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<p>Battle of Karbala by Abbas Al-Musavi (c.1900)</p>

Battle of Karbala by Abbas Al-Musavi (c.1900)

Imam Hussein Depicted at Karbala, Site of a Schismatic Battle between Sunnis and Shiites

The Clash Within Civilisations: How The Sunni-Shiite Divide Cleaves The Middle East

An undeclared war within Islam is at play in Syria, as popular uprisings get entangled in old religious disputes across the region. In the remaking of the Middle East, it's not just geopolitical, it's religious.


It is almost 20 years since the late Professor Samuel Huntington published his famous Foreign Affairs article, "The Clash of Civilizations?", arguing that cultural and religious differences would be the major source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. Forecasting a looming clash between Islam and the West, and another between China and the West, he wrote: "The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

But what about the fault lines that emerge within civilisations, and especially within the religious traditions those civilisations are founded upon? There is a dangerous 2,000-kilometre fault line running through the Middle East between Beirut and Bahrain via Damascus and Baghdad, which marks the present line of demarcation between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite.

Wherever in the world the missionising influence of Wahhabism is strong, including Malaysia and Indonesia, Shiites are vulnerable to persecution.

The 1,300-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shiites was caused not by a theological dispute (those came later), but by rival clans in Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, squabbling over the succession after his death in 632 AD.

Mostly the "Sunni-Shia Line" lies dormant, and ordinary Sunnis and Shiites live out their separate lives, side-by-side in relative harmony. In Lebanon and Iraq it has not been uncommon for Sunnis and Shiites to intermarry. But the Line is still always there, just below the surface, and it has recently re-emerged as the most significant factor reshaping geopolitical relationships in the Middle East, a region where religion and politics are always inextricably intertwined.

At present, Syria is the key battleground on the Sunni-Shia Line; this began as a popular uprising, but the international news media was late to cotton on that there was a sectarian dimension to the uprising, let alone to the fact that the civil war in Syria was connected — at least in part — to a civil war going on within Islam itself. Instead, journalists tended to frame the uprising solely in terms of the so-called "Arab Spring", the wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East in the past couple of years, which has swept away corrupt, authoritarian and often brutal regimes in the hope — as the slogan chanted by the demonstrators put it — of Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima'iyah, Karamah (Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity).

But while that is certainly a big part of what has been going on in Syria these past 17 months, it's still only a part of the story.

It doesn't explain why King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — of all people — supports the opposition movement in Syria, when in March 2011 he sent troops across the border into neighbouring Bahrain to help stamp out a similar uprising there. Nor does it explain what possible interest Al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would have in calling on jihadis to go to Syria to join the fight. (Whatever else they are, the King of Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda are no supporters of Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima'iyah or Karamah.)

Nor does it explain why there has been a rash of high-level Sunni defectors from the Assad regime in recent weeks. Or why Syria's Christians are so nervous about their future if the Assad regime is toppled. Or why the opposition movement has largely failed to attract significant levels of support from the middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo — the very people who swarmed to Cairo's Tahrir Square.

<p>Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail</p>

Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail

So why has this tension between Sunnis and Shiites resurfaced in the Middle East at this particular moment?

There are several contributing factors. The first is regional power rivalry, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Shiism has been the state religion of Iran since the time of the 16th century Safavid Dynasty. The Iranians therefore are neither Arab nor Sunni; the Sunni powers of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, want to check Iran's rise as a regional power.

To that end, Turkey recently agreed to allow NATO to install a missile early warning system on Turkish soil (a move that angered the Iranians).

Saudi Arabia has been vocal in expressing its concerns about the prospect of Iran developing a "Shiite" nuclear bomb. Last year, the Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States, warned: "We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't. It's as simple as that."

