Shia versus Sunni, and the changing Middle East

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Syrian civil war is devolving into Shia Muslims versus Sunni Muslims. That is a conflict that goes back to the death of Muhammed and the battles over his succession.

The Shia constitute about 10-20% of the world Muslim population, and their oppression goes back to shortly after Muhammed's death in 632 C.E. There are Shia majorities in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, and significant Shia minorities in the rest of the Middle East.

For decades, this didn't seem to be a problem, as secular dictators ruled most of the Middle East, and they were not interested in fanning the flames of religious hatred. But the governments of countries in the region are increasingly Islamist, which means what sort of Islam you practice is coming to the fore.

For Europe, a similar situation existed during the Protestant Reformation, and resulted in the 30-Years War. Rulers found that the divine right of kings was a weak reed to lean on when half the population thought you were an apostate. The problem was eventually solved when Thomas Hobbes and others suggested a secular basis for the legitimacy of governments, as we discussed here:
I very much doubt that the Muslim nations of the Middle East are ready to adopt that solution. They appear to be headed for the time-honored solution of warfare to determine which religion will dominate.

There is a book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, that contains translations of contemporary Arab accounts of the Crusades. Early in the conflict, the Crusaders did well, primarily because their opponents could not cooperate. Each time it looked like an Arab leader would defeat the infidels, someone who feared the power that leader would thus gain withheld essential support.

It was not until Saladin, a Sunni of Kurdish descent, took over the Shia-led caliphate of Egypt and aligned it with the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad that the Muslim forces began to take back the land the Crusaders had taken.

The possibility of a Shia-Sunni war becoming widespread is bad for the suffering it could cause on its own, but if it were to resolve the religious differences in the Muslim world, it could change the entire political equation there.

Keep in mind that to many people living in the Middle East, Israel looks like a European state planted on Arab soil, much like the Kingdom of Jerusalem. And people like the late Osama bin Laden have a long history of associating America with "crusaders."

There is an alternative future for these countries, one of peace and prosperity, if they were to follow the example of Europe and divorce their governments from religion. I see no sign of that happening. The Arab Spring was driven by youth and liberal aspirations, but once the population as a whole gets to vote, the people most likely to be elected are the Islamists.