The Sunni/Shia divide is often pitched as conflict of religion, leaving out the deep political history that governs the tensions. The creation of these two streams of Islam were themselves created over a disagreement over the choice of political leader.
The divide is used to political advantage by those who benefit from creating animosity between communities. . For instance in Syria were the majority of rebels are Sunni Muslim, and Saudi Arabia the most powerful Sunni country is a major source of support. But in Bahrain, where the majority of the population in Shia, and the political elite is Sunni, Saudi in that case protects the political establishment.
On Tuesday (21st Jan) a Shia delegate, Ahmad Sharafeddin in Yemen was shot dead on his way to reconciliation talks. According to Reuters, Sharafeddin who was dean of law at Saana University was a member of the Houthi Shia separatist group that opposing the current pro-American Yemeni government. Another Houthi leader accused Sunni militants.
On the same day, a bomb exploded in a Shia dominated neighbourhood in Beiruit in Lebanon, killing at least 4 people and injuring many others. Sectarian tensions have been heightened because of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.
Hezbollah, a Shia militant group, has been supporting Syrian president Assad. Iran, the largest Shia majority country, also supports Assad. Assad’s government is dominated by a small Islamic minority sect, Alawi, but the majority of the country are Sunni and supported by Saudi Arabia. The regional involvement in Syria is inflaming sectarian tensions in the already dividing Lebanon.
The cold war played a huge role in exacerbating the conflict as the Americans and Soviets manipulated tensions in order to gain support in the region. Shia majority countries such as Iran have Russia (post-revolution 1979), while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries allied with America.
Sunni Islam is hugely in the majority and is now very divided in its relationship with the US. Sunni Muslims make up it’s closest allies (Saudi, Egypt, Yemen) and those it believes to be its greatest threats, Al-Qaeda and similar groups. How America’s foreign policy has created enemies from allies is a topic for a different article but there long political history in play is often ignored not only in journalism but in academia as well. The post-colonial aspect also receives insufficient attention.
By portraying conflict between Sunni and Shia communities in the Middle East as a purely religious one presents a flawed picture without context. It is a sectarian issue, but also a nationalistic one, a class-based one and one of old political loyalties. Conflict is meaningless without context.
But much of mainstream media wishes to do just that, to portray Muslims as inherently, religiously fundamentalist and bigoted and ignore the blame that lies without outside actors’ political manipulation.
The new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been outspoken recently on the need for social reform in his country and with promises not to build nuclear weapons.
In the four months since Rouhani was elected as the 7th president of Iran he was released 11 political prisoners, sworn off nuclear weapons, temporarily lifted bans on Facebook and Twitter and expressed an interest in improving Iran’s relationship with the international community.
“We don’t want nuclear weapons, not because of pressure from the US or others but because of our belief that no one should have nuclear weapons. When we say no one should have nuclear weapons that means not for them and not for us either.” – Ayatollah Khamenei
All this comes ahead of Rouhani’s attendance at the UN General Assembly in New York today. In another interesting move by the new president he is bringing the only Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, with him to New York. Not only this but there may be some kind of informal “accidental” meeting between President Rouhani and President Obama which would be the first time American and Iranian presidents had been face-to-face since the revolution of 1979.
Among the optimism there are many skeptics. Israel’s government is chief among them. PM Netanyahu and those close to him in parliament have been quick and vocal in dismissing Rouhani’s efforts as a “diplomatic deception” to distract international attention while they complete their work on nuclear weapons.
This is unlikely to satisfy Israel. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a political ally to the prime minister, claimed: “If the Iranians continue to run, in another half a year they will have bomb capability”. But did not offer evidence to back this up.
Some commentators were reminded of Netanyahu’s memorable address to the UN last year with a cartoon bomb that was apparently meant to serve as evidence of Iran’s increasing nuclear research.
Israel might yet be right but, if they are not, what would a more open Iran mean for the dynamics of the region?
Well for one, if they cooperated with UN officials and demonstrated they were not pursuing nuclear weapons then at least some of the heavy sanctions against Iran could be lifted. These sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and have increased anti-Western/anti-American feeling among a portion of the population. The RT reported on the situation saying that:
“Doctors are also sounding the alarm: the trade embargo has caused shortages of food and medical supplies. The director of a cancer center in Iran says he has faced lots of problems getting modern equipment to treat cancer patients.”
Also if Iran was really willing to remain nuclear free and allow UN inspectors into its research facilities then it would go a long way to disarming much of the region.