Meanwhile, the Sunni princes who run the oil-rich Gulf states are also paranoid about Iran stirring unrest among their Shiite populations. Shiites make up 65 to 75 per cent of the population in Bahrain, 20 to 25 per cent in Kuwait, about 10 per cent in the United Arab Emirates, and 10 to 15 per cent in Saudi Arabia (see map). In March 2011, Saudi troops crossed into Bahrain to help put down a popular Shiite uprising, and since then the government of Bahrain has demolished at least 38 Shiite mosques.

In the strange mental space that is the Arab Middle East, “Shiite” is regarded as just a synonym for “Persian”, and “Arab” means “Sunni”. The fact that many Arabs are actually Shiites is difficult to swallow.

Recently, the all-Sunni, all-Arab member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE — have been moving towards some kind of political, economic and military union or federation aimed at countering Iranian influence and encircling the Gulf's Shiites in a wider Sunni ocean. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called on GCC members to consider moving "beyond the stage of cooperation and into the stage of unity in a single entity".

This proposal is due to be discussed at the next GCC meeting in Bahrain in December. In response, the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, the publication of which is supervised by the office of supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has called for the annexation of Bahrain by Iran.

The second factor contributing to greater tension between Sunnis and Shiites is the increasing global influence of the fundamentalist and puritanical Wahabbi sect that dominates religion in Saudi Arabia and of Sunni jihadist groups including Al Qaeda. The Wahabbis are virulently anti-Shiite. For them the Shiites are rafida, or rejectionists, meaning they rejected the rule of the Sunni Caliphate that Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood hope one day to restore. Saudi schools teach that Shiism is a Jewish heresy, and it is common for Shiites to be referred to as Iranian "fifth columnists". In December 2006, senior Wahhabi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak released a fatwa which has been very influential on subsequent Sunni discourse about Shiites: "The general ruling is that they are infidels, apostates and hypocrites… They are more dangerous than Jews or Christians."

The bottom line is that wherever in the world the missionising influence of Wahhabism is strong, including Malaysia and Indonesia, Shiites are vulnerable to persecution. Where the influence of Sunni jihadist movements is unchecked, Shiites are vulnerable to violent physical attacks. Such attacks are commonplace in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Shiite Hazara minority has experienced vicious persecution at the hands of the Taliban.

<p>MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/GettyImages</p>

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/GettyImages

Iraq: Processions of Shia Muslim Pilgrims at the Shrine of Imam Hussein, Martyred by the Caliph Yazid in 680 AD

But what really triggered the recent upsurge in Sunni-Shiite tension was the US invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In the strange mental space that is the Arab Middle East, "Shiite" is regarded as just a synonym for "Persian", and "Arab" means "Sunni". The fact that many Arabs are actually Shiites is difficult to swallow. According to what they perceive as the natural order of things, Sunnis are meant to be on top, even where Shiite Arabs are in the majority, as in Iraq (and Bahrain, and Lebanon where they form the biggest single minority).

The Americans upset this delicate status quo when they orchestrated democratic elections in Iraq, which effectively became the first modern Arab state to be ruled by Shiites.

This was an affront not just to the Sunni minority in Iraq itself, but also to Sunnis across the region. In December 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan was the first to use the term "Shiite crescent", to describe this growing Sunni sense of encirclement.

The Arab Spring represents an opportunity to overcome the postcolonial past. Overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria, and destroying the state of Israel, are both part of the same fight.

But then the regional pendulum began to swing the other way thanks to the so-called Arab Spring. So far, Sunni Islamism — especially the Muslim Brotherhood — has been the biggest beneficiary of the Arab Spring.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have mellowed, and to be experimenting with how it might get what it wants by engaging in a democratic political process. Together with the Salifis (Sunni fundamentalists), the Brotherhood won a sizeable majority in the recent parliamentary elections, and the newly elected president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, is a Brotherhood apparatchik.

But it would be naïve to imagine that the Brotherhood has abandoned its old program of restoring the Sunni Caliphate. At least, that's not what leading clerics associated with the Brotherhood are telling the crowds in Cairo.

