Few events have transformed the course of human history more swiftly and profoundly than the expansion of early Islam.
In brief however, Islam's shism began in A.D. 632, immediately after the Prophet Muhammad died without naming a successor as leader of the new Muslim flock. Some of his followers believed the role of Caliph, or viceroy of God, should be passed down Muhammad's bloodline, starting with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. But the majority backed the Prophet's friend Abu Bakr, who duly became Caliph. The effects of electing 'Abu Bakr over 'Ali were felt in other ways that would contribute to the emergence of squabbling divisions within Islam. Ali thus would eventually become the fourth Caliph before being murdered in A.D. 661 by a heretic near Kufa, now in Iraq. The succession was once again disputed, and this time it led to a formal split. The majority backed the claim of Mu'awiyah, Governor of Syria, and his son Yazid. Ali's supporters, who would eventually be known collectively as Shi'at Ali, or partisans of Ali, agitated for his son Hussein. When the two sides met on a battlefield near modern Karbala on Oct. 10, 680, Hussein was killed and decapitated. But rather than nipping the Shi'ite movement in the bud, his death gave it a martyr. The annual mourning of Hussein's death, known as Ashura, is the most poignant and spectacular of Shi'ite ceremonies: the faithful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with swords and whips.
Those loyal to Mu'awiyah and his successors as Caliph would eventually be known as Sunnis, meaning followers of the Sunnah, or Way, of the Prophet. Since the Caliph was often the political head of the Islamic empire as well as its religious leader, imperial patronage helped make Sunni Islam the dominant sect. Today about 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. But Shi'ism would always attract some of those who felt oppressed by the empire. Shi'ites continued to venerate the Imams, or the descendants of the Prophet, until the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi (the Guided One), who disappeared in the 9th century at the location of the Samarra shrine in Iraq. Mainstream Shi'ites believe that al-Mahdi is mystically hidden and will emerge on an unspecified date to usher in a reign of justice.
Shi'ites soon formed the majority in the areas that would become the modern states of Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. There are also significant Shi'ite minorities in other Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan. Crucially, Shi'ites outnumber Sunnis in the Middle East's major oil-producing regions--not only Iran and Iraq but also eastern Saudi Arabia. But outside Iran, Sunnis have historically had a lock on political power, even where Shi'ites have the numerical advantage. (The one place where the opposite holds true is modern Syria, which is mostly Sunni but since 1970 has been ruled by a small Shi'ite subsect known as the Alawites.) Sunni rulers maintained their monopoly on power by excluding Shi'ites from the military and bureaucracy; for much of Islamic history, a ruling Sunni élite treated Shi'ites as an underclass, limited to manual labor and denied a fair share of state resources.
Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad tolerated and sometimes contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala as the most important centers of Shi'ite learning. Shi'ite ayatullahs, as long as they refrained from open defiance of the ruling élite, could run seminaries and collect tithes from their followers. The shrines of Shi'ite Imams in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Khadamiya were allowed to become magnets for pilgrimage.
Sectarian relations worsened in the 16th century. By then the seat of Sunni power had moved to Istanbul. When the Turkish Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi'ite Safavids of Persia, the Arabs caught in between were sometimes obliged to take sides. Sectarian suspicions planted then have never fully subsided, and Sunni Arabs still pejoratively label Shi'ites as "Persians" or "Safavis." The Ottomans eventually won control of the Arab territories and cemented Sunni dominance.
In 1979, Khomeini after returning from Exile, joined the movement that exploded in the streets of Iran, which aimed at overthrowing the Shah of Iran. After the Shah fled, Khomeini took power as a result of Iranian revolutionary students seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran, making hostages of the diplomats that were there. It was this coup and power struggle that eventually ended up in the hands of a new Shiite government in Iran, that emboldened the Shia across the entire Islamic World. This would be the first sign of activism within Shiism that continues to this day.
thereafter, the word of Khomeini’s revolution spread to Lebanon, where Israel
had ousted the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) where it was
mounting Guerrilla attacks against Israel. After ousting the PLO from Lebanon, a new radical islamic group was created known as Hezbollah.
As part of a concerted effort across the middle east to resist Khomeini’s ideologies by the Sunni, Sunni governments across the middle east reacted denouncing it as a model for their own societies through aggressive campaigns, none more aggressive than Saddam Hussein. In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, toppling the Persians as he referred to them, in an effort to seize Iranian oil fields. This invasion of Iran by Saddam created once more a Deeper divide between the Sunni and Shiites. in Islam.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 following Iraq’s widespread use of chemical weapons. Peace lasted in the middle east for only two years, interrupted by Iraq’s new invasion of Kuwait, bringing the United States in a lasting war in the middle east against Iraq, eventually leading to its invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his arrest, and eventual execution.