“Israel says an Israeli-Palestinian peace must be reached before creation of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” – AP
A more trusted Iran could also assist in negotiations with radical groups throughout the Muslim world, especially Hezbollah.
But a stable and cosmopolitan Iran would pose a problem for at least three countries, Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. Israel would no longer be able to use Iran as an excuse for increased militarism and neither would the US. Not only that but Iran would no longer distract for the US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.
While the human rights situation in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia is even worse than that in Iran, Iran has taken much of the international and media attention away from the Saudis. If this distraction was removed the media would have a greater capacity to criticise the close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia in light of its many injustices.
But at this point it is a waiting game and we here and Global Echo will keep up to date as Iran-US-Israeli relations continue to evolve.
There are discrepancies between how we define freedom and how we perceive it.
Freedom is defined by most as the ability to make your own choices but freedom is often perceived as choosing to be like you.
Not specifically you obviously but ourselves in general. If you consider yourself to be free then you are more likely to recognise freedom in others if their lives resemble yours.
This problem presents itself particularly strongly when ‘western’ ideologies of ‘freedom’ attempt to reconcile with choices they do not understand. Head-scarves and veiling of Muslim women has become the symbolic battleground of cultural ideology in the west. But behind the rhetoric are the realities of personal freedoms in our societies.
When discussing legislating against veiling in Europe, discussion usually returns to France and ‘The Scarf Affair’ when three scarf-wearing Muslim girls were expelled from their school in November 1996. Then in March of 2004 a law was passed in the French National Assembly banning the bearing of all “ostentatious signs of religious belonging in the public sphere”.
It is interesting to note that quickly the word scarf (foulard) was replaced by veil (la voile). The choice of words is significant as a scarf is a fairly ordinary piece of clothing in France but a veil is more ceremonial and conjures up orientalised images.
These questions are more explicable if the debate on veiling has more to do with European, and by extension “western”, identity than it does about the realistic impact of veiling.
There are many reasons used to justify the banning of headscarves and face veils, the most common of which being security and fighting the oppression of women.
There is an academic feminist argument against veiling that acknowledges its long, traditional roots far outside any one religion but rather as part of patriarchal history of humans as a whole. Ancient Greece, early Christianity, Judaism and the Assyrian Empire all had veiling as a marker of a respectable woman which, like their chastity, added to the commercial value of women as the property of their male relatives. I am a historian and a feminist so I acknowledge this argument.
However, patriarchy is a fact of the majority of history and if we were to ban everything that had once had a hand in the oppression or objectification of women we would have to ban all sorts of things, including but not limited to; wedding rings, corsets, high heeled shoes, wigs and men.
Also my feminism is that which says that women should be allowed make their own decisions (radical I know!) and so ultimately as interesting as the history of veiling I don’t believe it should play a role in decision making regarding modern legislation. Not only that but I believe that the objectification of women is best typified by the fact that our bodies remain political battlegrounds for the ideology of political systems.
The idea of freedom is opposed to any law that regulates the clothes of women and treats them as ideological tools. So regimes like Saudi Arabia are a different discussion. But I would also like to point out that veiling is the least of women’s problems when living under regimes like this. But if we agree that a law enforcing veiling is wrong then how can we support a law banning them when that is the same control from another perspective?
I also think there is a patronising element to the assumption that veiled, Muslim women are simply incapable of making their own decisions.
And then there is the security argument. That covering your face in public should not be allowed regardless of religion.
There is no set procedure for situation such as this and Judge Murphy called on parliament to “provide a definite answer” saying:
“If judges in different cases in different places took differing approaches [to the niqab] the result would be judicial anarchy.”
But the decision that she only had to unveil to give evidence was not enough for some observers. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said he “regretted” the judge’s decision.
“We will be complaining to the Office of Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges’ discretion.”
While the rise of ultra-right, neo-nazi groups in Europe has been documented in the last ten years (though perhaps not as closely as they warranted) by media outlets like The Guardian or Geo-Currents the rise in support for populist, not-quite-as-ultra-right parties is even more pervasive and less documented.
Conservative parties with neo-libertarian economics and anti-immigration, moralistic rhetoric have gained significant support in various countries throughout the region. I’m going to be including Australia in this discussion because for a country on the far side of the world it is and always has been politically linked to Europe.
The UK, Australia, the Netherlands, France, Ireland and Norway have all elected centre right or simply right-wing parties to head their governments in the last five years.