<p>ASIF HASSAN/AFP/GettyImages</p>

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/GettyImages

Pakistan: Activists Demonstrate After the Bombing of Sunni Muslim Seminary in Karachi killed 15, June 2012

So what is the religious dimension of the civil war in Syria?

Actually there are two separate religious dimensions to the conflict, one domestic, and the other regional.

Internally, there is the fact that Syria's ruling Assad family belongs to the secretive minority Alawite sect. There are about 2.5 million Alawites in Syria, or 12 per cent of the population, whereas 74 per cent of Syrians are Sunni. The thinking goes like this: if the Shiite majority in Iraq could legitimately rise to power over a Sunni minority that had been used to dominating Iraq, why shouldn't Syria's Sunni majority have the same opportunity?

In at least one respect Shiism is a bit like Protestant Christianity: throughout its history, unlike the Sunni branch of Islam, it kept splintering off into new sects; these included the Ismailis, the Zaidis in Yemen, the Alawites in Syria, the Druze in Lebanon and southern Syria, and, in the 19th century, the Baha'i.

Alawites don't pray five times a day like other Muslims, or fast at Ramadan, or go on pilgrimages. Their beliefs and practices are highly syncretic — that is, they are borrowed from non-Islamic traditions including Phoenician paganism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and Christianity. They celebrate Christmas and Easter, and have a rite that resembles the Mass, during which bread and wine are consecrated to symbolise the body and blood of the murdered first Shiite Imam, Ali, from whom they take their name.

It has been reported that Russia is supplying the Syrian Government with helicopter gunships, Turkey is supplying weapons to the rebel Syrian National Army, and the CIA is operating in southern Turkey in an “advisory” capacity.

As every Syrian knows, the Alawites have the French to thank for their rise to power. A hundred years ago they were mostly poor peasants, concentrated in a mountainous region in the northwest and despised by their Sunni neighbours. But after World War I, the French colonial administration gave the Alawites their own separate state and heavily recruited them into the army — to keep the troublesome Sunni majority in check.

When the French departed in 1940, the Alawites tried to keep their separate state, but when that failed they found other routes to power — through the secularist Ba'ath Party, which was the only mainstream political party open to Syria's religious minorities, and through the army, which they had taken over from the inside by the time the Ba'ath party came to power in a coup in 1963. Another coup in 1970 brought Hafez al-Assad — father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad — to power.

The key to understanding what we might call the "domestic religious dimension" of the present uprising in Syria is that because the Assad family is Alawite, and most Sunnis regard the Alawites as heretics, many Syrian Sunnis have never accepted them as legitimate rulers. Article 3 of the Syrian constitution says that the president must be a Muslim, and Hafez al-Assad went to the trouble of obtaining fatwas from leading Sunni and Shiite clerics stating that as an Alawite he was an authentic Muslim, but it didn't do him much good. Writing in The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (Phoenix Press, 1989), David Pryce-Jones describes what he calls an "undeclared subterranean civil war" that has been rumbling along ever since, in which Hafez al-Assad "almost lost power and indeed his life, in a lengthening sequence of foiled coups and attempted assassinations, consummating as never before the Alawi-Sunni divide".

The city of Hama, which has been the scene of so much recent fighting, has been a centre of Sunni Islamist opposition to the regime from the very beginning. There was an uprising in the city led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1964, the year after the secularist Ba'ath Party came to power, and subsequent uprisings in which the local Alawite population was targeted in 1981 and 1982, when the government sent the tanks in, massacring up to 40,000 inhabitants. In 1980, following a terror attack on an army cadet training school in Aleppo, President Hafez al-Assad passed a law making membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offence.

