More unites the country's rival religious factions than divides them
March 5, 2004
By Martin Woollacott
It is typical of how Middle Eastern politics is rooted in past history that the date which sprang to many Shia minds after the bombs in Kerbala this week was May 1801, when Wahhabi warriors swept in from what is now Saudi Arabia and sacked the city. According to a European chronicler, the raiders converted the shrine of Imam Hussein "into a cloaca of abomination and blood".
Two centuries later that assault by the Sunni Muslims most intolerant of Shi'ism reverberates down the years, even though most of the Sunni world is far from sharing such views. What these memories underline is that intervention in Iraq has severely shaken up both Sunni and Shia society across the Middle East. On the one hand they are drawn toward embracing a common solidarity against extremism and expressing a common distaste for outside interference. On the other, their interests diverge, their religious choices still divide them and, in particular, their attitudes to the US attempt to transform Iraq are very different.
The Kerbala and Baghdad attacks in themselves say nothing about the over-emphasised and overwrought question of whether there is a possibility of civil war in Iraq. They are clearly the acts of an extremist minority, and, equally important, it is highly unlikely that Iraqi Shias will respond to them by attacking the Sunni community. Well controlled by their generally sensible religious leaders, they are in any case surely aware that a sectarian conflict could take away from them the chance of a normal life in a state in which for the first time ever they will get what is due to them in terms of power, position, and religious freedom.
It cannot be ruled out that the same group or groups who bombed Kerbala might bomb Sunni places of worship as well, in the hope of sparking a general conflict, but such acts would be so transparent that they would almost certainly fail of their object. The spontaneous acts of Sunni solidarity which Baghdad witnessed as the Shia dead were carried past reinforce that view. When an Iraqi government - with significant powers and responsibilities and with Shias in a leading position - comes into being, it will have to deal more directly with the insurgency, but is likely to be shrewd enough to use only Sunni forces to do so in majority Sunni areas.
Although the attacks should not be seized on as a harbinger of civil war, they are another indication of how Iraq is a cockpit and a frontline place for so many different forces in the Middle East - Sunni and Shia, radical and moderate, Persian and Arab. This is not just a question of the fight with al-Qaida and its affiliates and other violent extremists which President Bush evoked with the phrase "Bring 'em on". It has had a long development. Once British influence in Baghdad ended with the Iraqi revolution of 1958, conflict between an Arab nationalist regime in Baghdad and the western-backed shah, both sides aiming to meddle in the politics of the other, was inevitable.
It was followed by a far worse crisis of relations after the Iranian revolution. In 1978 the Sunni world was rocked by the spectacle of Shias and Persians, about whom it had known little, taking the lead in both a movement of religious reform and a decisive repudiation of foreign control and influence. Some were admiring, some were perplexed, some, later, cynical, and some were profoundly hostile.
The Iranian revolution set off two confrontations. One was with Saddam's Iraq, and the other with Saudi Arabia. One was a conventional war, one was a pan-Islamic struggle for religious influence. The radical magnetism which the Iranian revolution briefly exercised was not the only reason why the global proselytising efforts of the Saudi religious establishment intensified, overlapping with existing Sunni fundamentalist movements elsewhere, but it was certainly one of them. Those efforts undermined the inter-faith coexistence which prevailed in parts of the Muslim world, since, in the Wahhabi understanding, Shias are either not Muslims or only barely so. As an example of how that influence worked in practice, when the Taliban took over much of Afghanistan, they seized and renamed all the Shia mosques in Kabul, as well as persecuting the Hazara, an ethnic group of that faith, with especial ferocity.
Now a third revolution, the one brought about by US intervention in Iraq, has again shifted the balance between Sunnis and Shias, in both Iraq and the region. The old Ba'athist elite, largely Sunni, is obviously displaced and angry. The shift in the balance is also uncomfortable for ordinary Iraqi Sunnis, who feel disoriented by such changes as the introduction of Shia calls to prayer on radio and television.
Then there are those who choose to see the establishment of a stable Iraq, with its inevitable Shia preponderance, as amounting to the alienation of a major country from the Sunni and Arab world. As one proponent of this view put it in a comment received after a column on Iraq, the Iraqi Sunnis "worked to maintain Iraq's unity, its Arab character and its independence in the face of persistent Iranian meddling and a rebellious Kurdish population... the active demolition of that vision by the Kurds who would secede in all but name and the Shia who will rule the rest of Iraq under the guiding hand of Iranian backed Ayatollahs". Kurds, although Sunnis, and Shias alike are, in this argument, allies of the Americans and betrayers of the "true" Iraq, while the Iranians continue their malign manoeuvres from the flank.
Such a description may fleetingly touch reality, as well as having a kind of emotional logic for traumatised Sunnis. But, if it were to take hold among Sunnis in Iraq and come to dominate the understanding of Sunnis outside the country, it could lead to a confrontation between the two communities in Iraq and to a confrontation between Sunni and Shias in the Muslim world.
That is why much depends on Iraqi common sense and the country's traditions of tolerance. Families and tribes in Iraq have Sunni and Shia branches, intermarriage has not been uncommon, and both branches of Islam suffered persecution under Saddam, although the Shias fared much worse. Above all, a realistic Iraqi nationalism consists in working to progressively ease the Iraqi project away from the Americans, who might reach the point - perhaps under a President Kerry - at which they realise that their best chance for an Iraq which is relatively responsive to their interests is to cut their presence to a minimum, or leave entirely, if only because any regime in Iraq which is regarded by the people as an American creature could never be an effective or stable government. But such a realistic nationalist course can only be based on a close cooperation between the two religious communities.
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