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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Back to the Sunni versus Shi'a, a bit of historical perspective.

Links: A. Wikipedia definition of Sunni Islam.
           B. Wikipedia definition of Shi'a Islam.
           C. Wikipedia's take on the all-deciding Battle of Karbala.

When I first arrived in Iraq, I had little background knowledge on the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'a Muslim.  I assumed it would be similar to Roman Catholics and Protestants, and Heaven knows that those two Christian denominations have had a go at each other a few times.  But receiving an education regarding the Sunni and the Shi'a in Iraq is just as much about observation as it is having a thick book open in front of you.  Throughout Islam (and I'm generalizing; where billions of people are involved, there will always be exceptions), the Sunni have traditionally been perceived as well-mannered and better-educated, which leads to the next logical assumption, that the Sunni are better off financially.  The Shi'a have traditionally been closer to nature; the farmers, the less-educated, less erudite.  I had Shi'a friends in Iraq tell me that regardless of the Muslim country, the discrimination is waiting for you when you arrive, and it will hang around after you leave.  Unlike the historic nastiness between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the schism in Islam has seldom led to large scale violence, at least not until Saddam Hussein decided to gas the Iraqi Shi'a after the first Gulf War in 1991.  As a reminder, the Shi'a of Iraq were under the impression that the U.S. Army was going to finish the job and see that Saddam was retrenched for good.  For some reason, they believed that if they participated in the fighting against Saddam's Army, that George Bush and the Americans would support their effort.  The reality is, they received no support and Saddam used what air power he had available, followed up by T-72s, to gas and crush the Shi'a rebellion.  It was never a fair fight, and as much as it pains me to say this, I can't help but believe that we let those people down.

But the cleft in Islam that leaves the Sunni on one side and the Shi'a on the other, is something much more ingrained than political differences.  Many Sunni believe that they are intellectually superior to the Shi'a.  This idea has been regurgitated for years, and resulted in Sunni communities being built in nicer locations, with nicer homes, better schools, and a better social support network.  In Iraq prior to Saddam, the House of Hashim was Sunni, and it was business as usual.  Saddam Hussein was very much a Sunni, being from Tikrit, and most of the development that occurred during his reign went into the Sunni community, Baghdad and Anbar Province in particular.  This attitude has existed for a long time, with some scholars claiming that its genesis was  the Battle of Karbala, between the small group of supporters of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet and the son of Ali, and the army sent by the ruling Ummayid Caliph Yazid I.  The Shi'a of 2015 consider the date of this battle, the 10th Muharram in the year 61 AH (Anno Hijra, meaning after the departure of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina) in the Arabic calendar, and October 680 AD in the west, to be a day of mourning and sadness.  If you've ever seen video of large groups of shirtless Muslim men beating themselves bloody with whips and chains, all while slowly marching in step, then you were probably watching an observance of the Battle of Karbala.

We've been speaking about Iraq, but the issue transcends national boundaries.  The Shi'a Houthi in Yemen were so frustrated with years of discrimination that they violently removed the Sunni government.  For centuries the Houthi of Yemen were subjected to discrimination, which manifested itself in 2015 as lack of access to good jobs, entrance into secondary education, and promotion in the civil service and the military.  This glass ceiling exists for Shi'a in most if not all Muslim countries with a Sunni majority (and a few with a Shi'a majority).  The point being, the Shi'a Muslims of the world have a chip on their shoulder, and they have reason to be pissed.  On the other side of the coin, the Sunni have to be concerned, especially after events in Yemen and Iraq.  Everyone is quick to blame Iran, but I think this has as much to do with indigenous frustration than any agitation provided by Tehran.  In fact, I think the Iranians have really dropped the ball when it comes to supporting their fellow Shi'a.  Iraq is a prime example.  The current Iraqi government is pro-Shi'a, the Badr Corps and other Shi'a militias are fighting alongside the Iraqi Army, and the Americans, who have always been a last resort of friendship for the Sunni, are nowhere to be found (at least not in a military sense).  The Sunni of Anbar, Diyala, and Salah al-Din Provinces, along with the Sunni of Baghdad, have no savior at the moment.

For all its nastiness, Daesh is a Sunni movement.  As they continue to occupy Sunni communities in Iraq, I can assure you that they are telling horror stories about what will happen if the Shi'a take over.  What little bit of deference that the Sunnis enjoyed over the Shi'a in the hell hole known as Iraq, will be ever.  In fact, Daesh will tell the residents of Fallujah, Ramadi and Habaniyah that the Shi'a will expect a bit of payback.  With the Iraqi Army currently co-opted by the Shi'a militias and laying siege to Ramadi, the Sunnis would be out of character not to consider the advantages of joining Daesh.

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