Co-opting the struggle for democracy

The flames of sectarian violence are fanned by governments to distract people from their democratic aspirations.

Sunni-Shia violence is more prevalent in non-democratic societies [AFP]

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have become battlegrounds for religious and ethnic wars. The suicide attack near Iran’s embassy in Beirut that killed and injured scores of people is the latest manifestation of such wars. In 2004, Jordanian King Abdullah II claimed that a “Shia crescent” had been created in the Middle East, from Iran to Lebanon, that threatened the Sunni Arab nations of the region, and warned that Arab leaders must be wary.

Transforming deeply rooted social and economic problems in the Middle East into a confrontation between Shia and Sunnis is extremely dangerous for the region, and the world. In the past, the influence and power of various nations of the regions had never been defined based on religion and ethnic groups and, thus, this new phenomenon will have a lasting effect.

Throughout the 20th century, the governments of Muslim countries considered themselves socialist, nationalist, liberal, etc, and were allied either with the United States and the West, or with the old Soviet Union. In other words, the political identity of such nations was not defined based on the Shia or Sunni sects of Islam, because even Shia and Sunni political groups were defined in terms of left, right, nationalist, etc.

From allies to cold war

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia were both allies of the US and considered communism and the Soviet Union as the biggest threats to peace and stability. The Iranian revolution had an anti-US character. The dominant discourse of the revolution, in which the Marxist forces played a major role, was anti-imperialist.

History shows that both Shia and Sunni have had extremists among them, but they have always been on the margin, with the vast majority of Muslims being moderate.

When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran in September 1980, all the Arab nations of the Gulf supported Iraq, financially and militarily. Interestingly, Hussein’s propaganda during the war was based on Arab-Persian enmity, not Shia-Sunni differences. The war ended in 1988, but, in 1990, Hussein’s army occupied Kuwait. The Gulf Arab nations then improved their relations with Iran in order to receive help for repelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Kuwait was eventually freed in 1991, and the US and its allies imposed crippling sanctions on Iraq for the rest of the decade. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed Saudi Arabia’s policy towards the rest of the Middle East.

From its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran has supported Sunni Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but it also helped the birth of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah in early 1985. These developments further increased Iran’s influence.

Then came the “Arab Spring”. The regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia were toppled by popular revolutions. The wave of discontent and zeal for revolution swept the Arab nations of the region. But, the Arab governments of the Gulf area, concerned about the Arab Spring spreading to their nations, changed the “game”. They fully supported NATO’s attacks on Libya and, thus, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown by NATO. This, however, only increased the power of religious hardliners in Libya.

In Syria, peaceful demonstrations by the democratic opposition were suppressed brutally by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Saudi Arabia and its allies meanwhile have been supporting the Salafi groups in Syria that are trying to topple Assad’s secular regime. The protests by Bahrain’s Shia, who make up a large majority of the population, were put down by Saudi armed forces and Bahrain’s government. As Syria is one of Iran’s strategic Arab allies and had supported Iran during its war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic began forcefully supporting the Assad regime against its opponents.

Democracy is key 

The most important problem in the Muslim nations of the Middle East, including Iran, is corrupt dictatorships. The young generation wants democracy, freedom and respect for human rights. But the region’s dictatorial regimes resist the push for democracy. They have marginalised the huge wave of support for democratisation, and have transformed the confrontation between democracy and dictatorship into a sectarian war between the Shia and the Sunnis.

But the war has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of either side. This war is not about the successor to the Prophet Mohammad – which is the main point of argument and difference between the two main sects. The Prophet’s successors, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali, were all his trusted comrades, and each other’s relatives. Omar was Ali’s son-in-law.

History shows that both Shia and Sunnis have had extremists among them, but they have always been on the margin, with the vast majority of Muslims being moderate. The past few years, however, have witnessed the slaughter of both Shia and Sunnis in the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been turned into hotbeds of extremism, exploited by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni extremist groups, who kill dozens of Muslims every week.

The repressive and corrupt governments of that region need wars to distract people from their democracy-seeking ambitions, and are behind this mass slaughter, because it benefits them over the short term.

The repressive and corrupt governments of the region need wars to distract their people from their democracy-seeking ambitions, and are behind this mass slaughter, because it benefits them over the short term. But, in the long run, the sectarian war will create such a huge fire that it will burn everything to the ground, including those who operate behind the scenes.

Religion as pawn

One goal of this “identity politics” – Shia versus Sunni – is to present a fake image of each sect’s internal coherence, and to hide their internal differences and fissures. Those who benefit from the sectarian wars have been trying to create fictitious divisions among people by dividing them into “us” and “them”. But that image is false. There is no such thing as a unified and homogeneous Sunni sect, just as there is none when it comes to the Shia. 

The Middle East’s dictators are hiding behind religion. To them, sectarian wars are for increasing their power, not for the sake of their religious beliefs. They allow Muslims, both Shia and Sunni – whom the Holy Quran called on to be brothers and sisters to each other and to avoid religious wars – to be killed in order to spread their pervasive influence.

The solution for the crisis in the Middle East is through taking away religion as the tool of the dictators, separating religion and state, increasing tolerance towards others by intensive cultural programs, and replacing the sectarian war with one between democracy and dictatorship. All the people of the region, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, and religion, can live in peace side by side. But peace will not be achievable without democracy, freedom, and respect for human rights. To see this, we should recall the three consequences of the Sunni-Shia war:

  1. The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq; the destruction of Iraq, Libya and Syria; and the Sunni-Shia sectarian violence have only benefitted Israel and its allies in the West. 
  2. Iraq and Syria have effectively been partitioned into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regions, and are threatened by long-term instability. This instability will eventually spread to their neighbours, including those that support the partition.
  3. Only the most extreme forces can grow under such conditions, which will not only present Muslims as terrorists, but will, eventually, destroy them as well. 

Saudi Arabia is playing a leading role in the sectarian war, but the region needs better relations and understanding between that country and Iran, in order to end the war that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions more, and created a human catastrophe.

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.