Following the invasion of Kuwait, the United States responded with over half a million troops, ousting Iraq’s army from Kuwait. The Shia in Iraq had at this point had enough with Saddam’s regime, rising up against him.
With a brutal response, Saddam quickly squashed the rebellion.
No one came to the Shiites aid in what ended up to be a very brutal campaign waged by Saddam against the Shiites. Not neighboring Saudi Arabia, not the United States, which called for the rebellion. No one assisted the Shiites but neighboring Iran. As a response to the uprising, in 1990, Saddam launched a systematic murder campaign killing ten shiite ayotollahs and their families.
As a result
to Saddam’s Iraqi and Arab nationalism, the Shiites of Iraq became more
religious and more sectarian in their views, creating forces of Muslim
sectarianism ever unseen in the Middle East that was unleashed by the USled invasion of
Iraq in 2003.
Iran and the Shiites Protest in Saudi-Arabia Today
While the Saudi authorities are still trying to make sense of the unrest, the kingdom’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, issued a statement calling for the end of anti-Shiite actions by the authorities. As much as 15 percent to 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population belongs to the Shiite sect. The Sunni majority, which adheres to the ultraconservative Wahhabi school of thought, largely considers the Shia to be heretics. Despite this religious schism, the kingdom has for the most part remained free of any serious Shiite unrest.
The largest occurrence of sectarian violence in the kingdom took place in 1987, when Saudi security forces killed 400 Shiite protesters (a majority of whom were believed to be Iranian nationals) in an attempt to control an unauthorized demonstration in the holy city of Mecca. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the 1979 revolution, the Saudis have feared that Tehran would use the kingdom’s Shiite minority to undermine the Saudi state and enhance Iranian influence — a fear magnified by the fact that the Shia are concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province along the Persian Gulf. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent regime change in Baghdad, the Saudis took comfort from the fact that the Baathist regime in Iraq served as a bulwark against Iranian/Shiite expansionism across the Persian Gulf.
When Baathist Iraq was replaced by a Shia-dominated regime heavily influenced by Tehran, the Saudis’ worst nightmare was revived. One way the Saudis have been trying to deal with the fear that the kingdom’s Shiite minority could become an Iranian fifth column is by co-opting the Shia — part and parcel of Saudi King Abdullah’s strategic plans for reform.
Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Abdullah, on Feb. 14 effected a shake-up of his government, including the replacement of the head of the country’s powerful religious police and a controversial senior judicial figure, as well as the appointment of the kingdom’s first-ever female Cabinet member.
While the reforms were instituted to deal with jihadists and the larger problem of religious extremism, one of the unintended consequences of the reform project is that it has provided the space for the Saudi Shia to advance their communal interests. The Saudi Shia are encouraged not only by the opening up at home, but also by the regional climate, in which Iran is the vanguard of the Shia’s struggle to assert themselves. However, the reforms in Saudi Arabia have created the possibility of backlash against Riyadh from elements within the Wahhabi religious establishment who do not like losing their influence amid the social changes.
An assertive Shiite minority acts as salt on the wounds of the hard-line Wahhabis. This increases the probability of sectarian violence in the kingdom, which can be exploited by both Sunni and Shiite opponents of the regime. It is unclear whether the Iranians were behind the recent disturbances, but they are certainly going to try to exploit them to their advantage. For the Saudis, the Shiite unrest complicates matters both at home, where the royal family is already having a hard time managing change, and in the region, where it is trying to contain an emergent Iran.
With the United States drawing down its presence in Iraq and flirting with the idea of diplomatically re-engaging Tehran, the Saudis are feeling an urgency to build up their defenses against Iran. One way to do this is through cold, hard cash. Despite global economic turmoil and the falling price of oil, the Saudis still have plenty of petrodollars to cushion themselves and prop up Sunni political and militant forces to hedge against Iran and its Shiite proxies.
The second way is through a diplomatic offensive. We have long been monitoring the warming relations between the Saudis and the Syrians, as Riyadh has been looking for ways to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold and deprive Iran of a key ally in the Levant. Syria is being careful to balance its relationship with Iran by engaging in some intelligence-sharing with the Saudis and the United States, but a flurry of diplomatic visits between Riyadh and Damascus, including an upcoming trip by Syrian President Bashar al Assad to Saudi Arabia, is revealing of the progress made so far in this gradual Syrian-Saudi rapprochement. In addition, the Saudis have been very active lately in trying to patch up long-standing differences between Egypt and Qatar — another bid to bring Arab states together.
