I’ve been writing a lot about Syria and Iraq, and when I do that I tend to lapse into talking about the “Sunni” and the “Shi’i” because the conflicts going on there have a strong sectarian component (or political components being characterized as sectarian, for the particularly cynical among us), but this kind of broad categorization doesn’t do justice to the people caught in these conflicts. When you read a report that 200 “civilians” are trapped in a mosque in Syria because of the fighting raging outside, chances are those 200 civilians are just as Sunni as the Syrian opposition forces, but they’ve not joined the rebellion. When worshipers at a mosque, Sunni or Shi’i, in Iraq are killed in a terrorist attack, the vast majority of them had not and would not have taken a side in that country’s sectarian fighting.
Even for many of the Sunni fighters who joined the rebellion in Syria, or who might join a rebellion in Iraq if things get to that point, it’s not about sectarianism so much as it’s about revolting against a brutal dictatorship in Syria, or lashing out against a political and economic system that has left them behind in Iraq. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that much of the violence currently afflicting Iraq, and a not-inconsiderable portion of that now afflicting Syria, is happening within the Sunni community, driven by the most radical elements of that community, who see the Shi’a as apostates worthy of death and Sunnis who aren’t enthusiastic about the cause as traitors worthy of the same. The plain truth is that a considerable portion of the Sunni population in Syria was just fine with Assad’s government, as fine as anybody can be living under a thug, and while they may prefer to see him ousted now most would probably still trade a continuation of Assad’s reign for an end to this conflict that threatens their lives and the lives of their loved ones every single day.
This is not to say that the Sunni-Shi’i divide doesn’t matter. It matters a great deal. The split between the two has deep historical roots and involves long-simmering social-religious-political-ethnic enmities that feed these modern conflicts or are manipulated to feed them. It is to say that, for the vast majority of Sunnis and Shi’is living in the Middle East, this divide is not relevant to their daily lives or to the way they view the world; these people would much rather take care of their families and pursue as much happiness as they can than to pick up a rifle or a suicide vest and go kill members of the opposing sect. When I use “Sunni” and “Shi’i” as markers for the active combatants in these conflicts, I want to be clear that I am not lumping all members of either sect together as though they’re all active participants in these atrocities.The risk is that, as these conflicts continue and the violence only escalates, more and more of these ordinary people who would prefer to live a quiet, peaceful existence will be drawn in to picking sides and taking up arms.