The Sunni-Shi'a Split: 'It Breaks My Heart'

Why are Islam's Shi'a and Sunni factions fighting so violently in Iraq? Islam scholar Akbar Ahmed explores the growing rift.

The Feb. 22 bombing of the revered Shi'a Golden Mosque in Iraq by supposed Sunni allies of Al-Qaeda brought the country close to civil war. Shi'a retaliation was swift and violent, with more than 100 Muslims and seven U.S. soldiers killed in clashes during the first 24 hours after the blast. Why have the two Islamic branches exploded in violence? Why was the shrine targeted? What does this spell for the Muslim world at large? Noted Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, who wrote the forward to "The Beliefnet Guide to Islam," answers these and other questions.
 
As a Muslim, and a person who has worked for peace, how do you react to the violence between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims in Iraq?
 
It breaks my heart, simple as that. Because when I see a mosque, a house of God, of worship, which is over a thousand years old, revered by all Muslims, Sunni and Shi'a, which is blown up, I am just very discouraged. And then, the expected retaliation, the cycle of violence--it is descending into anarchy.
 
The second response I have--Americans must understand that the failure of law and order will ultimately be blamed on America, rightly or wrongly. I've been watching the news and I've heard comments of ordinary Iraqi women and children who lost loved ones, and they've reached a point where they can't take it anymore. They end up by saying, "Give us back a tyrant, because you [the United States] have failed to ensure law and order," and this is a damning indictment of history. And America, which lives in a kind of cultural cocoon, sees things very differently. But over here [in Turkey, where Prof. Ahmed is doing research], this is how people are reading it.

 

Why is it that two branches of Islam are at war with one another in this way?
 
This is a historical question. There are three strands in this. There is an element of theology, although it's not purely theology, which grew out of a battle over succession [from the Prophet Muhammad]. More than that, the Shi'a-Sunni divide overlapped with an ethnic divide in the Muslim world. The Persians, who became Muslim, adopted Shi'a Islam, and that Shi'a Islam was overridden by an ethnic pride and nationalism, so that the conflict and confrontation with the Sunnis [who were Arab, not Persian] developed. For a thousand years, there were three great Muslim empires: The Safavid was Shi'a--that’s Iran. In the West, the Ottoman Empire was Sunni. On the East was the Mogul Empire, which was Sunni. And the Sunni empires squeezed and squashed the Safavid. So for centuries, there was a very bitter confrontation between Sunni and Shi'a.
 
What we're seeing now in Iraq is a very strange series of developments. Because what you had under Saddam Hussein was a Sunni minority ruling a Shi'a majority, and ruling them brutally. And when he was removed, you had a very dangerous sectarian lid waiting to blow off. And unless an alternative structure was very quickly in place, this descent into anarchy was almost predictable. So when I heard the discussion in America I was astounded over the optimism. Because all the situation needed was the destruction of one ancient monument--and it's come with [the bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra]. This, I'm afraid, is the catalyst for violence that everyone has been waiting for.
 
Why are the pleadings for peace of Sunni and Shi'a clerics going unheeded?
 
They [Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'a] have gone beyond rational responses. When someone pleads with you and says, "Please don't do it," if you are in a rational frame of mind, you understand what's good for you. At this moment, the Muslim masses are not in a rational frame of mind. This has been a very difficult decade for them. The past five years, after 9/11, just think of what's been happening. If you were a Muslim living in Baghdad: You had one regime toppled, you had another regime imposed upon you, you had people being picked up, a neighbor you know, being tortured, disappearing, homes blown up. Then, from abroad, you've had what you see as repeated attacks on your religion--the Prophet is humiliated, cartoons being published against him, he is being called a pedophile in the media, your God is being humiliated--and at the same time you have an insurgent group of violent men preaching violence, which is not Islamic at all, but they are encouraging it.
 
You are living in a kind of inferno in certain areas. And the one thing you are holding onto are the great, ancient shrines--they represent your direct link to a past which you value and cherish. And this is not an ordinary shrine--it is the shrine of the Prophet's direct descendants. This is the difference between the Sunni and the Shi'a: For the Shi'a this is living link with the Prophet. For the Sunnis, it's a revered mosque, but they can still carry on without it because they revere the Prophet but not to the extent that the Shi'a do. So the blowing up of this mosque immediately became a match in a tinderbox.
 
How is it possible for a Muslim--even one who does not see it as a revered centerpiece of his belief--to attack a house of worship?
 
This question has been bothering me for several decades. The Muslim political body has developed all kinds of problems. When Muslims are able to attack churches, when they are able to attack Christians in a church as they did in Pakistan, then there is something gone seriously wrong. And when they go beyond that and attack mosques, as they have been doing in Iraq and Pakistan and other countries, where people are worshipping and they go in and spray bullets or throw grenades--something is seriously wrong in society.
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