    • Ugh. That argument about the West is weak, and used much much too often by those with no clue. Christianity existed for 1,600 years before a split between Catholicism and Protestantism even existed. And then wars for a few hundred years, 500 years max to today is stretching it. Islam split between Shia and Sunni was nearly immediate. And obviously the epic violence is widespread and relevent today in modern times all across the Muslim world, not nearly to the extent of the split in Christianity (Ireland). Islams internal religious war has been going on for almost 1,400 years. Islam has been fighting the same old battles, for much longer than anything Christianity has to offer. Not opinion or conjecture, this is fact.

      • There were many beliefs during that 2000 years…..the RC church was not a monolith….and wars went on between the groups. Most were smashed by the RCs although many still survive…..the Protestants were simpy the biggest ones after Martin Luther and didn’t get taken out.

        There are also more splits in Islam than the Shia/Sunni one. There is no ‘epic violence’. Christianity wars away as well today.

        I know you’re trying to make the Islamic situation unusual….but it isn’t.

        • It would be unusual if I read reports nearly every day about Catholics blowing up Methodist churches in America or Europe – but I don’t. Instead I read about Sunni militants destroying Shia mosques and vice versa. So in a way you are right, the Islamic situation isn’t unusual. Like I have previously said, this sectarian violence has been going on, nonstop, for 1400 years – making it pretty much, the norm. I am not a practicing Christian, but nothing annoys me more than comparing Islam with Christianity. Now if you can excuse me, I need to go read on Boko Haram destroying Christian churches in Nigeria.

          • Your lack of reading material is hardly my fault

            Perhaps you could look up Coptic, Gnostics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Evangelism, the shooting of doctors and bombing of bars, the current papal effort to clean up the RC mess….

            Then you could discover that Muslims believe in both the old and new testaments, in Satan and Jesus and all…..along with their later Mohammed. They in turn don’t like the later Ba’hai along with their Bahá’u'lláh

            All religions are the same…..and all religions are fairy tales. But they do a lot of damage and need to be eliminated.

          • in another post, you said there were over a billion Muslims. probably more Christians. point is, Religion will NEVER be eliminated. sooo, probably best to accept that and ajdust your arguments. also, have a MA in Middle East and Islamic Studies. I read material on Islam and ME constantly. I know a thing or two sweetheart.

          • Religion is fading away all the time, and will eventually disappear.

            If you knew anything about this subject you wouldn’t have made the arguments you did.

          • Emily, if you knew anything about the differences between Islam and Christianity, you wouldn’t have made the arguments you just did.
            Let’s compare:
            Christianity: You make fun of jesus…and christians don’t like it.
            Islam: Make fun of Mohammed…..and you are liable to be killed violently, along with your entire family.
            See the difference yet?
            I’ll give you one point though……I’m not partial to any religion myself, but if I was to live in a country with a predominant religious belief system….I’d take a Christian country over an Islamic one any day.
            You see Emily, there is a reason why hundreds of thousands of Muslims want to emmigrate to the West…..and not vice versa.
            I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

          • Notice to Halifax: I’m not interested in your racism, your fairy tales, or your fake stats…..so stop posting to me. Find someone gullible.

          • Emily, it may surprise you to realize that religion has no race….though clearly, you do not make the distinction.

            As for my “fake facts”…..look it up on google.

            As for finding someone gullible……..sorry, that doesn’t interest me. I’m much more prone to reply to someone who seems genuinely deluded to all reality……and that fits you to a T.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • My son is only three…..
            It will be a while before I become a Grandpa.
            Better than being a bitter lonely spinster though eh?

          • Religion has survived for thousands of years for a reason and it will continue to survive. Machiavelli said that if you lose respect for religion and ancient traditions you are on a downhill slide and he was right. Moral justification for evolutionary processes are natural and will continue.

          • LOL sorry, the Bronze age is over….move on from sheep-herder fairy tales.

          • If you were replying to me, the “bronze age” fairy tales are encoded in your physiological makeup. You will believe in something, no matter how illogical it might be. These bronze age beliefs are what make us human. They are a by-product of our ability to reason.

          • No they’re not.

            And belief in them makes monkeys, not humans

        • Proof indeed…that Emily is well, and truly deluded beyond all reasonable comprehension.
          Which by the way Emily, is why no one takes you seriously. In a nutshell….you’re just another ill-informed kook.

          • I’m not interested in your redneck swagger, sorry. Nor in your claim of support from fellow rednecks.

          • Sorry Emily…..I come from a family of red-heads….no sun on this neck.
            As for support…..I neither look for, nor require it. I speak my piece, and don’t really give two hoots what people think…..as long as they DO think. Clearly, that is not an issue for you, as you apparently have already finished all the thinking you planned to do.

      • While you are right about the timeline for the split between Protestant and Catholic, there were other more immediate splits within Christianity. Catholic and Orthodox being one. Others include the divisions that saw Nestorianism and Arianism among others being declared heresies – over their ideas surrounding the trinity. Then there was the issue of the Cathars to consider too. This last division being particularly bloody and leading to the Inquisition being formed and gaining a lot of its power.

        Catholics and Protestants were until recently at each others throats in Ireland and the atrocities spread all over Europe. Then we have the actions of evangelical Christians over the persecution of homosexuals and the subjugation of women; both of which are violent actions.