<p>JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages</p>

JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages

Lebanon: A Warring Neighbourhood in the Northern Lebanese City of Tripoli, Sunni to the left of the River, Alawite to the Right

So the present sectarian violence between Sunnis and Alawites is nothing new. Of course, many of those fighting now, including those in the Free Syria Army, were not previously involved in resistance to the regime, and are primarily motivated by a desire to rid the country of a brutal dictatorship. But the fact is that the Istanbul-based opposition Syrian National Council is essentially a Muslim Brotherhood front organisation, and a number of the opposition militias fighting on the ground have strong Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist associations — as demonstrated in this piece in the Shiite Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.

Recently, as divisions have widened between the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army, the Muslim Brotherhood is reported to have put its own separate militia into the field.

From the viewpoint of Sunni Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Western powers have always promoted non-Sunnis or non-Arabs in what are rightfully Sunni Arab lands: the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and the Alawites in Syria after World War I, the Jews in Palestine after World War II, and recently the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq. Looked at from this Sunni Islamist perspective, the Arab Spring represents an opportunity to redraw the postcolonial map of the Middle East. For some then, overthrowing the Alawite-led regime in Syria is part of the same struggle as the fight to destroy the state of Israel. Which is more than a little ironic, considering that the Assad regime has always been one of Israel's most committed enemies.

Al-Qaeda and other similar Sunni jihadist groups are also operating in Syria. A shadowy terrorist group calling itself the Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for a series of major bombings this year in Damascus and Aleppo. In a statement released in May it said: "The blessed operations will continue until the land of Syria is purified from the filth of the Nusayris [Alawites] and the Sunnis are relieved from their oppression."

If the conflict in Syria were to spread beyond its borders, the two most likely flashpoints are Lebanon and Iraq.

But the truth is that although the Assad regime ruthlessly cracked down on the Islamists, it was not anti-Sunni. On the contrary, as Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University argues, "The Assads planned to solve the sectarian problem in Syria by integrating the Alawites into Syria as 'Muslims'. They promoted a secular state and tried to suppress any traditions that smacked of a separate 'Alawite' identity."

And yet the Syrian Islamist uprising, and indeed the regime's own deployment of its Alawite Shabiha death squads, demonstrate that this project has failed in the long run. As Joshua Landis puts it in his blog, Syria Comment: "Older Damascenes used to speak of the Alawites who came to Damascus with the Baathist takeover in the 1960s as muwaffidiin or alien interpolators. Today, they undoubtedly seem more alien than ever."

The bottom line is that if the Assad regime is toppled, there may eventually be an Islamist government in Syria. This is why Syria's Christians are so nervous about the future and why Syria's Melkite Catholics in particular appear to have thrown in their lot with the Assad regime. The Melkite patriarch, Gregorios III, has stated that under the Assads Syria enjoyed "more religious freedom and tolerance than in any other Arab country". At least until very recently this was a basically true statement.

Syria's Christians are especially mindful of how Iraqi Christians were driven from their homes by Sunni fundamentalists after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and already in Syria they have had a taste of the same: in June, the Catholic news agency Fides reported that thousands of Christians had been forced out of the village of Qusayr in the province of Homs, following an ultimatum from the local Syrian opposition militia commander that was broadcast from the minarets of local mosques.

<p>MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images</p>

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq: Shia Muslim Men Flagellate Themselves In Karbala To Commemorate Imam Hussein's Suffering

Isn't there a wider religious dimension to the Syrian conflict — where Syria is the battleground in a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia?

Syria has been a client state of Shiite Iran since the 1980s. This is why the uprising is supported by most of the region's Sunnis, and why the Assad regime is supported by most of the region's Shiites. In effect, Syria has become the battleground in a proxy war between Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is known to support regime change because he sees it as the best way to weaken Iran.

According to Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, this is also a personal matter for the Saudi King. He has wanted Bashar al-Assad out of power since the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Rafik Hariri, an event that rocked the Arab world and for which the King holds Assad personally responsible.

It has been fascinating to watch how the predominantly Sunni uprising in Syria has discombobulated both the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas. Hezbollah and Hamas have both long been clients of Iran and Syria, with whom they formed the so-called "resistance axis", or al-Muqawamacommitted to the destruction of Israel and the defeat of US influence in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia proposed the creation of an Arab force, to be backed by NATO and US air and naval power, that would drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon.

