Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sunni and Shia: So who are the bad guys again?

Baby faces vs. heals?  Cowboys vs Indians?  Good guy always where the white hat.  “Dig is he a good guy or bad guy?”  Bad guys always, looked, well, bad. You’re either with us or you’re against us.  Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are the axis of evil.
Americans, for the most part, have a pretty simple outlook on conflict: just tell us who the bad guys are and we’ll know who to root against.  We tend to lump similar races and peoples into larger buckets, mostly due to the media’s inclination to treat us like potential Jeff Foxworthy competitors.  But the world is anything but simple and as I have written previously, the Middle East is as confusing and confounding place as you can find.  During the Iran and Iraq war of the 1980’s most Americans took the position that “…as long as they kill each other, I’m good.”  When civil war ravaged Afghanistan, we joined the side of the Mujahedeen because they were fighting the Soviets and the Soviets were our archenemy, a position they occupied since the end of World War II.  When the U.S. led coalition threw Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, most Americans did not appreciate, and neither did some of our leaders, the centuries old schism that was again reaching boiling point within Islam.  This Shia versus Sunni conflict has been prevalent in Islamic society pitting Muslim against Muslim for centuries, and we stepped right into it.
The 9/11 attacks thrust America right into a world we didn’t understand.  Americans are better equipped to dealing with conflict on the national stag:  Japan, Germany, Soviet Union, etc.  We don’t do so well with tribal, ethnic, and religious nuances.  On September 15th, 2001 Mesa, Arizona gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh from India, was fatally gun downed by Frank Silva Roque in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks.  This was one of many retaliatory attacks against Americans or residents due to ignorance, racism, and stupidity.  I am not condemning America, it remains the greatest nation on earth, but we are ignorant of the world around us; a tragic flaw in the hyper connected globalized world we live in today.
We live in a world of nuance that we view through a black and white lens.  This is why the Arab Spring, an awful name, is so confusing to us and why our leaders may seem slow to react to events on the ground.  
Let’s start with the political lightning rod: Israel. Full disclosure, I am a staunch supporter of the Israeli people and the state of Israel, but an open critic of the Netanyahu government.  The majority Americans see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something I have written about extensively, as a matter of the Jewish Israelis against the Islamic Palestinians.  Jew versus Muslim.  Israeli versus Arab.  But it’s not that simple.  Legally and morally the two-state solution is the right thing to do, but politics and religion will not allow that to happen, and having previously analyzed Israeli politics I will focus on Palestinian politics and Islam.  The more moderate secular Fatah runs the West Bank while the Islamist Hamas runs Gaza the status quo since the 2006 elections that led to the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza.  Within Gaza, there are a number of other Islamist and Salafist factions that have no interest in a two state solution, because they don’t recognize national autonomy, only religious dominance.  This divide amongst the Sunni Palestinians remains a roadblock to a peace treaty with Israel, a fact that is neither lost on nor remains unexploited by the Netanyahu government. Fatah, receives funding from the U.S. and other western governments as reward for seeking a peaceful solution.  Hamas is funded, supported and supplied via the resurging Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and from its benefactors in Shia Iran.  Wait, hold on.  Shia Iran supports Sunni Palestinians?  But I thought they hated each other?  Iran’s goal was always to feed the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran is not an Arab country another common misunderstanding, as a distraction to its greater goal of regional domination over its major Sunni adversaries in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and the other oil-rich Arab gulf nations.  But the Iranian influence on Hamas is waning due in part to the Muslim Brotherhood emergence in post-Mubarak Egypt, Hamas has always viewed itself as the child of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the decline of the Hamas presence in Syria due to the implosion happening under the al-Assad butchery of his own people(more on that later).  Iran has even reached out to Islamic Jihad, a rival to Hamas in Gaza, to possibly usurp the usurpers and allow Tehran to regain influence.  So far those advances have not materialized because of the power struggle now occurring within Hamas.  Hamas’s political leadership is located in exile in Syria and is led by Khaled Mishal and it’s Mishal that has made overtures to Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas about reconciliation.  Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is now looking to reconcile with Islamic Jihad to continue the conflict with Israel.  Syria is becoming a noxious effect within the Palestinian rivals and as a reuslt Iran is losing influence.  How bad has it become for Iran in Gaza?  25 Shia’s living in Gaza were beaten by Hamas security forces for gathering to mark the 40 day mourning period of Hussein, the Muhammad’s grandson and heir apparent murdered in 680AD.  Yes events that occurred over 1,300 years ago still dominate this Muslim on Muslim conflict.
Meanwhile in Syria, an opposite effect is occurring.  The Sunni majority is rising up against the Alawite, a Shia offshoot, minority power base of Bashar al-Assad.   Iran has supported the al-Assad regime and between the two Shia dominated states, they have peddled influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah and, as previously stated, in Gaza via Hamas.  But that could all unravel when al-Assad’s regime meets its inevitable end.  The problem will be what fills the vacuum?  Months after the demise of Gadhafi in Libya, his supporters still fight on and the infighting between different rebel factions continues.  Stability is still a long way off.  As bad as the Libya situation is, it pales in comparison to what could happen in Syria.  Between Shias, Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, and Druze plus the nationalistic objectives of Iran and Turkey plus the security concerns of Lebanon and Israel we are facing a cauldron of strife, death, instability.  It is not a reach to say that an imploding Syria will likely take Lebanon with it as the powerful Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah could find itself battling resurging Sunni and Christian blocs, each with similar proportion of the population. 
Take all of the above and throw in a nuclear aspiring Iran and you can see why the region grows significantly unsettled.  The rift between Shia and Sunni is as violent as ever.  On December 5th Sunni bombs killed 30 Shias in Iraq and 55 more in Kabul.  During one week in January, 19 more Shias were killed in Iraq, 21 were killed in Pakistan, and 53 Shias were killed in Basra, Iraq.  In Egypt the resurging Sunni powered Islamists have been persecuting Coptic Christians and Shia minorities, and in faraway Java, Indonesia, Sunnis torched Shia property.  Mix in the ongoing unrest in Bahrain and Yemen and suddenly you realize what have we walked or stumbled into with our forays into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 
Do you want to know how crazy it really is?  Shia websites in Pakistan are now claiming that Sunni Al-Qaeda forces are collaborating with U.S. Armed Forces to destabilize Iran and Syria.  Al-Qaeda?
Ok, so who are the bad guys again?


