Why is it that the large belt of landmass from Algeria in the west to Indonesia in the east is in a state of constant turmoil and foreign intervention of any hue and colour has failed in the past and bound to fail in the future? This is because the religious fault lines are deep and impossible to fathom by the secular west. This is a strange region where state boundaries, drawn in sand are always shifting, religion is government, scripture is law and past defines the future!
So what is this past which this region cannot forget? In the year 632, soon after the Prophet Mohammed who founded Islam died, there was a dispute over who should succeed him in ruling the vast Caliphate he'd established. Some wanted to elect a successor, while some argued power should go by divine birthright to Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali. The dispute became a civil war, the divide of which began today's Shia (the Partisans of Ali, or Shi'atu Ali, hence Shia) and Sunni. Ali was killed in the city of Kufa, in present-day Iraq. 20 years later, his followers traveled with Ali's son Hussein from Islam's center in Mecca up to Karbala, which is in present-day Iraq, where they were killed in battle and the war ended. This made Kufa and Karbala, and other locations in southern Iraq, the heartland of Shia Islam. Now you know why the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has no intentions of overthrowing the government in Baghdad but subjugate, desecrate and destroy Najaf and Karbala, the holy land of the Shi’ites!
The two sides agreed on the Quran but had different views on hadith, the traditions recorded by Mohamed's followers about what he had said and done in his life. Diverging traditions of ritual, law and practice soon emerged. A clerical hierarchy, topped by imams and ayatollahs, became crucial in Shi'ism. By contrast, Sunni Muslims felt no need of intermediaries in their relationship with God - an approach which has abetted the rise of extremist zealots like al-Qa'ida. The Sunnis became happy to depend upon the state, which their adherents mostly controlled.
The Sunnis are the overwhelming majority forming almost 90% of 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world but Shi’ites enjoy disproportionate power, with their control of Iran and their concentration around oil rich areas. While strong governments in this region have in the past like the Ottoman Empire and the western colonizers, the dictators and the Kings succeeded in putting the gene of this religious chiasm in an always tense bottle, every time their authority got eroded, the gene promptly raised its ugly head. Vacuums of power, such as those that occurred during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and in post-war Iraq, have forced believers to retreat into their respective ethnic, sectarian, tribal and political camps. It is exactly during times of crisis that regional leaders can exploit sectarian identities and force civil strife upon an entire country. Today, with the rise of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, the Middle East finds itself once again in the midst of a regional power struggle: one between Iranian-allied Shias and the Sunni-Arab governments that oppose them. The fact that the Sunni ISIS is no friend of the Saudi kingdom does not matter because the latter views Shia dominant Iran as a greater evil. It only by understanding the political dynamics of this sectarian conflict that the international community will have a chance to help Iraq and Syria achieve a lasting peace. Rehabilitating refugees is not a cure to this malady, the war needs to stop.
Iran's behavior totally fits with the history of the battle between Shi'a and Sunni: the Iranian, Shi'ite Ayatollahs' sweetest dream is to control Mecca and Medina, so that they can throw the Sunni Wahhabis out of these Islamic holy places, and restore the Shi'ites, the descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph, to power. This is the basis for the great hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the sense of a great and real threat that Saudi Arabia feels these days because of the Iranian military nuclear project.
Shi'ites have a genuine grievance that they are persecuted in every Islamic country where they do not rule – Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Sunni Saddam’s Iraq. The members of these groups are considered to be unclean and Shi'ite mosques in these countries are a regular target for terror attacks by radical Sunnis, especially members of al-Qaeda. The only country in the world where the Shi’ites do not rule and yet are and will always remain safe is India.
What is al-Qaida's goal? Ignite Sunni-Shia wars and Muslim-Christian clashes in Arab states. Draw in the Americans to smash Iran. And when the Sunni are ascendant, expel the Americans and Christians, isolate Israel and set about creating the caliphate of Osama bin Laden's dream. And when you chase a dream of this magnitude sacrificing humans, nations, values and by all means religion is all acceptable for the extremist mindset! And what is most astonishing is that they have been perpetrating this violence, over the centuries, in the name of God! Now you know why ignorance and extremism go hand in hand.
This senseless violence has not only divided people but also divided nations – Ethiopia and Sudan have split, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq are all on the verge of fragmentation, if they at all exist as a country today. Is this the end result envisaged by those who initiated the Arab Spring? Ali and Muawiya, the fourth and fifth caliphs from the middle of the seventh century, have been in their graves for some time, but the struggle between them for the rule of Islam continues to claim casualties among their supporters and adherents, who are all, every single one, Muslims. The Prophet preached peace, tolerance and benevolence and that is exactly what is missing today.