Sunnis and Shias have lived together in peace for centuries, and up to the new millennium have barely had a history of bloody conflict. Why now?
The Sectarian Elements of a Conflict
The Middle East is a mess from which no one can claim exemption. The invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war have pulled all the already beleaguered regional governments into tragic quicksand, where alliances and animosities constantly shift. Everyone is stuck in an overly complicated nexus of relations, and the future is so murky no political leader can put forth a plausible way out. The world powers are also in this up to their eyeballs, seeming even more confused than the regional players.
There are, however, undeniable facts: everybody knows Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides, that Iran is a Shia state, so are its regional allies, and the Saudis are Sunnis, as are their allies. Looking at this picture, many conclude that the Middle East is on fire because Sunnis and Shias are fighting out a belated battle to determine who is the legitimate heir to Muhammad’s legacy.
It would be self-deceiving to say the sectarian element doesn’t exist in the current conflict. The debate must be over its salience and relevance, and more importantly, its inevitability. A brief look at mainstream media in the west shows that a substantial portion of commentators regard this sectarian tension as the main factor, and an inevitable one.
With considerable frequency, we read that an ancient religious divide is fueling the war, that the doctrinal differences have set the leaders of two rival nations in competition, that the root cause of the problems in the Middle East is that Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s interpretation of Islam, that the ancient split between these two sects gave rise to ISIS, which marks the beginning of Islam’s 30 year war, and the region will not see the light of peace until the rival sects slug it out. Washington has been frequently attacked for disregarding this religious fissure, from both the left and right.
A brief look at recent history undermines this essentialist reading. The ongoing conflict is anything but ancient, and could easily be traced back to a specific period in the twentieth century: the early 1970s, when the shock of the oil boomcaused dramatic changes in Iran and Saudi Arabia and paved the path to the Islamic revolution in Iran and the rise of the Saudis as a wealthy regional power.
Those simultaneous events stimulated both countries to spread their tentacles into the rest of the region and cultivate a geopolitical competition between them. Before that, not only were things quiet, but Iranians and the Saudis even cooperated during the cold war to hold the so-called ‘red threat’ at bay.
The Iraq war and the Syrian conflict, neither of which was sectarian in its beginning, intensified this minor tension. It could have been contained if the disastrous invasion of Iraq had not happened. It would have been forgotten if the masses that poured into the streets in 2011 – to bring about a thoroughly nonsectarian political uprising – had seen their demands fulfilled.
Events took a different turn, and the sectarian flames were fanned in the process. But even then, as Joby Warrick shows in his excellent book, it took a ruthless thug like Abu Musab Zarqawi and his gang, who later on established ISIS, to bring the sectarian tension to the fore. There is a document that could rebut all the arguments for the inevitability of the sectarian war: a letter Ayman al Zawaheri penned to Zarqawi in July 2005, where he unequivocally called the attacks on the ordinary Shias unacceptable. At the time, Zawaheri was the second man of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden.
So the sectarian component is anything but integral to the Muslim world. But it is there, undeniably, blatantly, playing itself out on the ground, irreducible to politics, taking lives, staring us in the face, and challenging us to account for it. It is true that the American sledgehammer cracked Iraq and unleashed unbridled turmoil, but there must be a reason that the crack spread along sectarian lines.
Even if we assume that the tension began around the oil boom and boiled over later, it still begs the question of why this contemporary conflict’s point of reference is fourteen centuries ago, the day Muhammad died in Medina. The available analyses usually fall short of making the connection, thus failing to explain centuries of bi-sectarian quiet and its current eruption.
The Dawn of the Crisis
Thanks to the historians of early Islam, al-Tabari in particular, we know plenty about the mayhem in the aftermath of the death of Muhammad. After the prophet’s death, the whole community of Muslims in Arabia sunk into a crisis over his successor. Sunni scholars later argued that Muhammad had no living son, which means god considered him the last prophet, and Muhammad never appointed anyone as his successor, which means he had full trust in the community of Muslims.
Shia scholars would argue that Muhammad did pick his successor, named Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as the best choice for carrying the torch. They also contend that the prophet intended to make it clear on his deathbed, but Ali’s enemies thwarted the message.
Shortly after Muhammad’s death, a shura was held, which Ali boycotted, and against all odds, Abu Bakr becomes Muhammad’s first successor (Khalifah). Here the initial crack emerges: the Sunnis hold that Ali abandoned one of the greatest achievements of Islam, the sacred Islamic community. The Shias see in the story a connivance, a sinister usurpation of Ali’s right to succession.
As time went by, the history of early Islam grew bloodier. The respect for Muslim blood evaporated and factional politics ran amok. The assassination of Othman, the third Calif, is a symbolic incident: the third Calif was murdered by the son of the first Calif while reading the Quran. Especially in the Levant, or what is now Iraq and Syria, the bitter reality of power politics eclipsed spiritual unity. Muslims, divided along the line that separated Ali from Ayesha, Muhammad’s last wife, accused each other of betrayal and warred all too often. This new stage culminated in the most important incident in the history of Shiism.