  1. Things are looking good then. Let's hope that Assad falls quickly so that the region stabilizes into a state of total, constant violence. The good, old days of Iran-Iraq conflict was the last time the world was this safe. 9-11 occurred when the region was dangerously unstable (relative peace within the region), and the violence gets exported. The only better situation would be if the region could be cut off and melded to North Korea, and maybe Kim and Mo could duke it out.

  2. Going by the number of Shias killed by Sunnis, it seems pretty clear the Sunnis are the ones prone to killing the opposition, the bad guys.

  3. It used to be commonly believed that the Shia were worse, based simply on their actions. Technically, the first (and most deadly) Middle Eastern terrorists were secular Arab nationalists allied with communist terrorists and the Soviet Union. Islamist terrorism started out with the Iranian revolution and was overwhelmingly dominated by Shi'ite terrorist groups such as Amal, the Iraqi Dawa Party, and Hezbollah, as well as Shi'ite dissidents in Bahrain and Yemen (the Yemeni rebels have just now seized the capital after God knows how many years they've been fighting a low-level civil war). Saudi Hezbollah attacked the Khobar Towers, Kuwaiti Hezbollah and the Iraqi Dawa Party attempted to carry out what could have been "the worst terrorist episode of the twentieth century in the Middle East" in Kuwait in 1983, Amal slaughtered thousands in Lebanon, the Ayatollah Khomeini held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days and demanded (and attempted to carry out via a Hezbollah attack in London) the murder of Salman Rushdie, and Imad Muginyeh--the closest thing to a Shi'ite Osama bin Laden--boasted of responsibility for devastating attacks on Jewish civilians in Argentina and Panama after murdering hundreds of American and French diplomats, peacekeepers, and civilians in Lebanon. The Muslim Brotherhood was explicitly non-violent until 1987, although Hamas was created to counter the rival Sunni movement Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Hezbollah-sponsored Popular Resistance Committees is even more militant than Hamas. Outside of Israel, the world was hardly cognizant of any Sunni Islamist threat on par with the Shia threat until the 1998 embassy bombings that made bin Laden a wanted man.
    After the 9/11 massacre perpetrated by fanatical Saudis and Egyptians, the even more extraordinary outbursts of barbarism committed by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi against Westerners and Shia, and now the ethnic cleansing and mass rape perpetrated by the Iraqi-dominated Islamic State, it's difficult to view the Shia as a bigger threat than the Sunnis. Shi'ite death squads certainly killed many Sunnis during the Iraq war, but many Iraqi Shi'ite Islamists are also willing to participate in the political process, and the Yemeni rebels are unlikely to demand all Sunnis and Christians convert or die.
    Is Sunni Islam actually worse than Shi'ite Islam? In truth, Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims in the world, so there should be more Sunni terrorists all things being equal. While Sunni Islamists seem far more brutally misogynist than their Shi'ite counterparts, the savagery of the Taliban is perhaps more a matter of culture than religion, and you certainly can't blame Sunni teachings for the vast majority of violence against women in primitive African warzones that happen to be Muslim. I would argue that demography is destiny, and Persian civilization will forever be superior to Arab civilization quite apart from which sect they belong to. Nevertheless, Shi'ite Islam thrives on openness and discussion, and understands the Koran to contain parables and metaphors--whereas Sunni Islam is far more orthodox, literal, and repressive.

    1. But does that make the Sunnis more of a threat? All of the Shi'ite Islamists (the Iraqi Dawa Party, al Sadr's Mahdi Army, the Houthi rebels, Hezbollah/PRC) are Iranian proxies--If they have any grassroots support or not, they are nevertheless controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with the same tactics and even the same slogans. This may actually ensure they are more restrained, if better-trained and equipped, than the ever-mutating Sunni threat--in which Sunnis compete to prove their ideological zeal with astonishing cruelty, to the point where even al Qaeda distances itself from the Islamic State.
      The question being asked is probably not even the correct one. Iran is the single greatest state sponsor of terrorism in the region. They played both sides of the Iraqi insurgency, and have even offered some limited support to the Taliban to bleed the US. Prior to 9/11, Hezbollah trained al Qaeda (including the 9/11 hijackers) in Lebanon and Sudan. Although Hezbollah as a Lebanese entity has gone to some lengths to distance themselves from al Qaeda since then, Iran evacuated hundreds of al Qaeda operatives from Afghanistan after the US invasion (including Sa'ad bin Laden and Zarqawi), arresting some but allowing others to use Iranian soil as a critical transit place and major source of funding for the organization. The 2003 Riyadh compound bombings were planned by al Qaeda in Iran, with indisputable Iranian complicity, as the US had warned the Iranian authorities in advance. Moreover, the Iranians are still allowing Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov to provide visas and passports to numerous foreign al Qaeda fighters in Syria, even as Hezbollah engages in extensive fighting with Islamic State.