[R-G] Bernard Rougier: The Sunni-Shia Rivalry
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Sat Feb 3 11:58:34 MST 2007
The Sunni-Shia Rivalry
Political and, of course, religious discord between Sunnis and Shias
complicate the Middle East picture. In the past year, support for
Hizbullah during its war with Israel last summer was one of few
unifying causes - and it unified only partially. Bernard Rougier
summarizes the situation.
Hizbullah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, called the war in the
summer of 2006 between his organisation and the Israel Defence Force
(IDF) the "battle of the umma [the Muslim community throughout the
world]". But the battle failed to mobilise Lebanon's Sunni Islamist
groups, whose tracts and statements concentrated on condemning the
savagery of the Israeli bombardments rather than voicing wholehearted
support for their Shia brothers. The low-key response of the Sunni
groups contrasted with the enthusiasm of Muslim Brotherhood militants
in Egypt and Jordan, who demonstrated both real and symbolic
solidarity throughout the crisis.
All Sunni Islamists present themselves, in their respective countries,
as vigilant guardians of Sunni orthodoxy in the face of Shia Islam. To
understand their response to more worldly matters we need to
distinguish their ideological, confessional and political criteria
from the local, national and regional levels at which they operate.
Muslim Brotherhood groups in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt supported
Hizbullah for strategic and ideological reasons imposed by the
struggle against Israel, whereas their Lebanese counterparts gave
priority to confessional unity and so supported efforts by the Sunni
prime minister, Fouad Siniora, to disarm Hizbullah gradually.
Iraq raises different issues and prompts other alliances. The Lebanese
branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is keen to promote closer ties
between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, whereas the leaders of other national
groups support Iraqi factions that show no sign of seeking
reconciliation. The undercurrent of resentment against, and admiration
for, the dynamism of Hizbullah, and of Shia Islam in general, provokes
a wide range of practical reactions. The point at which these
contradictory forces finally balance out could be decisive in the
subsequent development of Islamism in the Middle East.
Since the early 1990s Islamists in countries neighbouring Lebanon have
viewed Hizbullah as a movement that can strike a blow for the Arab
world against Israeli might. The "party of God" has succeeded in
reaching a far wider audience than the Lebanese Shia. Hizbullah,
making good use of its Al-Manar television channel, has resuscitated
an ideal of nationalist Islamic union that Arab regimes, exclusively
concerned with their own survival, long ago ceased to defend against
attacks by the United States and Israel.
Hizbullah's victory in May 2000, when the IDF finally withdrew from
southern Lebanon, consolidated the Palestinians' belief that violence
was a more effective way to recover Israeli-occupied territory than
humiliating and ineffective negotiations. Hizbullah gradually
succeeded in changing the direction of the Palestinian struggle
towards targeting national leadership; it also opened the way for more
radical elements of the Iranian regime to influence the Arab-Israeli
Defensive Sunni Arab triangle
The enthusiasm aroused by Hizbullah's resistance against the IDF in
the 2006 war prompted defensive reactions in several Sunni states.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan formed a Sunni-Arab triangle at a
political and diplomatic level to counter what they saw as Tehran's
attempt to use Hizbullah to exert influence over the opinions of their
The Wahabi ulema (scholars) who constitute the Saudi religious
authorities are conservative and always seek to bring politics back
into line with religion. They repeated the usual Sunni accusations of
heresy against Shia Islam in the hope of blocking Iranian influence.
At the start of the 2006 war a leading alim (scholar), Sheikh Abdullah
bin Jabrin, went so far as to ban any support for Hizbullah.
The jihadi Salafists regard Hizbullah as an unfair competitor that has
started trading in their market. In other respects their attitude to
the Shia is shared with the Wahabi religious authorities. Jihadi
Salafists cite their imagined links with the early Muslims (as-salaf
as-salih) as an excuse to disregard any obligation to obey Muslim
governments compromised by links with western infidels. Their
rejection of western influence in the Middle East sometimes resembles
the line adopted by Iranian leaders, except that the Salafists'
central goal is the restoration of an idealised Islamic caliphate.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's ideological guide, was forced to react
after two weeks of war during which he found himself, against his
wishes, in rivalry with Hizbullah. He urged "all Muslims, wherever
they are, to respond to the war waged by the crusaders and Zionists",
yet made no reference to Hizbullah. He reminded the faithful that the
battle of the umma was already being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq;
and that Hizbullah, only active in South Lebanon, lacked the means to
realise its grandiose ambitions.
Key figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sheikh Yusuf
al-Qaradawi, accurately reflected the ambivalence of Arab public
opinion: They gave political support to Hizbullah but immediately
warned of an alleged offensive by Shia Islam all over the Middle East.
