The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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Jewish activists want to pray on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, raising alarm in Muslim world

The Washington Post reports: A small but growing movement by Jewish activists demanding the right to pray at the site of their destroyed temple, in the heart of this disputed capital’s Old City, is creating a potentially explosive clash with the Muslim world, which considers the spot holy and bans Jews from public worship there.

Each week, hundreds of Jews ascend the creaky wooden ramp built above the Western Wall and enter what is often called the most contested real estate on Earth. Many then embark upon a game of hide-and-seek with their police escorts — whispering forbidden prayers while pretending to talk into cellphones, and getting in quick but banned bows by dropping coins and then bending to pick them up.

Their proposals, long dismissed as extremist, are now being debated in the Israeli parliament and embraced by an expansionist wing in the ruling coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These political leaders, many in Netanyahu’s party, want Israel to assert more, not less, control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City, including the place known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

“We’re looking for it to be divided between Jews and Muslims,” said Aviad Visoli, chairman of the Temple Mount Organizations, which claims 27 groups under its umbrella. “Today, Jews realize the Western Wall is not enough. They want to go to the real thing.”

Two millenniums ago, this place was the site of the Jews’ Second Temple, destroyed in A.D. 70 by Roman legions under Titus, who cast the Jews into exile. The Western Wall, visited by 10 million people a year, is part of the remaining rampart built around the raised temple complex. Together, the wall and the site of the destroyed temple are the holiest landmarks in Judaism.

The same courtyard is home to al-Aqsa mosque, one of the oldest in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock, the golden landmark where tradition says the prophet Mohammad made his night journey to heaven.

For Palestinians and much of the Muslim world, any mention of changing the status quo at the site, the third-holiest in Islam, is incendiary. Protecting al-Aqsa has been a rallying cry for generations.

“This place belongs to the Muslim people, and no others have the right to pray here,” said Sheik Azzam al-Khatib, director of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that administers the site. Khatib said the mosque is a unifying symbol for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

“If they try to take over the mosque, this will be the end of time,” Khatib warned. “This will create rage and anger not only in the West Bank but all over the Islamic world — and only God knows what will happen.” [Continue reading...]

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Video — Aid to Syria: ‘If us two can do it, anyone can!’

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Video: How the ideas of America and Islam converge

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Atheists and Islam

The Economist: A mob attacked Alexander Aan even before an Indonesian court in June jailed him for two and a half years for “inciting religious hatred”. His crime was to write “God does not exist” on a Facebook group he had founded for atheists in Minang, a province of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Like most non-believers in Islamic regions, he was brought up as a Muslim. And like many who profess godlessness openly, he has been punished.

In a handful of majority-Muslim countries atheists can live safely, if quietly; Turkey is one example, Lebanon another. None makes atheism a specific crime. But none gives atheists legal protection or recognition. Indonesia, for example, demands that people declare themselves as one of six religions; atheism and agnosticism do not count. Egypt’s draft constitution makes room for only three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Sharia law, which covers only Muslims unless incorporated into national law, assumes people are born into their parents’ religion. Thus ex-Muslim atheists are guilty of apostasy—a hudud crime against God, like adultery and drinking alcohol. Potential sanctions can be severe: eight states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Sudan have the death penalty on their statute books for such offences.

In reality such punishments are rarely meted out. Most atheists are prosecuted for blasphemy or for inciting hatred. (Atheists born to non-Muslim families are not considered apostates, but they can still be prosecuted for other crimes against religion.) Even in places where laws are lenient, religious authorities and social attitudes can be harsh, with vigilantes inflicting beatings or beheadings.

Many, like Kacem el-Ghazzali, a Moroccan, reckon the only solution is to escape abroad. The 23-year-old was granted asylum in Switzerland after people found out he was the author of an anonymous blog, Atheistica.com. Even in non-Muslim lands ex-believers are scared of being open, says Nahla Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Sudanese atheist who fled to Britain in 2010. “Muslim communities here don’t feel comfortable with having an ex-Muslim around,” she says, noting that extremists living in the West may harass non-believers there too.

Facebook groups for atheists, mostly pseudonymous, exist in almost every Muslim country. Social media give non-believers more clout—but also make them more conspicuous, and therefore vulnerable. But the real blame lies with religious intolerance. In the 1950s and 1960s secularism and tolerance prevailed in many majority-Muslim countries; today religion pervades public and political life. Sami Zubaida, a scholar at London’s Birkbeck College, speaks of increasing polarisation, with “growing religiosity at one end of the spectrum and growing atheism and secularism at the other.”

The rise to power of Islamist parties after the Arab revolutions is likely to make life more miserable still for those who leave Islam. New rulers in Tunisia and Egypt have jailed several young people who have been outspoken about their lack of belief. Such cases occurred before the revolutions, but seem to have become more common. Alber Saber Ayad, an Egyptian Christian activist who ran a Facebook page for atheists, has been in custody since September for “insulting religion”. His alleged offence was posting a link to an infamous YouTube video that caused protests in the Islamic world that month. He was arrested by a Christian policeman: Egypt’s Coptic church does not look kindly on atheism either.

