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Sunni - Shiite hatred permeates Middle East Civil war in Syria underlines the bigotry and anger prevalent among two main Islamic sects By Lee Keath June 24, 2013, 11:58 am Syrian security forces at the site where a car bomb exploded near the Shi'ite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, visible in the background, near Damascus, Syria in June 2012. (photo credit: /Bassem Tellawi, AP File) CAIRO (AP) — It’s not hard to find stereotypes, caricatures and outright bigotry when talk in the Middle East turns to the tensions between Islam’s two main sects. Shi’ites are described as devious, power-hungry corruptors of Islam. Sunnis are called extremist, intolerant oppressors. Hatreds between the two are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria’s civil war. On Sunday, officials said four Shi’ites in a village west of Cairo were beaten to death by Sunnis in a sectarian clash unusual for Egypt. Hard-line clerics and politicians on both sides in the region have added fuel, depicting the fight as essentially a war of survival for their sect. But among the public, views are complex. Some sincerely see the other side as wrong — whether on matters of faith or politics. Others see the divisions as purely political, created for cynical aims. Even some who view the other sect negatively fear sectarian flames are burning dangerously out of control. There are those who wish for a return to the days, only a decade or two ago, when the differences did not seem so important and the sects got along better, even intermarried. And some are simply frustrated that there is so much turmoil over a dispute that dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. “Fourteen centuries after the death of the prophet, in a region full of destruction, killing, occupation, ignorance and disease, you are telling me about Sunnis and Shi’ites?” scoffs Ismail al-Hamami, a 67-yearold Sunni Palestinian refugee in Gaza. “We are all Muslims. … You can’t ignore the fact that (Shi’ites) are Muslims.” Associated Press correspondents spoke to Shi’ites and Sunnis across the region. Amid the variety of viewpoints, they found a public struggling with anger that is increasingly curdling into hatred. Background The Sunni-Shi’ite split is rooted in the question of who should succeed Muhammad in leading Muslims after his death in 632. Shi’ites say the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was his rightful successor but was cheated when authority went to those the Sunnis call the four “Rightfully Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and, finally, Ali. Sunnis are the majority across the Islamic world. In the Middle East, Shi’ites have strong majorities in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, with significant communities in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other parts of the Gulf. Both consider the Quran the word of God. But there are distinctions in theology and religious practice between the two sects. Some are minor: Shi’ites pray with their hands by their sides, Sunnis with their hands crossed at their chest or stomach. Others are significant. Shi’ites, for example, believe Ali and a string of his descendants, the Imams, had not only rightful political authority after Muhammad but also held a special religious wisdom. Most Shi’ites believe there were 12 Imams — many of them “martyred” by Sunnis — and the 12th vanished, to one day return and restore justice. Sunnis accuse the Shi’ites of elevating Ali to the level of Muhammad himself — incorrectly, since Shi’ites agree that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, a central tenet of Islam. The bitter disputes of early Islam still resonate. Even secular-minded Shi’ite parents would never name their child after the resented Abu Bakr, Omar or Othman — or Aisha, a wife of Muhammad, who helped raise a revolt against Ali during his Caliphate. When outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt earlier this year, the sheik of Al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni theology, told him sharply that if the sects are to get along, Shi’ites must stop “insulting” the “companions of the prophet.” But only the most hard-core would say those differences are reason enough to hate each other. For that, politics is needed. Iraq If Syria’s war has raised the region’s sectarian hatreds, the war in Iraq played a big role in unleashing them. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the long-oppressed Shi’ite majority there saw a chance to take power. Sunnis feared the repression would flip onto them. The result was vicious sectarian fighting that lasted until 2008: Sunni extremists pulled Shi’ite pilgrims from buses and gunned them down; Shi’ite militiamen kidnapped Sunnis, dumping their tortured bodies later. Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabar, 56, is a Sunni cleric who occasionally preaches at the prominent Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunnidominated Azamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. Two of his sons were killed by Shi’ite militiamen. He blames the United States and Iran for Iraq’s strife. “Right from the beginning, the Americans were trying to create sectarian rifts,” he said. “Iran is a country of regional ambitions. It isn’t a Shi’ite country. It’s a country with specific schemes and agendas.” Now he fears the strife is returning, and he blames the Shi’itedominated government. “We feel the government does not consider us part of the Iraqi nation,” he said. “There is no magical solution for this. If the Shi’ites are convinced to change their politicians, that would be a big help.” Ahmed Saleh Ahmed, 40, a Sunni, runs a construction company in Baghdad mainly employing Shi’ites. He is married to a Shi’ite woman. They live in the Azamiyah neighborhood and raise their two daughters and son as Sunnis. Still, his wife prays with the small clay stone that Shi’ites — but not Sunnis — set in front of their prayer rugs. She often visits a Shi’ite shrine in another Baghdad district. Ahmed sometimes helps his wife’s family prepare food for Shi’ite pilgrims during religious ceremonies. But he admits that there sometimes is tension between the families. “We were able to contain it and solve it in a civilized way,” Ahmed said. Iraqis like to talk politics, he said, and “when things get heated, we tend to change the subject.” When their children ask about sectarian differences, “we do our best to make these ideas as clear as we can for them so they don’t get confused,” he said. “We try to avoid discussing sectarian issues in front of the children.” Ahmed believes sectarian tensions have been strained because people have abused the democratic ideas emerging from the Arab Spring. Democracy “needs open-mindedness, forgiveness and an ability to understand the other,” he said. “No human being is born believing in democracy. It’s like going to school — you have to study first. Democracy should be for people who want to do good things, not for those who are out for revenge.” Hussein al-Rubaie, 46, a Shi’ite, was jailed for two years under Saddam. His Shi’ite-majority Sadriya district in Baghdad saw considerable bloodshed during the worst of the strife, and he fears it’s returning. “The whole region is in flames and we are all about to be burnt,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are ignorant and easily driven by sectarian feelings.” He sees it among his friends, who include Sunnis. “My friends only whisper about sectarian things because they think it is a shame to talk about such matters,” al-Rubaie said, “but I am afraid that the day might come when this soft talking would turn to fighting in the street.” Lebanon Among some of Lebanon’s Shi’ites, it’s fashionable to wear a necklace with a medallion in the shape of the fabled double-bladed sword of Ali. It’s a mark of community pride at a time when the Shi’ite group Hezbollah says the sect is endangered by Sunni extremists in the Syrian uprising. During Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the main fight was between Christians and Muslims. But in the past decade, the most dangerous divide has been between Shi’ites and Sunnis. For much of Lebanon’s existence, Shi’ites, who make up about a third of the population, were an impoverished underclass beneath the Christians and Sunnis, each roughly a third also. The Shi’ite resentment helped the rise of the guerrilla force Hezbollah, on whose might the community won greater power. Now, many Sunnis resent Hezbollah’s political domination of the government. The 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni, increased Sunni anger after Hezbollah members were blamed. Since then, both sides have clashed in the streets. Syria’s civil war has fueled those tensions. Lebanon’s Sunnis largely back the mainly Sunni rebellion, while Shi’ites support President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is dominated by his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ism. Hezbollah sent fighters to help Assad fight the rebels, enraging Sunnis region-wide. Rania, 51, is a Shi’ite Lebanese banking executive, married to a Sunni and living in Ras Beirut, one of the capital’s few mixed neighborhoods. When she married, at age 22, “I didn’t even know what the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites is.” Now she’s inclined to support Hezbollah. While not a fan of the hardline group, she believes that Hezbollah and Syria are targeted because of their stances against Israel. She said her husband is anti-Hezbollah and supports Syria’s rebels. Rania, who gave only her first name because she doesn’t want to be stigmatized about her social, religious or marital status, said she doesn’t talk politics with her husband to avoid arguments. “I support one (political) side and he supports the other, but we’ve found a way to live with it,” added Rania, who has a 22-year-old daughter. She said education plays a big role. “I find that the people who make comments about it are the people who are just ignorant, and ignorance feeds hatred and stereotyping,” she added. Khaled Challah is a 28-year-old Syrian Sunni businessman who has lived for years in Lebanon. He comes from a conservative, religious family but only occasionally goes to mosque. He said the only way he would be able to tell the difference between a Sunni mosque and a Shi’ite one would be if the cleric talked about Syria in the sermon. “A Shi’ite imam would speak against the rebels, and call to resist them, and a Sunni sheik would talk against the government in Syria,” he said. He said he still doesn’t understand the Shi’ites’ emotional fervor over the battle of Karbala, in which Ali’s son, Hussein, was killed by the armies of the Sunni Ummayad dynasty in the 7th century. Hussein’s martyrdom is a defining trauma of their faith, deepening their feeling of oppression. Every year, Shi’ites around the world mark the battle with processions that turn into festivals of mourning, with men lashing or cutting themselves. “It means much more to Shi’ites, this battle’s memory, than to Sunnis,” Challah said. He said Sunnis “behave sometimes like they are the only Muslims.” Challah called this “very silly. Sunnis and Shi’ites come from the same root, they worship the same God.” Iran The Shi’ite powerhouse of the Middle East is home to a government led by Shi’ite clerics with oil wealth and a powerful Revolutionary Guard. Tehran has extended its influence in the Arab world, mainly through its alliance with Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Iran has presented that alliance not as sectarian but as the center of “resistance” against Israel. Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies have been trying to stem Iran’s influence, in part by warning of the spread of Shi’ism. Saudi Arabia’s hard-line Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam views Shi’ism as heresy. Reza Tajabadi, a Shi’ite cleric in Tehran, blames the Wahhabis — and the related ultra-conservative Salafi movement in Sunni Islam — for stoking sectarian hatred. “If Wahabis withdrew from creating differences, then Shi’ites and Sunnis will be able to put aside their minor differences, which are not considerable.” Abolfatah Davati, another Shi’ite cleric, points to the historical difference between the two sects. Since Sunnis have been dominant through history, Sunni clerics became subordinate to the rulers. The Shi’ite clergy, he said, has been independent of power. “Sunni clerics backed rulers and justified their policies, like the killing of Imam Hussein. Even now, they put their rulers’ decision at the top of their agenda,” he said. “In contrast, Shi’ites have not depended on government, so Sunnis cannot tolerate this and issue religious edicts against them. This increases rifts.” Egypt In a country where the Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni, many Egyptians know little about Shi’ites. The Shi’ite population is tiny and largely hidden — so secretive that its numbers are not really known. But ultraconservative Salafis, many of whom view Shi’ites as infidels, have become more politically powerful and more vocal since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They often preach against Shi’ism, warning it will spread to Egypt. Mona Mohammed Fouad is a rarity in Egypt: Her mother is an Iranian Shi’ite, her father an Egyptian Sunni. She considers herself Sunni. “People are always surprised and shocked” when they find out her mother is Shi’ite, said Fouad, 23, who works for a digital marketing company. “But usually as soon as they know, they are very interested and they ask me many questions.” Fouad said her sister has heard work colleagues criticizing Shi’ites. In her fiance’s office they distributed leaflets “telling people to beware of Shi’ite indoctrination,” she added. “People should read about Shi’ism. We make fun of foreigners who believe all Muslims are terrorists and we say they are ignorant, but we do the same thing to ourselves,” Fouad said. “There is a difference in interpretation, a difference in opinion, but at the end of the day, we believe in the same things.” She told her Sunni fiance from the start that her mother is Shi’ite. “I told him to tell his family, so if they have any problem with that, we end it immediately.” Anas Aqeel, a 23-year-old Salafi, spent the first 18 years of his life in Saudi Arabia, where he would sometimes encounter Shi’ites. “We didn’t ever argue over faith. But they alienated me,” he said. “I once saw a Shi’ite in Saudi Arabia speaking ill of one of the companions of the prophet near his tomb. That one I had to clash with and expel him from the place,” Aqeel said. He worries about Shi’ites spreading their faith. While he said not all Shi’ites are alike, he added that “some of them deviate in the Quran and speak badly of the prophet’s companions. If someone is wrong and … he insists on his wrong concept, then we cannot call him a Muslim.” Palestinian territories Palestinian Muslims are also almost all Sunnis. Their main connection to the Shi’ite world has Hamas’ alliance with Iran. But those ties were strained when Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, broke its connections with Syria because of the civil war. Ahmed Mesleh, a 28-year-old blogger from the West Bank town of Ramallah, says he met Shi’ites on a trip to Lebanon and encounters them via Facebook. But some have de-friended him because of his online comments. “If we take Shi’ites from a religious point of view, then we can describe Shi’ites as a sect that has gone astray from the true doctrine of Islam. I consider them a bigger threat to Muslims and Islam than Jews and Israel,” Mesleh said. He cited the Shi’ites’ processions mourning Hussein’s death, saying: “The way they whip themselves, it’s irrational.” The Middle East conflict “is in its core a religious conflict. The Shi’ites want to destroy Islam. In Lebanon, they are the ones controlling the situation, and the ones who are causing the sectarian conflict.” Ismail al-Hamami, a 67-year-old Palestinian refugee in Gaza’s Shati camp, said politics not religion is driving sectarian tensions. “In Gaza, Iran used to support the resistance with weapons. Now they support Assad. … In Iraq, they (Shi’ites) executed Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni, and they took over the country with the help of the Americans. Now they are working against America in Iran and Syria.” “So is that related to religion? It’s all about politics.” The beneficiaries of sectarianism, he said, are “those who want to sell arms to both sides … those who want to keep Arab and Muslim countries living in the dark. The beneficiaries are the occupation (Israel) and the people who sell us religious slogans.” “God knows who is right or wrong.” Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. Holocaust survivor repays ultimate debt via rescue of Syrian Christians Former refugee Lord George Weidenfeld spearheads effort to airlift families to Europe from Islamic State-held area By Jenni Frazer July 16, 2015, 7:26 am LONDON — On the eve of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, 19-year-old George Weidenfeld escaped Vienna for the United Kingdom. He began work at the British Broadcasting Corporation and within ten years had co-founded the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicholson. The former refugee, now Lord Weidenfeld, has long been associated with Jewish and Israeli charities. However, since he was helped by a Christian group, the Plymouth Brethren, when he first arrived in Britain, he says, it is time to repay this debt. A partial payment came last week in the form of a poignant rescue of 42 Syrian Christian families, who are now safe in Warsaw. “We have been deeply moved by the plight of Christians in conflicttorn Middle East countries, and we are supporting the transfer of Christian families to safe havens where they can lead normal lives,” Weidenfeld told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. The rescue operation was conducted in partnership with the British branch of the Jewish National Fund, which made the decision to aid Weidenfeld at a board meeting just before Passover this year. Dr. Michael Sinclair, vice-chairman of JNF in Britain (courtesy) According to Michael Sinclair, vice chairman of JNF in Britain, the overture made by Jewish philanthropists Weidenfeld and Martin Green to the JNF was unusual but ultimately compelling. Martin Green heads the Euripides Foundation, which works for better relations between Jews and Christians. “We viewed it as the right thing to do, to offer help,” Sinclair said. “We were mindful of those rare but special occasions when Christians reached out to Jews during the Second World War. People realized it was a really worthy cause.” The honorable repayment of a debt from the Holocaust was a prime motivator for Weidenfeld. “In the 1930s thousands of Jews, mainly women and children, were helped by Christians who took enormous personal risks to save them from certain death. We owe a debt of gratitude,” said Weidenfeld. However, Sinclair acknowledged that there had been internal discussion as to whether humanitarian rescue was the right sort of project for the JNF, an organization that is known for its work in greening and developing the Land of Israel, as well as for Zionist education and advocacy. ‘We thought about how we would have felt if we had learned that a Christian group had had the opportunity to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust — and turned that opportunity down’ “But we felt that our donors would approve — and we also felt that once we had been approached, we could not say no,” said Sinclair. “We thought about how we would have felt if we had learned that a Christian group had had the opportunity to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust — and turned that opportunity down. So that was really the most compelling reason to do this.” The move to take the Christians from their homes in an Islamic Statecontrolled territory — unspecified for reasons of safety — was coordinated by the Barnabas Fund, an international relief agency which works with what it calls “the persecuted church.” Under conditions of great secrecy, the 42 families — 149 people in all — were flown from Beirut to Warsaw, where many of them have asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against relatives still in Syria. The Polish government offered entry visas, and temporary accommodation in Poland has been provided by a Warsaw-based charity, the Esther Foundation. Sources close to the operation said there was some discussion about bringing the refugees into Israel first, a plan which was rejected for reasons of safety and security. Lord George Weidenfeld (courtesy) The plight of Christians in the Middle East, caught in the internecine war between Muslim factions, has largely been ignored by the international community. The Barnabas Fund has launched a rescue plan called Operation Safe Havens — and the separate Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund has underwritten the costs of this first mission at a cost of £250,000. The Barnabas Fund’s patron, the Marquess of Reading, Simon Isaacs, welcomed the money contributed by Jewish charities and individuals in the UK. Spearheading the venture has been the 95-year-old Lord Weidenfeld. A further 200 families are due to travel to Poland in the coming months. However, the JNF’s Sinclair said this would not be a “marquee project” for his organization. “We will continue to approach friends and contacts in North America and Israel to help fund future evacuations,” said Sinclair. To step up efforts, the Barnabas Fund is already in touch with a number of other central and eastern European governments to discuss similar rescue projects. ‘They have nowhere to go unless we open our doors to them in their hour of need’ Sir Charles Hoare, who has advised the Barnabas Fund on the evacuation, called upon other European governments to provide support. “The Christian community