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The Far-Reaching, Ever Fluid Shia v. Sunni Battle For The Soul Of Islam

Mirroring the Catholic-Protestant battles of the past, intra-Islamic violence has global reverberations far beyond faith. Right now, it's coming to a head in Syria.

Praying in the night
Praying in the night
Christophe Ayad

PARIS - Is this the new epic war of religion? A denominational civil war, finding its source in doctrinal and religious differences, but turned into a geopolitical conflict, a scramble for hegemony over a continent and a prevailing model of the state rule. Just like the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 17th century Europe, the war opposing Shiites with Sunnis is re-drawing the Middle Eastern map at the dawn of the 21st century -- and defining the future of political Islam on a global scale.

It would be a mistake to view the current standoff as simply a return to the succession quarrels that pitted Ali's supporters (Shiites) against the keepers of tradition (Sunnis) shortly after the Prophet's death. The Shia and Sunni Islams in place today are political paradigms and geographical blocs, more than religious beliefs. But, as in any religious war, one must be careful with identity appearances: the long rivalry between Shia and Sunni Islams must not inevitably be bound to end in blood and bombs, in spite of the anti-Shiite anathema cast by Ibn Taymyya a renowned theologian from the 13th century, which still inspires Saudi Wahhabism, Salafism, and Jihadism.

By invading Iraq in 2003, and overthrowing the Arab ruler the most viscerally hostile to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States has -- unwittingly -- re-activated the Shia-Sunni conflict in its modern form. In fact, it goes back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the toppling of the Shah's pro-American regime. By assuming leadership of the protest, and eliminating his leftist rivals, the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite clergy imposed on Iran a politicized and revolutionary vision of Islam.

Assad v. Saddam

From the principle of velayat-al-faqih (the government of the religious) and self-proclaimed spokesman of the "oppressed" by the "Great Satan" (the USA) and the "Little Satan" (Israel), Khomeini made himself the leader of a global revolution whose first step was the overthrowing of corrupt Sunni rulers sold out to the USA.

Saudi princes whose supremacy leans on petrodollars, the withdrawing of Egypt (following Gamal Abdel Nasser's defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, and a separate peace with Israel, signed by Anwar Sadat in 1979) and the control of the two holiest sites of Islam -- Mecca and Medina -- see in Iran an existential threat. When Saddam Hussein's Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, the Saudi dynasty joined the whole of the Arab-Sunni community behind Baghdad.

Only one country did not join this Sunni holy alliance: Hafez Al-Assad's Syria, then in a mortal rivalry with Saddam Hussein for supremacy over Ba'athism. Moreover, the Syrian dictator, Bashar's father, having arrived in power by a coup in 1970, is from the Alawite community, a minority born from a deviant branch of Shiism.

A Trojan horse of the Iranian presence in the Arab world, Syria helped Iran to found Hezbollah in 1982, a political and militant movement recruiting among the Lebanese Shiite community and which quickly imposed itself as one of Israel's most terrible enemies.

With Hezbollah and Syria, Iran holds sway on two fronts, right next door to Israel. In 2006, the Jewish State's army was turned back by Hezbollah, which earned the status of hero in the Arab world. The "axis of resistance" was coming into its golden age. Spanning from Tehran to southern Lebanon, from Baghdad, now ruled by a pro-Iran Shiite Prime Minister, to Gaza, where Palestinian Hamas, although a Sunni Islamist party, allied to Tehran and Damascus.

At the time, King Abdullah II of Jordan, warned of a "Shiite crescent" crossing the Arab world and threatening its identity.

Seven years later, Hamas has turned its back on Iran; Hezbollah, criticized for its support of the repressive regime in Syria, is losing ground; and the Syrian regime itself, a longtime champion of resistance against Israel, is nearly as hated as its arch-enemy in the rest of the Arab world. As for Iran, it crystallizes all hatreds, from the Gulf to Maghreb.

Catching the wave

What happened? The Arab Spring. At first, animated by basic demands of freedom and dignity, it moved toward an awakening of identity, Sunni and Islamist.

The Gulf monarchies played an essential role in this "deviation" of the revolutions, to begin with Saudi Arabia, which ordered military intervention to put an end to the (Shiite) protests in Bahrain, turning a conflict originally political into a denominational one.

Qatar, which supported, with the help of its media (Al Jazeera TV network), and by funding and giving weapons to forces linked to the Muslim Brotherhood wherever it was possible (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, but also in Gaza, where Hamas was finally bought back by the emir of Doha) also contributed to the Islamization of revolutions that had been born secular.

But the "Sunni side", in the process of affirmation, is scattered, divided among many potential leaders: Saudi Arabia, of course, encouraging Salafists everywhere; but also Qatar, of Wahhabi denomination albeit the godfather of Muslim Brothers in the Arab world; Egypt (now headed by a Muslim brother); the Turkey of the modern Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan; they are all competiting for leadership.

And then there is, of course, the terrorist network Al Qaeda, which was the first to combat Shiites in Iraq, with the violence that we know well.

On the other camp, the "Shiite side" remains united under the uncontested leadership of Iran. Shia crescent against Sunni arc, and right at the intersection between two deadly fronts stands Syria.

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