The irony and perversity of religious intolerance — or any other form of intolerance — is that it rewards hypocrisy and deceit. In other words, such efforts to police faith will primarily have the effect of making most of the faithless prudently disguise their true beliefs. A few will dare to speak out, but many more will remain married to a religion of convenience.

The protectors of the faith would apparently rather have their houses of worship accommodate hollow expressions of faith rather than encourage individuals to act with integrity.

When ideology thus becomes a bludgeon of conformity, what this suggests is that the core of faithlessness actually resides in the hearts of those who fix their attention on the beliefs of others. A faith that depends on such rigid external buttresses is no faith at all.

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The myths of Muslim rage

Kenan Malik writes: Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, has hit the bookshelves just as the world has become embroiled in a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities. The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed.

Rushdie was, of course, at the centre of the most famous confrontation over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, launched a worldwide campaign against the supposed blasphemies in the book, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on 14 February 1989 condemning Rushdie to death, and forcing him into hiding for a decade.

Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the fatwa and the years that followed. So, what does the battle over The Satanic Verses tell us about the current controversy over The Innocence of Muslims?

The Rushdie affair is shrouded in a number of myths that have obscured its real meaning. The first myth is that the confrontation over The Satanic Verses was primarily a religious conflict. It wasn’t. It was first and foremost a political tussle. The novel became a weapon in the struggle by Islamists with each other, with secularists and with the West. The campaign began in India where hardline Islamist groups whipped up anger against Rushdie’s supposed blasphemies to win concessions from politicians nervous about an upcoming general election and fearful of alienating any section of the Muslim community. The book subsequently became an issue in Britain, a weapon in faction fights between various Islamic groups.

Most important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisations and mosques worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the umma. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, and Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh. The battle over Rushdie’s novel became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia made the initial running, funding the campaign against the novel. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle back the initiative. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not a noble attempt to defend the dignity of Muslims, nor even a theological campaign to protect religious values. It was part of a sordid political battle to promote particular sectarian interests. [Continue reading...]

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Breaking the wall of religious dogma

At Open Democracy Sara Azmeh Rasmussen argues that commentary on the protests triggered by the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, has focused on the political and economic dimensions of the protests while side-stepping religious questions and specifically the issue of the infallibility of the prophet.

The tradition and collective experience of Islam has been shaped by a multitude of influences – and I believe that is grounds for cautious optimism. The explosive rage on behalf of the prophet is inextricably connected to dogma and doctrine developed in a phase of Islam long after the death of the prophet himself. The orthodox dogma of the Quran an eternally existing, rather than created, message, and the doctrine of the infallibility of the messenger of God, is a theological-philosophical pairing constructed in a time when civil war raged under the caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. In the year 827 the dogma was consolidated by the caliph al-Ma´mun, after one of two rival factions, the Umayyads (today’s Sunnis), had marginalised Ali’s followers (the Shias). In other words, centralizing political power in the newly established Islamic empire went hand in hand with the cementing of the holy texts and elimination of all theological challenges. A significant school at the time, Mu´tazila, distanced itself from these irrational doctrines, and for that reason had to go into hiding.

But what has history from eight and ninth century Arabia to do with the attacks on embassies and widespread violence in response to a film critical of Islam produced in 21st century USA? Everything! To attack the ”sacredness” of the prophet was, logically, interpreted as an attack on the fundaments of the classical faith. In this rigid theological context, a caricature that humanises and reduces the prophet is an outright attack on the very underpinnings of the faith.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this in recent years. It has become apparent to me that this dogma must be challenged, not only to resolve the current conflict between speech versus faith, but to free the Islamic tradition from the cage that has led to intellectual and philosophical stagnation for centuries. This is the most significant barrier to a reform theology, and to the introduction of liberal ideas into Muslim culture and society.

A simple feat of logic should be what is needed to break this wall of dogma, on which such a large volume of classical theological literature is based. But as we know, logic isn’t the optimal way to counter what resides in the spiritual and religious sphere. Nevertheless, it is my moral duty to present this challenge to my own. I keep within the Islamic tradition, and will not support my argument with a single non-Muslim source. I adamantly believe we Muslims have the knowledge and tools we need for analysis within our own tradition. All we need is to read with new eyes.

The following story is found in classical Islamic history books and is known to most Muslims: shortly before the battle at Badr in the western park of the Arabian peninsula (624), and after the prophet Muhammad had placed his troops in formation, a disciple, Hubab, asks if this choice of military position is revealed by God, or is a tactical choice by the prophet himself. The prophet replies it was his own choice, to which Hubab replies: “Prophet, this isn’t the right position.” In the story, the prophet follows the advice of Hubab and orders the troops to march to the nearest source of water and block the enemy from accessing it. Only due to this new tactic do the Muslims win the battle, considered the turning point in the Muslim fight against the heathen tribes.

The prophet made a serious miscalculation in a critical war situation, in a crucial phase of Islamic history. The guidance that corrected it came from an individual in the Muslim community, not directly from God.

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