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Friday, April 24, 2015

Understanding (?) the Sunni-Shia divide



There is a resurgence of violent conflicts in Muslim countries principally in the Middle East. There is a civil war in Syria with several factions fighting each other. In Iraq, the violence is threatening to split the country into three different parts. In Yemen, the conflict has dragged other Middle East powers, like Saudi Arabia, into armed intervention.
Many outsiders have difficulty understanding the root causes of the civil wars. On the surface, it seems like these are purely sectarian clashes caused by political struggles for power. Oftentimes, the United States and other Western powers have been sucked into these conflicts. This has led many people to think that these wars are an extension of the Crusades or the centuries old war between the Christians and the Muslim world.
The reality is that the upsurge in violence has been primarily caused by the centuries old religious civil war between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. Although there are also political and economic factors involved in these conflicts, two countries that are actively competing for leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, also have this religious divide to further their ambitions.
For many centuries, Sunni and Shia Muslims lived peacefully together. In fact, in many countries members of the two sects would intermarry and even pray at the same mosques. Although they differed in rituals and interpretations of Islamic laws, they shared the same faith in the Quran (Koran) and the lessons of the Prophet Mohammed.
However, in recent decades the proxy battles between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran have been exacerbated by the renewed fundamentalist fervor of some members of both sects who are motivated by the goals of “cleansing the faith” or  issues like the “liberation of Palestine from the Jews.” Tens of thousands of these fundamentalists have transformed themselves into armed groups which have triggered increasing violence.
This split in Islam goes back to events in the 7th Century. The Prophet Mohammad is believed to have had his first revelation in 610 CE. It was after his death in 632 that the two sects first appeared. The group that became known as Sunni accepted Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, one of Mohammad’s closest companions, as the legitimate successor. There were, however, some in the Islamic community who felt that this succession was not legitimate and that the title of Caliph really belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib, whose claim was supported by the fact that he was Mohammad’s cousin, his adopted, his first convert and the husband of his daughter Fatima.
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Both sides fervently believed that the Prophet Mohammad had specifically chosen their own leader. The supporters of Abu became known as Sunnis and the supporters of Ali became the Shiites.
According to Dr. George Boeree, a scholar of Islamic studies, the word Sunni refers to the “sunnas” or oral traditions and interpretations of the Quran (Koran). In Arabic the word sunna means the “way” of Mohammad. They believe that the position of Caliph should be a position to which one is elected by the religious leaders of the Islamic community, and not dependent on direct lineage from Mohammed. The word Sunni also comes from “Ahl a-Summa”” or “the people of tradition,” which refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Mohammad and those close to him.
Shiite comes from the word Shiatu Ali, which means the “partisans of Ali.” They consider certain direct descendants of Ali – the Imams – infallible and true inheritors of Mohammad. However, this line of succession ended with the 12th Imam who went into a state of “hiddenness” in the year 939 CE. Most Shiites believe that the 12th Imam will reemerge someday as the Mahdi or the Messiah and reassert his leadership of the Islamic world. In the meantime, Ayatollahs (“sign of God”)  are elected as their senior clerical leaders to serve as caretakers of the faith.
The Sunnis compose 85 percent  and the Shiites 14 percent  of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim population.  In the Middle East, Iran has the largest Shia majority. Iraq and Bahrain also have Shia majority. There are Shia minority communities in many other Sunni dominated nations.
All these sectarian conflicts compounded by political factors have led to oftentimes confusing alliances in the Middle East.
In Syria, Assad belongs to the Alawis sect which is closely identified with the Shia sect. He is supported by Shia-dominated Iran and Hezbollah, a Shia militant group based in Lebanon and considered a terrorist group by Israel. Their major enemies are Al Qaeda and ISIS which are Sunni groups considered as terrorists by the West. The United States is fighting the two Sunni terrorist groups and supplying aid to other Syrian and Kurdish groups fighting Assad who is also against ISIS.
In Iraq, however, both Iran and the United States are supporting the government which is Shia dominated, against ISIS. However, the United States is also supportive of the aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis who have been persecuted by Iran backed Shia militia groups.
In Yemen, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the United States are supporting the beleaguered Sunni government against the Shia Houdthi rebels which are backed by Iran. Al Qaeda, is fighting both the government and the Shia rebels. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is actively supporting the Sunni royal family but the Shias are the majority population in that country.
The conflicts between Sunnis and Shias seem to be getting worse and  peace in the Middle East seems impossible even with the armed intervention of the United States. But if it is possible for peace to become a reality after 45 years old conflict between the Philippine government and the MILF, it might be possible even for these two enemies — Sunni and Shia — to talk and find a path to peace.
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Where the Write Things Are’s Summer Creative Writing Classes for Kids and Teens
The Wonder of Words: Stories, Graphic Lit, Poetry and more.
May 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15 (6 sessions), 1pm-3pm (for 7-10 years old) and 3:30pm-5:30pm (for 11-17 years old) at Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street.  Facilitators are Neni Sta. Romana Cruz and Roel Cruz with guest authors Mabi David and Dean Francis Alfar.
Young Writers’ Hangout with published authors
May 23 and 30, 1pm-2:30pm (for 7-17 years old) at Canadian American School Alphaland Makati with Celeste Flores Coscolluella and Michael Jude Tumamac (Xi Zuq).
For registration and fee details contact 0917-6240196 or writethingsph@gmail.com.
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