The Blog

Identity Politics

Understanding what the Sunni-Shia split really means for the new Middle East.

2:00 PM, Jul 25, 2006 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Damascus

HERE AT THE GREAT UMAYYAD MOSQUE two 10-year-old neighborhood boys have split the Muslim world between themselves. "The Shia side of the mosque is Jafaar's," says Munzer. "And the Sunni side is Munzer's," Jafaar says.

Among other things, this masterpiece of early Islamic architecture is a kind of museum of Middle Eastern monotheism. The head of John the Baptist is said to reside in one shrine and the head of Hussein is in another, a small room thronged by Shiites where the language of mourning is typically Farsi. This is Jafaar's side.

Munzer's portion may be said to encompass all the rest, for this building is a monument to the Umayyad empire, the Sunni Arab empire, consolidated upon the death of Hussein, the son of Ali and grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Ali had lost his caliphate to Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, whose own son Yazid defeated Hussein at Kerbala. In the almost 1,400 years since this victory which cleaved the Muslim world in two--Sunni and Shiite--Jafaar and Munzar's mutual respect and affection has not always been the rule.

THE IRAQ WAR, especially Zarqawi's bloody campaign against Shiites, has revealed the extraordinary depths of sectarian resentment in the Middle East, and yet it's probably a mistake to see this as the only issue that divides the region. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand, for instance, why Shiite Iran supports a Sunni Islamist outfit such as Palestinian Hamas. Or, similarly, why Syria is siding with Tehran against its Arab brethren in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Gulf.

"The Arabs are traitors," says Mustafa, a 23-year-old Sunni Arab cabdriver. We are stuck in a traffic jam and I am his captive American audience. He is referring to all the Sunni Arab leaders and their peoples, except the Syrians and the Palestinians. "All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel," he says. "The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren't worth the shoes of these three brothers."

For Mustafa, like many Syrians and Arabs around the region right now, sectarian identity means little next to ideological consanguinity. Arab rulers, such as King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, are frank about their fear of Shiite power, but ordinary Arabs are tuning out this status quo Sunni leadership. The combination of Hamas and Hezbollah taking on Israel and Ahmadinejad's rhetorical attacks on the Jewish state, suggests that there's revolution in the air and activist politics will define the regional climate.

OVER THE COURSE OF ARAB HISTORY, Sunni and Shia Islam have come to acquire somewhat essential, fixed identities, at least in comparison to each other. Sunnis believe Shiites act in a certain way and believe certain things; Shiites do likewise. And yet it was not always so.

For a great while after the death of Hussein, the Sunni-Shiite split was political, not doctrinal. "Sunni" and "Shiite" were more like two different banners under which leaders rallied political support.

Perhaps it is useful to think of "Sunni" and "Shiite" in the same way, as designations for two different tribes, sometimes competing for power and at other times joining up to take on a third tribe, such as Israel, or the United States. So for this particular moment, perhaps the "Shiites" are those (be they Sunni, Alawite, or whatever--as well as Shiite) who line up behind Nasrallah, Iran, and Bashar's Alawite regime. And the "Sunnis" are those (Sunni leadership and others) who do not think it wise to set the region in flames at present.

Middle Eastern identity is not just multiple, it is also often flexible, even those aspects of it that seem most grounded in Islamic history. For instance, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad constitute a large portion of the foundations of Sunni Islam, and yet some of these hadith didn't come from the prophet at all. Rather, many were invented hundreds of years after Muhammad's death to support one faction or another vying for power. And now in Damascus the Iranians are busy building a narrative to support their own political ambitions.

"Obviously Iran and Syria have strengthened their relations over the last nine months," says Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based researcher and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. "And their ideological correspondence has come along with suitable iconography. So, before the Syria-Iran defense pact was about to be signed in mid-June, we started seeing these posters with Bashar, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. You used to have to go to the Bekaa Valley or the south suburbs of Beirut to see posters of Iranian leaders. Now we get them in the middle of an Arab capital."