in the Middle East is facing its greatest crisis. The homes of Christians are being demolished by this terrible conflict. They have nowhere to go unless we open our doors to them in their hour of need,” said Hoare. Israel could send Iran ‘back to the stone age’ with electromagnetic bomb Detonation would disrupt all the enemy’s technological devices, Sunday Times reports By Aaron Kalman September 9, 2012, 1:26 pm An American electromagnetic bomb being tested (photo credit: screen capture botanyfamily/Youtube) Writers Aaron Kalman Aaron Kalman is a writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel Israel could destroy Iran’s electric network with a specially designed electromagnetic bomb in the event of a military conflict between the countries, The Sunday Times reported on Sunday. An electromagnetic bomb of this sort would be detonated above the ground, creating an electromagnetic pulse that would “disrupt all the technological devices working on the ground,” an American expert was quoted as saying to the London paper. The use of the new technology by Israel was brought up in discussions regarding a possible attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities, the report claimed. Such a move would send Iran “back to the stone age,” the British paper said. This kind of bomb would operate based on the nonlethal technology of gamma rays, the report explained. The outburst of energy would “fry” electric devices and currents around the source of the explosion. Sunnis and Shia: Islam's ancient schism 20 June 2014 From the section Middle East Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of many rituals that are shared by both sects What are the differences between Sunnis and Shia? Muslims are split into two main branches, the Sunnis and Shia. The split originates in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. The great majority of Muslims are Sunnis - estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%. Members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. Though they may not interact much outside the public sphere, there are always exceptions. In urban Iraq, for instance, intermarriage between Sunnis and Shia was, until recently, quite common. The differences lie in the fields of doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. Their leaders also often seem to be in competition. From Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Pakistan, many recent conflicts have emphasised the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart. Who are the Sunnis? Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam. The word Sunni comes from "Ahl al-Sunna", the people of the tradition. The tradition in this case refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. All subsequent Muslim leaders are seen as temporal figures. Egypt is home to some of Sunni Islam's oldest centres of learning In contrast to Shia, Sunni religious teachers and leaders have historically come under state control. The Sunni tradition also emphasises a codified system of Islamic law and adherence to four schools of law. Who are the Shia? In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction literally "Shiat Ali" or the party of Ali. The Shia claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community. Ali was killed as a result of intrigues, violence and civil wars which marred his caliphate. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to caliphate. Hassan is believed to have been poisoned by Muawiyah, the first caliph (leader of Muslims) of the Umayyad dynasty. His brother, Hussein, was killed on the battlefield along with members of his family, after being invited by supporters to Kufa (the seat of caliphate of Ali) where they promised to swear allegiance to him. Women from Turkey's Shia minority observe a religious procession in Istanbul These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving. There is a distinctive messianic element to the faith and Shia have a hierarchy of clerics who practise independent and ongoing interpretation of Islamic texts. Estimates of the number of Shia range from 120 to 170 million, roughly one-tenth of all Muslims. Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, according to some estimates, Yemen. There are large Shia communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. What role has sectarianism played in recent crises? In countries that have been governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Some extremist Sunni doctrines have preached hatred of Shia. The Iranian revolution of 1979 launched a radical Shia Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf. Tehran's policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders was matched by the Gulf states, which strengthened their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad. Discontent among the Shia has fuelled street protests in Bahrain During the civil war in Lebanon, Shia gained a strong political voice because of the military activities of Hezbollah. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, hardline Sunni militant groups such as the Taliban - have often attacked Shia places of worship. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have also acquired strong sectarian overtones. Young Sunni men in both countries have joined rebel groups, many of which echo the hardline ideology of al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, many of their counterparts from the Shia community have been fighting for - or alongside - government forces.