2005 July 14 Thursday
How Important Is the Shia Sunni Split?

Aniruddha Bahal discusses the Sunni Salafist school of Islam and terrorism.

Since the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan there has been a gradual growth of the Salafists around the globe. They are everywhere enthralling the masses with strains of Islam that are a tempting alternative to the dismal picture of development in their societies. They promise correcting the current bafflement of the people by taking a route to an ancient form of Islam practiced by the Prophet and the first two generations succeeding him. The Salafis hold the view that the further we move from the time of Prophet Mohammed the more impure Islam has become due to the clever innovations in religious matters. The Salafis reject all schools of law, going a step ahead of even the hardline Wahabbis (who follow the Hanbali school of law).

Those Wahabbi revisionists! When a Sunni group sees even the Wahabbi as not pure enough you just know we are looking at an especially intense form of fundamentalism.

The conflict in Iraq should be seen in the context of a heightened competition between the Sunnis and Shias that grew out of the Iranian revolution and the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan while fighting against an insurgency which was backed by many Sunni Arab governments and volunteers.

The current conflict of interests in Iraq between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority has provided an extra edge to the enmity. Since the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the installation of the Allawi government in Iraq, Salafi web sites and forums on the Internet have stepped up their attacks against the Shias. There are also severe criticisms of Iran on their websites alongwith growing attempts by Saudi Salafi scholars and laymen to link the Shiites to Jews, both in history, and in present times.

It should be recalled that in the last two decades, with the flowering of extreme strains of Islam there emerged an unhealthy competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia as to which state was `more' Islamic. The beef between the Salafis and the Shias also colors the Salafi leadership as personified by groups headed by Zarqawi and Bin Laden.While both men follow the strict code of Salafi Islam, which considers Shias as the spoilers, Bin Laden prides himself on being a figure above the `fray' so to speak and has made strategic alliances with Shia groups, meeting several times with Shia militants. Zarqawi, by contrast, favours butchering Shias, calling them "the most evil of mankind . . . the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom". Zarqawi's terror group is, in fact, the prime suspect for the multiple bombings near the Shia religious shrine in Karbala and also in Baghdad which killed 143 worshippers in March, 2004.

One observer argues that Iranian intelligence agents have been infiltrating Sunni terrorist groups in Pakistan in order to prevent attacks by Sunni terrorist against Pakistani Shiites and also to defend Iran.

Says Mahan Abedin, editor of Terrorism Monitor, and who is currently researching a book on Iranian intelligence services: "The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 did not come as a surprise to the Iranian intelligence community, primarily because they had been engaged in their own covert war against the Taliban and its international Islamist allies for many years. Indeed, under different political circumstances, Iranian intelligence could have provided valuable help to the U.S. in the war against Salafi Islamist terrorism. Iran's Ministry of Intelligence & National Security (VEVAK) and the intelligence directorate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) arguably have a better understanding of Wahhabi/Salafi terrorist networks and their institutional and ideological roots in Saudi Arabia than most other major intelligence organizations. They have gained such knowledge through the penetration of Wahhabi missionary/terror groups in Pakistan, which has been a priority for Iranian intelligence over the past 20 years. This priority stems not only from Iran's self-perceived responsibility to protect Pakistan's Shi'a community, but more importantly from a desire to pre-empt Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi subversion amongst Iran's tiny Sunni minority."

Imagine what the neoconservatives would say about connections between Iranian intelligence agents and Pakistani Sunni terrorists. Iranian agents working undercover in Sunni terrorist networks? They'd claim this is proof that the Iranians are backing Sunni terrorism. But the Sunnis do carry out bombings against Pakistani Shiites and in 2004 alone 100 Pakistani Shiites were killed by Sunnis. A single bomb blast in March 2005 in Balochistan killed 43 Shias while a car bomb blast in October 2004 killed 40 Sunnis and other blast killed 30 Shias. Surely the Shia mullahs in Iran look at Pakistan and see the Sunni terrorist groups which have been blowing up Pakistani Shias since the early 1980s as enemies.

I am reminded of the split between China and the USSR during the Cold War. For many years starting some time in the late 1950s (sorry, my memory on this is faint) US intelligence analysts and policy makers underestimated the depth of that split. They figured that as fellow communists the Russians and Chinese had too much in common to be anything but allies. But Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were too smart to miss the opportunity this presented for the United States. Well, look at Iraq for evidence of animosity between Shias and Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency battles the Shia dominated government while Shia Iran has agreed to provide $1 billion in aid to Iraq with much of it earmarked for Iraq's defense ministry.

By overthrowing Saddam Hussein the United States has created conditions in Iraq which increase the hostility between Sunnis and Shias. Lots of Shias are getting killed by Sunnis. Some Sunnis are being killed by Shias. Iran is backing the Iraqi Shia-dominated government. Many of the same Sunnis who support Bin Laden's aims are flocking to Iraq to fight both against the United States and also against Shiism. View this in the context of the US opposition to Iran's nuclear weapons program. In a sense the United States is therefore engaged in a two front war. The US is battling Sunni extremists while simultaneously trying to pressure Shia Iran on nuclear weapons. It is a shame that Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush are nowhere near as smart as Kissinger and Nixon.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 July 14 10:40 AM  Civilizations Clash Of

Stephen said at July 15, 2005 11:35 PM:

I think we've got to bring Iran in from the cold. That is, actively accept its choice of government and make sure the country is tightly integrated into the international community. The idea being that if Iran has something to lose, it'll be less inclined to encourage instability in the region, and certainly wouldn't want 3rd parties (Osama and friends) getting their hands of Iranian manufactured nukes.

A harm minimisation approach.

M.robinson said at July 22, 2005 5:24 AM:

Osama and his outfit despise Iran and vice versa, much like what you have with the catholics and protestants in N.Ireland.

Now those who seem to suggest that there is link between Al-qaeda and Iran are either stupid or very cleverly spreading the propaganda line by Bush and his neo-conservatives, in the very much same way they peddled the lie that saddam had WMD's.

The Iranian government is unlikely to make diplomatic relations with USA, because nations like China, India, Pakistan and Russia are trading more and more with Iran. As china's demand for oil and gas increase( same situation in India) for its increasing economy, the liklehood of sanctions being placed against Iran will become difficult.

Because sanctions against Iran will be based on trying to stop/control its dealing(primarily oil) with the outside world, this will be seen by the likes of China and India as being an attack by the US in stifling their economies, not exactly a pretty picture.

the shia sunni split?, has never embroiled into a 'religious' war, saddam attacked iran under the guise of sunni Shia(he being a secularist)divide, whereas in actual fact the Iraqis wanted full control of the Shatul- arab waterways, as Iraq did not have much of a coastline, So the war was more to do with politics and nationalism and less to do with religious disagreement( as saddam still had a lot of shia in the Iraqi army).

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