A particular grievance
The Sunni Islamists of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria, including
Lebanon) have a special grievance against Hizbullah. They see it
primarily as the organisation that was instrumental in excluding Sunni
fighters from the battle against Israel in south Lebanon at the end of
the 1980s. They maintain that, while claiming to promote Islamic
resistance, the Hizbullah leadership took over the only active front
with Israel. They believe that revolutionary Iran used Hizbullah as a
means to establish direct contact with occupied Palestine. This
ideological and sociological takeover severed the natural bond between
the Sunni Arab grassroots and the Palestinian cause. As Hizbullah
defended Palestine and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned it into an
Islamist issue through religious propaganda, the cause slipped from
the grasp of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Sunni Muslim
The Lebanese Shia were the underdogs during the decades that the
Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fedayeen ruled the roost in
their villages. The Shia regained the initiative during the subsequent
low-intensity guerrilla war against Israel and restored their prestige
as key protagonists at a time when Sunni Arab states had long lost any
capacity for military action, while the PLO had opted to seek a
negotiated settlement in 1988.
The Sunni Islamists finally found an outlet in the war against the
Soviet Union in Afghanistan: An exceptional geopolitical situation
enabled them to combine religious fervour, martial violence and
international support, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
However the new ideology that emerged in Peshawar, which made jihad an
end in itself, caused a rift between activists and governments, and
cut activists off from any territorial or strategic base. In the 1990s
Sunni Islamism exhausted itself in quarrels about religious identity,
while its Shia counterpart, backed by Tehran, adapted its messianic
revolutionary fervour to suit Syria's new power system in Lebanon,
which won recognition all over the Middle East for its guerrilla war
The Sunni Islamists' failure to make any real difference to the course
of events in the Middle East no doubt explains why its militants have
enthusiastically seized on medieval texts that attack Shia Muslims. At
a time when Sunni militants feel cheated of any capability for
military action against Israel, the recurrent accusations of hypocrisy
seem familiar. The influence of Salafist groups from Saudi Arabia has
worsened this trend, since the goal of a return to the origins of
Islam always increases old resentments.
In February 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood and part of the Salafist
movement in Lebanon came out in support of the Hariri family,
overriding any misgivings they had about the patriarch of the family.
They believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict has to take second place,
since the top priority must be to protect Sunni identity in the Middle
East. They also believe that the growth of a Shia-dominated regime in
Iraq since March 2003, the ideological, social and military power of
Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Iran's emergence as a regional power are
part of a larger picture that threatens the future of Sunni Islam.
There were strings attached to their support for the ruling clique in
Beirut. Whatever hardliners may think, the Salafist groups were
prepared to change the order of their hate list, and to evoke other
memories and references better suited to gain potential benefits from
events. The cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Hariri family, and its links
with the Saudi royal family, were possible arguments for turning
against the dominant figure in Lebanese Sunni Islam.
Other issues connected to outside events also have the potential to
create sudden tensions within the coalition that has been in power in
Lebanon since the elections in summer 2005. The Sunni Islamist
community is a potential threat to the Syrian regime and its political
allies in Lebanon. Since the deployment of the United Nations Interim
Force in South Lebanon last August, the question of how best to
control the ideological orientation of militants has become crucial.
Meanwhile Hamas, which is also part of the radical Sunni movement,
refuses to support the regime in power in Lebanon. It has opted to
dispute the UN resolutions, to continue war against Israel, to support
Islamic resistance, even if embodied by Hizbullah, and to stand by the
Syrian regime, despite its disagreements with the Islamists. The
leaders of Hamas' political bureau, based in Damascus, are trying to
persuade the Lebanese Sunnis to change their attitude towards the
Syrian regime because of the importance of the fight against Israel.
Jihadist groups in the Palestinian camps of Ein al-Hilweh and Nahr
al-Bared on the Lebanese coast hold a similar view. To avoid denying
their religious identity they distinguish between theology and
strategy: They hate the Shia for religious reasons, but see the
demands of the struggle in the Middle East as pressing enough to
justify a pact with Hizbullah to thwart western plans for the region.
That is why Salafists from Ein al-Hilweh condemn international
resolutions demanding the disarmament of Lebanese and Palestinian
militia groups, but take great care to prevent Hizbullah from moving
into the camps on the grounds that they are defending their Sunni
identity. They also oppose any form of religious solidarity with
Lebanese Sunni who support the Hariri family, blaming the late Rafik
Hariri for the exclusion of Palestinian refugees during the 1990s.
[ Translated by Harry Forster]
Bernard Rougier is a lecturer in political science at Clermont-Ferrand
University, France, and author of Le Jihad au quotidian (Presses
Universitaires de France, 2004). This text is an edited chapter from
Liban, une guerre de trente-trois jours, edited by Franck Mermier and
Elizabeth Picard (La Découverte, Paris, 2007).
(c) 2007 Le Monde diplomatique
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