France elected Sarkozy as president with his party the Union for Popular Movement in 2007. A party so populist they put it in the name. The centre right gained 46.36% of the vote. Immigration and cultural assimilation were issues that rose in the early days of the government. The France National Front, has gained more support than they have had in years with young article leaders like Maréchal-Le Pen, granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen who founded FN in the 1980s, attempting to rebrand the fiercely anti-immigrant party who have been accused in the past of desecrating Jewish cemeteries, denying the Nazi occupation of France was all that brutal and still use rhetoric about ‘protecting the French way of life’.
2010 and 2011 saw the UK and Ireland replace their governments with similar alternatives. The UK replaced their Labour party, who had been in power since 1997, with a Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition with the conservatives taking 36.1% of the national vote. Ireland replaced the three term reign of Fianna Fáil, centre party, with a coalition of Fine Gael (centre-right) and the Irish Labour party (centre). Fine Gael took 36% of the national vote.
What links these two elections, besides the coalitions, were that there were other factors influencing the radical shift in leadership. The European economic downturn, accusations of unethical practises by elected officials and in the case of the UK the Iraq war. However they unseated long running governments who had remained popular despite concerns such as this so they remain relevant to the regional trend.
The Netherlands has had a particularly noticeable shift to the right in recent years. The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) gained 26.58% of the vote in 2012. Their website lays out the party policies which include being anti-veiling, anti-immigration, pro-financial deregulation and use the phrase “economic migrants” in their policy on asylum seekers. It also states that “without security there is no freedom”.
Then came the victory of the National Coalition over Labor in Australia. Cathal covered this story for us and how, despite the fact that Labor had been in power for six very successful years and that the Coalition leader Tony Abbott is not particularly popular in his own right, the right-wing, anti-immigration party took the election last week.
Only days ago in Norway, the Conservative Party won a landslide victory over the Labour Party who had been in power for the last two decades. The Norwegian Labour Party (DNA) have been consistently popular and led Norway through the European economic situation unscathed. Not only that but it was the Labour Party’s youth organisation that were the target of the terrorist attack by Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people most of them youths in 2011. Breivik was a member of the Progress Party who are now going into coalition with the Conservatives to form the new parliament. The coalition is taking time to finalise because other conservative parties do not want to be seen to be associated with a party with ties to a mass murderer. However despite this the Conservatives and Progress Party do not actually need any other coalition partners if they simply form a minority government.
“Someone tried to kill me and my comrades for what we believe in and that kind of stirs a feeling that it’s important work you’re doing. You can make a difference through politics – I’m more sure of that now than ever”. — Wennesland
One of Breivik’s, and if we’re honest, the Progress Party’s big concerns is that immigration means a higher Muslim population which some right-wing politicians believe somehow threatens Europe.
It seems relevant to point out that when I was researching this article, I began to type “Europe growing increasingly conservative” into Google to see who else was writing about this (not that many people all in all) one of the first Google autofill suggestions was “Europe growing Muslim population”.
Given how the Google algorithm works, that’s a concerning note all by itself.
As though that was not concerning enough however, if you follow that Google search you do not find census data at the top but rather articles shouting that we are a generation away from Sharia law due to these “demographics” demonstrating that these reporters (in the loosest sense of the word) don’t know what either of the words “Sharia” or “demographic” mean.
The Telegraph, in the article ‘Muslim Europe: the demographic time bomb transforming our continent’ which I refuse to link to in this article to preserve a sense of journalist ethics, state that: “Britain and the rest of the European Union are ignoring a demographic time bomb”.
The, what I hesitant to call an article, then goes on to reveal that “Mohamed, Adam, Rayan, Ayoub, Mehdi, Amine and Hamza” were the top seven baby names for boys in the city of Brussels without applying any context for why anyone who isn’t trying to think of baby names for their child or hasn’t recently hit their head off a wall would even care about this very specific example of one city in one country. And even if you chose for some reason to care Adam is obviously not a Muslim name and neither is Rayan specifically because it has etymological origins from ancient Celts, Old English, Hindi, Persian and Hebrew as well as Arabic not to mention the fact that many Arabs of religions other than Islam still have Arabic names. The fact that I even had to write this paragraph convinced my never to read the Telegraph ever again.
The Telegraph article and statement by leaders of some of the parties I have name here have cited the rise of ultra-right, neo-nazi groups as a reason to vote populist right wing, in order to deal with the problems with ‘create’ situations that lead to violent right-wing extremist. The rise of right-wing fundamentalists has in fact aided the populist right.