But Hamas has always been the odd one out in this jolly company: not only is Hamas Sunni, it is also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has played such a prominent role in the Syrian uprising. In February, Hamas closed down its office in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and relocated to Jordan, an arrangement reportedly brokered by Sunni Qatar.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Sunni-Shia divide, Shiite Hezbollah was also being wrong-footed by events in Syria, but with much less scope than Hamas to recalibrate its regional alliances. Hezbollah has a lot to lose from the fall of the Assad regime, because Iran has been supplying it with arms for years and Syria is the only land conduit between Iran and Lebanon. Hezbollah's secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, had previously come out in support of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but he has stood by the Assad regime despite the fact that it is slaughtering its own citizens. As a result, Hezbollah has been accused of double standards and its image in the Arab world as a champion of the oppressed has been seriously damaged.

Who are the Shabiha and what is the significance of the Houla massacre?

The Bosnian-style massacre in and around Syria's northwestern Sunni village of Houla on Friday 25 May marks the moment when the international news media began to realise there was a sectarian dimension to the Syrian uprising. One hundred and eight people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children, an incident that drew international condemnation of the Assad regime and led to the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from many countries including Australia.

<p>MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GettyImages</p>

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GettyImages

Bahrain: Shia Muslim Protestors Clash with Riot Police, July 2012

Although Bashar al-Assad vehemently denied responsibility, and there have been competing accounts of what happened, a UN investigation has found that the regime was indeed behind the massacre.

It appears Houla was being used as a base by Sunni opposition forces. The Syrian Army went in together with a gang of thugs known as the Shabiha, drawn from Alawite villages in the surrounding area. Mainly Alawite, the Shabiha ("ghosts" in Arabic) are brutal, Mafia-like enforcement gangs loyal to the Assad family. At least one other massacre, in the village of Tremseh on July 12, appears to have followed the same pattern.

There has also been speculation about why the Assad regime has been engaged in this kind of "ethnic cleansing" of Sunni villages, particularly as it increases the risk of a bloody revenge against Syria's Alawites if the regime does fall. One theory is that the government has been attempting to alter the "facts on the ground" in north-west Syria in preparation for its own inevitable downfall, and that when the time comes the Alawites will continue to fight, backing themselves into the old Alawite heartland originally designated for them by the French, in the hope of breaking Syria apart and recreating a separate Alawite state.

Some commentators, including Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University, say this theory is far-fetched, because a separate Alawite state would not receive international support or have a viable economy. He says Assad is likely to pursue what he calls the "Lebanon option", turning Syria into a swamp of chaotic sects and factions none of whom is powerful enough to seize overall control:

Recent months have seen an increase in terror attacks on Shiite targets as Al-Qaeda seeks to reignite a civil war.

"I have argued that the Alawite region cannot be turned into an independent state," Landis says, "but it does provide Assad and the remnants of the Syrian Army a social base. Just as Lebanon's Maronites did not create an independent state in the Lebanon Mountains, they did use it to deny Muslim forces undivided supremacy over Lebanon."

<p>JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/GettyImages</p>

JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/GettyImages

Indonesia: Shia Cleric Tajul Muluk is Sentenced to Two Years' Prison for 'Teachings that deviate from Islam'

Could the conflict in Syria yet spill over to become an all-out regional war?

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been warning all year about the danger of an all-out Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been warning about the dangers inherent in a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while Turkey says a regional sectarian war is something it will not permit.

And yet the very ones voicing alarm are also contributing to the danger by supplying arms to the various sides in the Syrian conflict. It has been reported that Russia is supplying the Syrian Government with helicopter gunships, Turkey is supplying weapons to the rebel Syrian National Army, and the CIA is operating in southern Turkey in an "advisory" capacity.

