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Shi'a, Sunnis See Common Cause Over Gaza

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A Shi'a in Karbala has his head shaved alongside an image of Imam Hussein on the eve of Ashura.

A Shi'a in Karbala has his head shaved alongside an image of Imam Hussein on the eve of Ashura.

From Gaza to Kabul, signs are mounting that the age-old feud between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam is easing, despite violence yet again marring Ashura, the holiest Shi'ite holiday that culminated in the Iraqi city of Karbala on January 7.

In Baghdad on January 4, a female suicide bomber killed 35 people near a key Shi'ite shrine during the run-up to Ashura. No one has claimed responsibility, but speculation has invariably pointed to Sunni terrorists, among other suspects.

Sunni attacks, after all, have long been a common feature of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom in A.D. 680 of Imam Hussein and his followers in a battle that sealed Islam's split between Shi'a loyal to Hussein, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, and the Sunni majority.

Shi'a rites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon to mark Day Of Ashura on January 7. (Reuters video)



But as Shi'a by the hundreds of thousands poured into Karbala on January 7 -- beating their chests and flogging their backs with chains to recall Hussein's ordeal -- the political divide between Islam's main branches has narrowed. At the heart of the change, analysts say, is Shi'te Iran, which has backed Sunni militants like Hamas and become the recognized champion in the Muslim world for the Palestinians, at a time when the interests of "moderate" Sunni states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are perceived to be more in line with those of Israel and the United States.

Just two years ago, experts such as Tufts University's Vali Nasr speculated that the chaos in Iraq might lead to a Shi'ite-Sunni conflagration across the region. But history has taken a very different turn, says Mai Yamani, a London-based, Saudi-born anthropologist and analyst.

"A very interesting change has taken place, especially after this Gaza conflict: that is, the alliance of all the Islamists, be they Shi'a or Sunni, against the so-called moderate Arab regimes, who are the allies of the U.S.," Yamani says.

New Alliance?

The Gaza conflict, in which Israel is fighting Iranian-backed Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian Islamist group, highlights this new alliance, the seeds of which were sown by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, analysts say. That revolt's ecumenical vision for Islamism was heard in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's famous slogan, "Neither East nor West, But Islam!" That call to arms is now led by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

While Tehran's hopes of leading all Islamic radicals regardless of sect dimmed during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Shi'a-dominated Iran has enjoyed a new lease on life in the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. Shi'a control the government in Iraq. And Ahmadinejad has used that favorable hand of cards to up the ante across the region, helping to empower Shi'ite Hizballah in Lebanon as well as Sunni Hamas.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad shocked the West when he said Israel should be "wiped off the map." But in the Muslim world, such populism worked from the Iranian leader's perspective. "If the Palestinian cause is the beating heart of the Middle East and of Muslim Arabs," says Saudi author Yamani, "then the Iranians [have now replaced] Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Arab regimes as its champion."

As Sunni Hamas takes on the Israeli army, its Shi'ite Iranian backers invariably soak up praise from Muslims everywhere -- even as Tehran's clerical regime remains deeply unpopular in many quarters.
Syrians protest Israel's Gaza ground offensive in Damascus on January 5.


The same goes for Hizballah. The Shi'ite movement was lionized by Muslims of all stripes after standing up to Israel in their 2006 war. Iran, in turn, basked in the afterglow of the group's achievement. Tehran stands to gain in similar fashion, analysts say, if Hamas emerges with its own "perceived victory" from the Gaza conflict.

Picking Sides

Yossi Mekelberg, a London-based Israeli analyst, says Iran has made itself leader of the radical Islamic camp, regardless of sect. "It's between those who support radical Islam; those who don't like or resent the involvement of the West or external forces, who want Islamic fundamentalism and Shari'a within the region; and those who want something else or just dictatorship, like Egypt or Libya or to an extent Jordan. That's more the fault line."

But the Gaza events also suggest that Iran's most militant supporters extend beyond Hamas. Last week, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, told the Kuwaiti daily "Al-Nahar" that he supported the cause of the Iranian Shi'a in the Middle East. He also said Iran has a right to develop nuclear weapons.

Smoke billows from fires raging on the edge of Gaza City.
Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all oppose Iran's alleged drives for the atomic bomb and regional influence. They also oppose Iran's client, Hamas, and face their own terrorist threats. When Hamas drove rival Fatah from Gaza in 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak famously quipped, "Egypt now shares a border with Iran."

But the Gaza conflict has embarrassed Sunni leaders, who ironically find themselves on "the wrong side" of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.

Islamists slammed Mubarak for meeting in Cairo with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni two days before the Gaza conflict erupted. After Mubarak was quoted by Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" as telling visiting European envoys Israel must defeat Hamas -- a statement Egypt denied he made -- the Muslim Brotherhood's Akef accused him of planning the invasion with Tel Aviv and Washington. Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah, meanwhile, openly branded Mubarak an "Israeli accomplice."

Arab League chief Amr Musa has called reports of Arab government support for Israel "disinformation." But the Sunni regimes, already facing domestic turmoil, are squarely on the defensive, analyst Yamani says: "The people today -- we see it from the demonstrations, very visible continuously on Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels -- see no difference any more between a Shi'ite Hizballah, a Sunni Hamas, or a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. All the people are demonstrating against the occupiers and against the moderate [Arab] rulers who look ineffective; in fact, they are asking them to do something or to get out."

Stopping 'The Spread'

Of course, as Shi'a celebrate Ashura, their centuries-old tensions with Sunnis are not simply going to disappear. Among others, the influential Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, a spiritual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and host of a popular religion program on satellite television, has spoken out strongly against "the spread" of Shi'ite and Iranian influence in Sunni countries. The Egyptian Brotherhood has renounced his statements.

Demonstrators in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on January 5 oppose Israeli military operations in Gaza.
Still, there are other signs of new bridges being built: Radio Free Afghanistan reports that Kabul's Sunni-led government allowed the "flag of Hussein," which rests on the Imam's tomb in Karbala, to be flown to Afghan capital for January 7 worship by Shi'a, who make up between 15 and 20 percent of the population.

Under the Taliban, Afghan Shi'a were persecuted, in keeping with the radical Sunni view best exemplified by the Wahhabis' invasion of Karbala in 1802, when they slaughtered 2,000 Shi'a worshipers on Ashura.

Indeed, Osama Bin Laden has also long attacked Shi'ite Islam. In an audiotape in May 2008, he criticized Nasrallah for not taking his 2006 fight with Israel to the Palestinian territories and allowing the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers to Lebanon. He also slammed Iran for trying to "dominate the Middle East."

That, in theory, puts the Al-Qaeda leader in the same camp as Israel, the Sunni regimes, and the United States -- at least with regard to Tehran's bid for regional power. That's paradoxical -- but so is a lot these days as Persian-flavored populism seeks to chip away at Islam's oldest divide.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this story

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