The long, violent history of Shia-Sunni conflict

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The long, violent history of Shia-Sunni conflict

Sunday, 31 May 2015 | SURENDRA KUMAR GUPTA

The long, violent history of Shia-Sunni conflict

Clerics of the power centres of Shias and Sunnis, Iran and Saudi Arabia, should play a major role in resolving the issues between them, says SURENDRA KUMAR GUPTA

At present, many countries, specifically the Middle East Muslim world, are engaged in a fierce sectarian battle between Shias and Sunnis. This battle has engulfed Syria, Iraq and Yemen to such a large extent that about two million Syrian people have taken refuge in other countries. Thousands of innocent Syrians have been killed; in Iraq too more than one million people have died in the last decade, and it’s the same story in Yemen — further escalated by Saudi Arabian air attacks.

Who can forget a long war between Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni) and Iran, a Shia country, which started in 1980 and ended in 1988, leading to a massive bloodshed and killing of around one million MuslimsIJ More recently, on May 13, 47 Ismaili Shia Muslims, including women and children, were shot dead by a Sunni terrorist group in Karachi, Pakistan.

This sectarian battle dates back to the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, which led to a dispute over who would succeed him as Caliph of the Islamic community spread across the world. The dispute intensified after the Battle of Karbala in which Husayn ibn Ali and his family members were killed by the ruling Caliph Yazid I, and the outcry for revenge divided the early Islamic community.

Today, there are differences in religious practices, traditions, and customs. Although all Muslim groups consider the Quran to be divine, Sunnis and Shias have different opinions on Hadith. Sunni and Shia Islam are the two major denominations of Islam. The demographic breakdown between the two denominations to a good approximation is that 87-90 per cent of the world’s Muslims, having a population of around 1.57 billion, are Sunnis, while 10-13 per cent are Shias. Most of the Shias, about 68-80 per cent, live in just four countries — Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq, and there are only four countries with a Shia majority — Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.

Sectarian violence persists to this day from Pakistan to Yemen and is a major element of friction throughout the Middle East. Tension between the communities has intensified during power struggles, such as the Bahraini uprising, the Iraq War, and most recently the Syrian Civil War. The formation of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its advancement in Syria and Northern Iraq has been because of the fact that it is a Sunni jihadi group in addition to Al-Qaeda, which already existed there. Both groups are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he belongs to a minority Alawite sect of Shias, and is allegedly supported by a Shia terrorist organisation Hezbollah.

In Iraq, the Sunni minority community had allegiance with ISIS to oppose the majority Shias. In Yemen, too, the Houthis, a Shia terrorist group, are fighting a fierce battle with the Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is supported by Saudi Arabia. likewise, in other countries too the fight is between Shia and Sunni power centres, which is being described as below:

Shia-Sunni strife in Afghanistan has mainly been a function of the puritanical Sunni Taliban’s clashes with Shia Afghans, primarily the Hazara ethnic group. In 1998, more than 8,000 noncombatants were killed when the Taliban, a Sunni terrorist group, attacked Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan where many Hazaras lived. Some of the slaughter was indiscriminate, but many were Shias targeted by the Taliban. Taliban commander and Governor Mullah Niazi also banned prayer at Shia mosques.

The Shias suffered indirect and direct persecution under post-colonial Iraqi Governments since 1932, erupting into full-scale rebellions in 1935 and 1936. Shias were also persecuted during the Ba’ath Party rule, especially under Saddam. It is said that every Shia clerical family of note in Iraq had tales of torture and murder to recount. In 1969, the son of Iraq’s highest Shia Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim was arrested and allegedly tortured. From 1979 to 1983, Saddam’s regime executed 48 major Shia clerics in Iraq.

Though sectarian tensions in lebanon were at their peak during the lebanese Civil War, the Shia-Sunni relations were not the main reason of conflict. The Shia party/militia of Hezbollah emerged in lebanon during the lebanese Civil War as one of the strongest forces following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and the collapse of the South lebanese Army in the South. The tensions blew into a limited warfare between Shia dominated and Sunni dominated political alliances in 2008.

The small Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain has a Shia majority but is ruled by Sunni Al Khalifa family as a constitutional monarchy, with Sunni dominating the ruling class and military, and disproportionately represented in the business and land ownership notables. Bahrain’s 2002 election was widely boycotted by Shias. Mass demonstrations were held in favour of full-fledged democracy in March and June 2005 against an alleged insult to Ayatollah Khamenei in July 2005.

In Saudi Arabia, Shia Muslims — who constitute about eight per cent of the population — faced discrimination in employment as well as limitations on religious practices. Shia jurisprudence books were banned, the traditional annual Shia mourning procession of Ashura was discouraged, and operating independent Islamic religious establishments remained illegal. At least seven Shia religious leaders — Abd al-latif Muhammad Ali, Habib al-Hamid, Abd al-latif al-Samin, Abdallah Ramadan, Sa’id al-Bahaar, Muhammad Abd al-Khidair, and Habib Hamdah Sayid Hashim al-Sadah — were reportedly imprisoned for violating these restrictions.

In Pakistan, from 1987 to 2007, “as many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died” in Shia-Sunni sectarian fighting, and “300 were killed in 2006”. Among the culprits blamed for the killings are Al-Qaeda, which worked with local sectarian groups to kill those they perceived as Shia apostates, and foreign powers trying to sow discord. Most of the violence took place in the largest province of Punjab and the country’s commercial and financial capital, Karachi. There have also been conflagrations in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Azad Kashmir.

Sunni-Shia clashes also occurred occasionally in the 20th century in South Asia. There were many between 1904 and 1908, especially in Uttar Pradesh. These clashes revolved around the public cursing of the first three caliphs by Shias and their praising by Sunnis. To put a stop to the violence, public demonstrations were banned in 1909 on the three most sensitive days: Ashura, Chehlum and Ali’s death on 21 Ramadan. Inter-communal violence resurfaced in 1935-36 and again in 1939 when thousands of Sunnis and Shias defied the ban on public demonstrations and took to the streets. Shias are estimated to be 21-35 per cent of the Muslim population in South Asia.

Clerics of the power centres of Shias and Sunnis, Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, should come forward to play a major role in resolving the issues and animosity between them without caring for provocations by Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. The second option could be that they should involve Turks for mediation otherwise the senseless battle, which is enforcing misery and hardships on the inhabitants of the Muslim world, will never end.

The writer is ex-General Manager, BHEl

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