        That’s the problem with all religions, the underlying philosophy is so faulty that any of them can quickly revert to a totalitarian fundamentalist state. Today the loons are Islamic, when the fear is ramped up in the West to such a degree that they are perceived an existential threat watch for a militant Christianity to emerge.

        • The only reason pacifists survive is by the sacrifices of others. If Islamists are perceived as a existential threat than militant evolutionists will appear. Why? Because if they don’t then they are inferior and their brand of humanity will die off. We are living in a day of peace, but it wont last forever. the war drums will beat again and humanity will experience another social and technological revolution not seen since the Second world war.

  2. I’ve always said if there weren’t any Jews the Muslims would kill each other.

    • Hitler was Christian….killed a lot of Jews.

      • Ah, no, he most certainly was not, and he planned to eradicate Christianity from Germany.

          • Actually Brain is correct. He was educated in a Catholic school for a time, but for some reason he was on track to eradicate Catholic leaders etc. after the “Jewish Question” was solved. Nazism is considered by some WW2 scholars a cult of satanic proportions.

          • Actually Brian is totally wrong. You guys should have read Mein Kampf.

            And there is no such thing as a ‘cult of satanic proportions’

          • But we’re moving off topic. having “worked” in the ME and elsewhere with (and against) our Islamic friends I can tell you that they hate each other as much as they hate the Jews and for that matter, us.

          • They don’t ‘hate’ anybody…..there are 1.6 billion individuals….no different than anyone else.

          • Ah you should have stayed in and joined the party.

          • You, Glyn and Dave must be sharing the same bottle tonight

          • Ok, Emily….. move to Pakistan.
            you’re moral equivalence philosophy wouldn’t stand the test of reality I’m afraid.
            Regardless of the cult of Multiculturalism in Canada today…and the rest of the world, some cultures REALLY ARE SUPERIOR to others’.
            Can you guess which ones?
            Here’s a hint…..superior cultures are predominantely Christian in origin…and it has nothing to do with any dieties.

          • Maybe they just hated you.

          • Why are you so anti Christian? go live in Saudi Arabia if its so bad here
            Btw Ive read Mein Kampf and yes Hitler believed in a god but maybe it was Allah not the Christian God? and maybe it was his own, if there is no God then each persons god is different, so why does a belief in a god correlate to a Christian belief system?

          • I’m not anti-christian, I’m an atheist. I regard all religions as equally crazy.

            And if you think Hitler was a muslim, you’re crazy as well

          • An article by one writer in 2002, not backed up by anyone……against Hitler’s own words in Mein Kampf?

            Nope.

        • While I find Emily annoying she is right here

          “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exposed.”

          [Adolf Hitler, speech in Munich on April 12, 1922, countering a political opponent, Count Lerchenfeld, who opposed antisemitism on his personal Christian feelings. Published in "My New Order", quoted in Freethought Today April 1990]

          He was certainly as Christian as any like Falwell, Robertson etc.

    • Even with jews and christians, the muslims are killing each other, and at an enthusiastic pace, no less.

      • Hardly. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world

        • You doubt their enthusiasm?

          Not just in the mid east, but in Pakistan, India, and parts east of there, too muslims are cheerfully slaughtered for having marginally different beliefs.

          • No, I doubt your sanity.

          • Wandering off topic again, I see.

          • LOL no that’s your gig, gramps.

        • yes….and if the polls are to be believed….a large minority of them would happily slaughter you given the chance. Here’s another tidbit….many of them who think like this, have made a new home in Canada.

    • They kill each other anyways…

  3. This war never ended since 640AD or so.

    What I find odd is Obama supporting Sunni-Saudi-UAE 911 rebels in Syria terrorism. Not one media reporter is getting access to our corrupt politicians unless the questions are rigged to put government in good light. Just propaganda to us to sell another useless war.

    All because the back room wants war profits and control. Any time any large organization be it political or religious gets too much control over peoples lives we commoner class lose in taxes and sometime blood. There is a reason why congress and parliamentarians families have the lowest armed forces family participation of any group, they know war is about corruption and power and not worth dying for.

    Want to find corruption, its in Islam, its in the Vatican laundering mafia money for redemption, and politicians its about taxing us more, more debt for us, the kids and grand kids to fund war for the corrupt. Why not leave these countries to their own demise? Like chess, let your opponent make the mistakes.

    But we are well managed and brainwashed, how many realize just how our own media manipulates us?

  4. Muslims fighting amongst themselves affects more than Muslims.

    So, Michael, when can we expect something on the project embarked upon by Bishara Shlayan?

  5. Iraq has alwsys been the centre of Shias in Islamic World. In fact , Iran , was predominantly a Sunni country and conversion to Shiism haooebef mainky during the Safavi state

  6. And to think….given all of this historic violence between the various sects of Islam……We still have many Canadian University professors, NDP types (Libby Davies et al)…Queers against Israeli Apartheid, the UN…etc..etc….
    Who think all of the violence would end if only the West would let the Barbarians drive the Jews into the sea.
    Oi vey !!

  7. War is the oldest human tradition. It is the struggle for survival, for resources, it is the highest purpose of the state the WAY to life or death, the UN in condemning war crimes is opposing evolution itself.

  8. Turkey’s position as a power broker within Islam obviously has no bearing on this discussion.

    I’m sure Erdogan will be surprised, as his country was holding all the cards just over a century ago.

  9. Great piece, highly informative. Thanks for writing.

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