And while it seems unlikely that any of Syria's neighbours would allow themselves to be drawn into cross-border military action, let alone a full-scale invasion, things may change if Syria breaks apart. Syria's recent shooting down of a Turkish fighter plane that had violated its airspace also demonstrates that the concerns about a wider regional war aren't entirely unfounded. After that incident some commentators suggested that Turkey and Syria were already in an undeclared state of war.

If the conflict in Syria were to spread beyond its borders, the two most likely flashpoints are Lebanon and Iraq.

The Lebanese still have fresh memories of the horror of sectarian civil war and all the major political parties, including the Syrian government's Shiite ally Hezbollah, appear determined to prevent Lebanon from being consumed by the conflict next door. In May, the Lebanese Army was called out to deal with an outbreak of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Alawites in the suburbs of Tripoli. However, the violence in Tripoli has escalated in the past week, together with a wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings on either side of the Syria-Lebanon border.

The Lowy Institute's Rodger Shanahan has recently returned from Lebanon and says he was struck by how "apart from the Sunnis, pretty much everyone in Lebanon is furious with Qatar and Saudi Arabia for interfering in Syria's affairs" — and that by doing so they added to the risk that Lebanon will once again be dragged into sectarian conflict.

Saudi schools teach that Shiism is a Jewish heresy, and it is common for Shiites to be referred to as Iranian “fifth columnists”.

He says the conflict in Syria will only spill over into Lebanon if there is a failure of strong leadership. "And in Lebanon the Shia, the Christians and the Druze all have strong leaders, but the Lebanese Sunnis lack strong leaders. They have Saad Hariri [former Prime Minister and leader of the Movement of the Future Party, now living in exile], but pretty much everyone has lost patience with him because he's not as strong as his father [Rafik Hariri, assassinated in 2005] was and really isn't up to the job. So if there is any spill over effect in Lebanon, it may come through the Sunnis."

That already appears to be happening. A number of strident Sunni clerics in Lebanon are encouraging the faithful to vent their increasing frustration at the treatment of their co-religionists in Syria.

Then there's the question of how Shiite Hezbollah is likely to react if its sponsors across the border in Syria are toppled. That would weaken Hezbollah, and in the long run might even present an opportunity for its Sunni enemies to try to clear it out of Lebanon.

This couldn't be achieved without enormous bloodshed, but it's been discussed before. In 2010, Wikileaks published a cable revealing that in 2008, in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the pointlessly destructive Hezbollah-initiated war with Israel, Saudi Arabia proposed the creation of an Arab force, to be backed by NATO and US air and naval power, that would drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon.

Iraq is likely to prove an even more volatile flashpoint than Lebanon. The US invasion of Iraq has left a permanently disaffected and destabilising Sunni minority, concentrated mainly in the south, and if a Sunni Islamist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood were to come to power next door in Syria, it is likely that Iraq would become even harder to govern. Recent months have seen an increase in terror attacks on Shiite targets as Al-Qaeda seeks to reignite a civil war, and Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has expressed concern at the continuing potential for Iraq to break apart along sectarian lines.

Meanwhile, if Iran were to lose its Syrian ally, it is likely that it would seek to lavish even more of its unwanted attention on Iraq. After months of political turmoil, Iraq’s coalition government, led by Shi’ite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, an agent of Iranian influence who has been criticised for sidelining Sunni coalition partners, is looking increasingly shaky.

Read more The Global Mail reports on the unhysterical history of Muslims in Australia, the battle between moderate and hardline Islamists in Egypt, and banking on Islam to reform the financial system.

13 comments on this story
by Carlos

Great article, very informative.
it seems once again empire is using religion to further its own agenda

August 24, 2012 @ 10:41am
by David

Thank you for your timely article regarding the regional religious dimensions of the tragedy presently being played out in Syria. However, it would be a mistake to assume that religious affiliation plays the same role within Syria as it does outside.