Twenty years after the death of Ali, his son Hussein leaves Arabia to fight Yazid, son of Muawiyah, whom he considered the usurper of the Islamic empire. Along the way, the news arrived that Yazid had carried out a massive crackdown in Kufa, the stronghold of Hussein’s supporters, and killed many of his followers. Consequently, the army of Hussein whittled down to Hussein’s family and seventy two of his most loyal followers. Hussein decides to move ahead, the unavoidable massacre notwithstanding.
The Sunnis consider this decision foolhardiness, the Shias ultimate sacrifice. The result is the same: the most horrific and traumatizing bloodshed in the history of Islam, in which four thousand soldiers encircled Muhammad’s grandson, his family and loyal followers, cut their access to water, massacred them, and finally, on the day known today as Ashura, killed Hussein and chopped his head off. That massacre came to reside at the heart of Shiism, and sowed the seeds of a strife that has haunted Islam to this day.
But, what is the relevance? What connects those events of early Islam to the mess in contemporary Middle East? Despite the catastrophe, Sunnis and Shias have lived together in peace for centuries, and sporadic battles aside, up to the new millennium barely had a history of bloody conflict. Why now?
Monotheism According to Freud: A Comparative Clance
If Ashura rings a bell for the Christian reader, it should. The similarities between Hussein and Jesus are too many to miss: both were powerless, decent men who rose up against the powers that be, and by an act of sacrifice debunked the tyrant’s claim to faith. Both deaths were tragic enough to spark centuries of mourning, and beget new religious doctrines. The story of Jesus and the Jews, therefore, might give us some clue regarding the roots of the current conflict in the Islamic world.
Sometime in 1939 in London, when the persecution of Jews in Germany had reached an unprecedented high and the second world war was to engulf Europe, the old heartbroken Sigmund Freud, having fled his beloved Vienna for London to spend his last years in exile, sat down to pen the last installment of his study of Judaism.
In the second part of the book Freud reiterates the core ideas of Totem and Taboo, describing how the killing of the father at the hand of ancient brothers founded human society. In Moses and Monotheism, he takes patricide as the foundation of monotheism as well, contending that the monotheistic god is the murdered father elevated to divine status. He also draws a brief comparison with Islam, claiming “the inner development of the new religion, however, soon came to a standstill, perhaps because it lacked the profundity which, in the Jewish religion, resulted from the murder of its founder.” The Shias would beg to differ: for them, the murder of Hussein and his family in Karbala is no less compelling than the crucifixion is for Christians.
Freud reads the history of religions as torturous paths towards growing up. On top of the killing of the father, the tensions and wars that occur in early phases of religions amount to massive childhood traumas in a person. Just as traumas have an incubation period and come back to bite later in life, the historical traumas of religions lay latent for long periods, sometimes centuries. We repress traumas to make life endurable, but the repressed is bound to return. Shouldn’t we attribute a part of religious and sectarian wars in history to the traumas they underwent in their childhood?
Freud’s uncharacteristically gloomy book tells us that historical and religious scars do not fade easily. Every major development in history, at its conception, has been scar-stricken. The scar at the heart of Islam is no exception: the discontent created in the shura turned into a scratch by the war of the Camel, and a deep scar by Karbala. Traumas like that don’t simply go away, but they can be controlled, just as this trauma was contained for hundreds of years.
The history of the last two centuries in the Middle East amounts to successive blows at all the forces that contain the childhood trauma of Islam. Brutal colonialism, titular kings who did little more than pander to their western masters, any number of secular dictators whose blind brutality empowered reactionary clerics, severely damaged centuries of peaceful coexistence across the Islamic world.
The disastrous invasion of Iraq was the last straw. It tore apart the last tissues that held this battered body together. Just as the emergence of Hitler ruined peaceful existence in the already suffering Europe, and opened up the scar at the heart of Judeo-Christian societies that originated in the crucifixion of Jesus at the hand of his fellow-Jews, Bush’s invasion of Iraq served as the match in a barrel of dynamite.
Therefore, Shia-Sunni tension is as inevitable and integral to Islam as any other religious, sectarian tension is integral to any other religion. Thanks to the sheer amount of violence heaped upon the Middle East for centuries, the childhood trauma of Islam has exploded onto its surface.
The catastrophe is traveling along sectarian lines, and world leaders are watching it transfixed. Every now and then they come up with cosmetic peace plans, which never work, because this kind of scar will not be healed by political maneuvering and sly brinksmanship. Only fundamental commitment to peace on all sides can bring this to an end. In the absence of honest cooperation across warring factions, the scar will continue to bleed, until the body is irrecoverably dead.
About the author
Amir Ahmadi Arian is an Iranian writer and translator, PhD graduate of comparative literature from the University of Queensland, currently enrolled at NYU’s creative writing program. In Iran, he has worked with various newspapers and magazines, and published more than 200 articles on the culture and politics of Iran and the Middle East.