Egypt, meanwhile, appears to have its own plans for strengthening Arab unity. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently made an offer to Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to send Egyptian combat units to the island country to defend it against Iranian encroachment. This idea was originally proposed by Saudi King Abdullah, who allegedly offered to cover the Egyptian troops’ expenses. Thus the Egyptian troop presence in Bahrain would allow the leaders of the Arab world to at least build a symbolic front against the Persian threat. Egyptian deployments abroad are rare (the last one was during the 1991 Gulf War), and a token troop presence in the Gulf would not stand a chance against the Iranians. Nonetheless, there appear to be efforts under way to reignite the idea of Arab unity, using the upcoming Arab League summit in Qatar at the end of March as a platform to launch this agenda.
Egypt, meanwhile, appears to have its own plans for strengthening Arab unity. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently made an offer to Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to send Egyptian combat units to the island country to defend it against Iranian encroachment. This idea was originally proposed by Saudi King Abdullah, who allegedly offered to cover the Egyptian troops’ expenses. This information has not been verified, but if true, the Egyptian troop presence in Bahrain would allow the leaders of the Arab world to at least build a symbolic front against the Persian threat. Egyptian deployments abroad are rare (the last one was during the 1991 Gulf War), and a token troop presence in the Gulf would not stand a chance against the Iranians. Nonetheless, there appear to be efforts under way to reignite the idea of Arab unity, using the upcoming Arab League summit in Qatar at the end of March as a platform to launch this agenda.
But Arab unity has always been a bit of a fickle idea. The Middle East is geographically spread across the banks of the Nile, Mesopotamia and the Arabian desert. With the exception of Mesopotamia, this land of mostly desert oases and thin coastal strips does not allow for a dense, self-supported population that can serve as a strong power base to unite the region. The Arab world also is a naturally divided world of tribes, clans, religious monarchies and military dictatorships. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser made a historical attempt in the 1950s to create a Pan-Arab secular nationalist movement, using the Palestinian issue as the first true Pan-Arab cause and going so far as to temporarily unify Syria and Egypt in a proto-United Arab Republic. But those Nasserite and Arab socialist dreams quickly faded once Nasser was out of the picture, Israel dealt a crushing blow to the Arabs and the geopolitical realities of each Arab regime set in.
In the present, the Arab states can agree on the need to contain Iran, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily agree on a plan for going about it. Without any real military prowess of their own, these states are still highly dependent on the United States as their powerful backer against the Iranians. Beyond the U.S. shield, the power of petrodollars is the Arabs’ next best defense against the Persians, which means resource-poor countries like Egypt are left more or less on their own.
The leading Arab states are now taking a shot at banding together, but history and geography dictate that the contemporary Arabs of the Middle East simply do not work well together, even when faced with a common threat. We’ll see how these Pan-Arab endeavors play out, but even if the Arabs can’t work together, they can still accomplish much by working separately toward a common goal: containing their Persian rivals.
23 Dec. 2016: While there is no clear resolution in sight when it comes to settling the Israeli and Palestinian dispute, including the governments that offer the Palestinian Authority political and financial support, are loath to risk their relationship with Israel by advocating the creation of a Palestinian state, another conference is about to take place. Paris Peace Conference redux 15 Jan.2017:
25 Dec. 2016: The Syrian civil war and the Middle East going forward.
20 Dec. 2016: From Versailles to the Making of the Modern Middle East P.8: British rule, Arab Spring-revolt, and the Syria crisis today.
14 Dec. 2016: Sykes-Picot granted Britain the right to administer Syria after it captured the Levant from the Ottomans in 1918.In 1919, London conceded at the Paris Peace Conference both Levantine entities to France that moved quickly and, aware of Hashemite progress, settled on creating Greater Lebanon.From Versailles to the Making of the Modern Middle East P.7: The unresolved sectarian issue in Lebanon today.
8 Dec. 2016: The profound effects of the British Empire’s actions in the Arab World during the First World War can be seen echoing through the history of the 20th century. From Versailles to the Making of the Modern Middle East P.6: The importance of oil, the ‘Arab question’, and the British.
In recent months a number of Arab States, like for example Amman, have celebrated the centennial of the 'Arab Revolt' 1916-2016.