The complexities of Syrian society are only now becoming evident to non-specialist observers. In fact, a number of categorisations exist. Religion, of course, but also ethnic grouping, clan/tribal/family affiliations, and geographic and economic considerations such as city or rural connections.

These affiliations are of varying significance depending on the situation. It cannot be assumed that all members of, say a particular religious group will share a common position on an issue, because the clans or tribes that are nominally considered part of this group may well have differing views and backgrounds, and these will determine the final position taken.

Sunnis whose forebears migrated from, say, Egypt in the past 200 years will have a different take on things from, say, Sunni Bedouins with strong links to Bedouin tribes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Not all Alawites have benefited from the Alawite domination in government. Neither have all Sunnis suffered. The Syrian Kurds may not have been well treated by the regime, but they were not being actively persecuted like their brethren in Turkey and Iraq.

The most dangerous thing one can do in analysing the Syrian situation is to generalise. Unfortunately, generalisation is often an easy trap for many journalists. To paraphrase H L Mencken, 'for every complicated question, there's an answer that's simple, and obvious, and wrong'.

August 24, 2012 @ 8:34pm
by Peter Franklin

Most interesting and enlightening.

August 26, 2012 @ 8:10pm
by Mark Tronson

Wonderful research document - well done Stephen.

August 27, 2012 @ 7:07am
by Sophie G

This is a fantastic article. It just puts the whole region's past decade of history into perspective. Thankyou.

August 28, 2012 @ 9:52pm
by luke waddington

thank you for shining some light on the factional differences within Islam, really opened my eyes to what I had previously put in one bucket.. awesome and scary (for me personally) that I had NO idea about the depth of these "schisms" prior to reading this., thanks.

August 30, 2012 @ 9:56pm
by Sean OLeary

Regarding the Sunni-Shiite article:

What is undeclared is the Western funding, arming and training of terrorists inside Syria. The target is not Syria or Assad, or even Iran, but Russia. The aim is to start a nuclear with Russia and China on one side, and the USA on the other. The aim is to obliterate civilization. This is why Obama needs to be gotten out of office, and Mitt Romney also not allowed anywhere near the Whitehouse.

September 10, 2012 @ 6:52am
by Beth

Please add MAPS in general and in this area specifically. It is still new territory to many people.
Great article but I find it difficult to find my way around the geography.
Thank you

October 27, 2012 @ 11:23am
by Beth

Please include MAPS with great stories like this . Many of us still don't know our
way geographically . I for one need the visual map to get a real sense of the situation.
Thanks.

October 27, 2012 @ 11:27am
by Rose

I find Sean O'Learys comments ridiculous. You should be glad Obama is in power and not some Republican. The US may still want to hold onto superpower status but certainly not at the cost of war with Russia - even for republicans. But hey the left just have to portray the Western hegemonic power as the Source of All Evil of the World. The values of predation are the culprit - and they are everywhere - and they have no more potent breeding source than righteous traditionalist values -be it conservative religion and including rampantly ideological thinking on the secular plane. Refer latest media reports (12 December 2012) on US tentatively recognising SOME of the resistance to Assad as legitimate, and stating it is NOT prepared to give military aid. It took a year to do so and it did so because it does NOT want to start a wider civil war and it is NOT prepared to support extremist groups within the opposition to Assad.

December 13, 2012 @ 3:55pm
Show previous 10 comments
by 12r

Why isn't Saudi against US influence in the middle east? With the power of oil they can wipe out the american influence, as well as by seeing Iran as an allie.

December 19, 2012 @ 9:11pm
by Rose

The Saudis will Never see Iran as an ally because the Iranians are Shias. The sunni Saudi majority in Saudi Arabia see Shias as schismatics and a dire threat.

January 1, 2013 @ 4:58pm
by Mazarati Dandalero

At the end of the conflicts between sunni and shiities who will win ...! The winner who will pay the invoices of deficit budgets hahahaha....! I hope you understand...................

June 25, 2013 @ 7:21am
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