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Sunni - Shiite hatred permeates Middle
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
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
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
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
“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
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 &
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
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
“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)
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
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
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
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
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
Discontent among the Shia has fuelled street protests in
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
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