20 Oct. 2016: Soon I will be posting a series of three research articles about the Balfour Declaration and several more about the Versailles Treaty and the Making of the Modern Middle East, whereby first here an introductory: During the First World War, British strategy for the Middle East was aimed at protecting India, which meant keeping India’s numerous Muslim subjects tranquil. Initially, this gained Whitehall’s support, as it feared foreign troops in the Muslim Holy Land would make the followers of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, Emir of the Hejaz and potential British ally, oppose him. From Versailles to the Making of the Modern Middle East P.1: The ‘Arab revolt’, Britain, and the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.
24 Oct. 2016: Mark Sykes returned to England where, almost immediately, he was thrust into negotiations with M. Charles François Georges-Picot, French counselor in London and former French consul general in Beirut, to try to harmonize Anglo-French interests in ‘Turkey-in-Asia’. Picot on the other hand had ‘expressed complete incredulity as to the projected Arab kingdom, said that the Sheikh had no big Arab chiefs with him, that the Arabs were incapable of combining, and that the whole scheme was visionary.' From Versailles to the Making of the modern Middle East P.2: The Arab question and the ‘shocking document’ that shaped the Middle East.
26 Oct. 2016: The rebellion sparked by the Hussein-McMahon correspondence; the Sykes-Picot agreement; and memoranda such as the Balfour Declaration (to be dealt with in detail) all have shaped the Middle East into forms which would have been unrecognizable to the diplomats of the 19th century.From Versailles to the Making of the modern Middle East P.3: The Menace of Jihad and How to Deal with It.
29 Oct. 2016: French rivalry in the Hijaz; the British attempt to get the French government to recognize Britain’s predominance on the Arabian Peninsula; the conflict between King Hussein and Ibn Sa’ud, the Sultan of Najd; the British handling of the French desire to take part in the administration of Palestine; as well as the ways in which the British authorities, in London and on the spot, tried to manage French, Syrian, Zionist and Hashemite ambitions regarding Syria and Palestine.From Versailles to the Making of the modern Middle East P.4: The ‘Arab’ and the ‘Jewish’ question.
6 Nov. 2016: The British authorities in Cairo, Baghdad, and London steadily lost their grip on the continuing and deepening rivalry between Hussein and Ibn Sa’ud, in particular regarding the possession of the desert town of Khurma. British warnings of dire consequences if the protagonists did not hold back and settle their differences peacefully had little or no effect. All the while the British wanted to abolish the Sykes– Picot agreement. From Versailles to the Making of the modern Middle East P.5: The Syrian question.
16 Nov. 2016: This is the most important and longest part. Following, a gripping account of the swashbuckling during the Paris Peace Conference deliberations including the Arab/Syrian, the King-Crane Commission, impasses and some breakthrough at the end. From Versailles to the Making of the modern Middle East P.6: The Paris Peace Conference deliberations.
25 Nov. 2016: One of the most far-reaching outcomes of the First World War was the creation of Palestine, initially under Britain as the Mandatory, out of an ill-defined area of the southern Syrian boundary of the Ottoman Empire. Considering this, on 16 Nov. 2016, the British Parliament debated the Balfour Declaration and how its upcoming 2017 Centennial should be handled. Yet even professionals are often not familiar with the details surrounding the Balfour Declaration, thus here a detailed investigation. The true history of the Balfour Declaration and its implementations P.1.
28 Nov.2016: Showing the topic is of ongoing relevance, following the British Parliament last week, tomorrow a discussion about the Balfour Declaration is to take place in the House of Commons. My analysis, however, is wholly independent of pro or contra stance and instead focuses on discovering the historical details that have been left out in recent discussions. The true history of the Balfour Declaration and its implementations P.2.
2 Dec. 2016: Apart from the strategic consideration that they needed Palestine for the imperial defense of India, the decision by the War Cabinet to authorized foreign secretary Balfour to make a declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations in November 1917, one could ad, was also a curious blend of sentiment (the romantic notion of the Jews returning to their ancient lands after 1,800 years of exile) and anti- Antisemitism (world Jewry was a force that could vitally influence the outcome of the war) also led them to this decision. The true history of the Balfour Declaration and its implementations P.3.
29 November 2016 discussion about the Balfour Declaration at the British Houses of Parliament.
5 Dec. 2016: As we have seen, in the end, the idea was to use President Wilson’s
recognition of the Balkan nations’ right to self-determination – namely,
freedom from Ottoman rule – to overcome his opposition to the implementation of
this same policy in the Middle East. By supporting Zionist aspirations in
Palestine, the Lloyd George Government thus strove to compel Wilson to expand
his policy regarding the 'small nations' from the European regions of the
Ottoman Empire to its Asian territories. The true history of the Balfour Declaration
and its implementations P.4.