The Prophet's Curse: Islam's Ancient Divide Fuels Middle East Conflicts

By Christoph Reuter

They began as a cry for freedom in the Middle East, but the Arab rebellions have become increasingly characterized by an ancient sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. SPIEGEL examines how the power struggle between the two groups is sparking new fears along old frontlines.

Photo Gallery: Islam's Old Sectarian Divide Photos
AFP

In the countries that follow the Muslim faith, the lines between past and present often blur, making it seem as though the past is not over, and certainly not forgiven. Indeed, the past can come terribly alive here, and it can turn terribly deadly, again and again, every day.

When representatives from around the world convened in the Iranian capital of Tehran last Thursday for the start of a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an annual meeting of 120 nations that view themselves as not aligned for or against any major powers, the focus was suddenly on 1,300-year-old battles, murders and power struggles. The host was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Shiite. Next to him on the dais was Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni.

Morsi began his opening address with a mention of the Prophet Muhammad, but then continued: "May Allah's blessing be upon our masters Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali."

Iranian media immediately took the statement as a provocation. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were Muhammad's successors after the Prophet's death in 632. Sunni Muslims venerate them as the first caliphs -- but Shiite Muslims consider them usurpers and traitors to the faith, hated figures whose very names should not be spoken. Muhammad's true successor, Shiites say, was Ali, their first imam, who later fought against the other three before being murdered.

Morsi went on to discuss the present situation in Syria, where Bashar Assad is overseeing the massacre of rebels who are mostly Sunni. Assad and his clique belong to the country's Alawite minority, which is more closely aligned with the Shiites. "The bloodshed will not stop without intervention from outside," the Egyptian president declared, saying that Assad's regime had lost all legitimacy. Morsi, a Sunni, made these statements while sitting next to the Shiite Ahmadinejad, who has been providing the Syrian regime with weapons and now fighters, too.

Morsi must know that any country that intervenes in Syria risks ending up at war with Iran, as well. The frontlines of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites run through many countries in the Middle East, and those who fan the flames in one part of the region may find themselves under fire in another part entirely.

An Ancient Conflict

From Tunisia to Bahrain, the Arab Spring began as a rebellion against despots and their rapacious clans. It began with a cry for freedom, justice and prosperity. But, increasingly, these rebellions are being sucked into the maelstrom that is the ancient conflict between these two different camps of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

It was power that was at stake after Muhammad's death, and it's still at stake today. Like tectonic plates that explode into motion after long periods of apparent calm, there is always friction under the surface between these two groups. In the past, that tension has often burst forth as carnage, for example, in the Iraqi civil war, which began in 2004 and still hasn't really ended. In late July of this year, 27 separate explosions killed 107 people within the space of a few hours. Most of the victims were Shiites, and it's assumed the bombers were Sunnis.

But rarely have so many countries and regimes experienced active tensions at once. There has been far more of this since the rebellions of the Arab Spring began in North Africa, in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, toppling moribund despots or forcing them into crisis and even open warfare. There are also rumblings in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, everyone is afraid of each other, while Iran fears an attack from Israel.

The rebellions all began in a similar way -- people wanted to topple their dictators and bring an end to despotic rule. But these political battles have also fanned new fears along old fronts.

Arab Spring Momentum

When Sunnis in Syria fight their country's Alawite regime, they receive help from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. At the same time, Iran supplies Damascus with money, weapons and, more recently, troops.

When Shiites in Bahrain fight their country's Sunni king, they're applauded by Iran and by Syria's regime. At the same time, Saudi Arabia supports Bahrain's despot.

For years, representatives of Bahrain's Shiite majority, who are treated as second-class citizens, have been demanding more rights from their king. The conflict had been brewing for a long time, but it was the momentum of the other Arab revolutions that brought thousands of Bahrainis out to the streets.

When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a consortium consisting primarily of the oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf, met in March 2011, it declared that Libya's Colonel Moammar Gadhafi should resign because he had lost all legitimacy by deploying tanks against his own people. Shortly after, GCC member Saudi Arabia sent tanks into Bahrain to crush the peaceful protests there.

The silence from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two major satellite news channels operated by the Sunni states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively, is also telling. On some days, these broadcasters provide hourly reports on murders in Syria, yet they give little coverage to the violence in Bahrain.

Syria's state-run media, on the other hand, deplore the harsh treatment of the largely Shiite opposition in Bahrain -- even as Syria's own regime has turned to carpet-bombing entire neighborhoods in which primarily Sunnis live.

Power and Faith

The war that the regime in Damascus is waging against Syria's mostly Sunni rebels is increasingly taking on denominational characteristics, and not just within the country. The struggle is also drawing in external participants belonging to both camps. Soldiers from Lebanon's militant Islamist group Hezbollah, which is Shiite, have come to help the regime, as have elite forces from Iran, while Libyan volunteers have joined the rebels, who also receive significant amounts of money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Iraq, attacks by Sunni radicals are on the rise once again as the Shiite government forces Sunnis out of positions of power. Sunni terrorists groups in Pakistan murder Shiites, and even a Shiite mosque in Belgium was the target of an arson attack this March that killed the mosque's imam. The presumed attacker, a radical Sunni, declared after his arrest that he had acted out of revenge for Iran's military aid to Syria.

Shiites make up only 10 to 13 percent of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims, but their representation in the states around the Persian Gulf is significantly higher. Shiites account for 90 percent of the population in Iran, 70 percent in Bahrain, over 60 percent in Iraq, 35 percent in Kuwait and around 10 percent in Saudi Arabia.

In the Islamic world, where power and faith have always commingled, political conflicts often become religious ones, turning into a question of power that cuts along one of the region's most important frontlines.

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