I wanted to link to this piece written by Juan Cole on Monday because he does a much better job of saying something I tried to say a couple of weeks ago. Last week a rocket attack by Syrian rebels struck on or near the grounds of the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque outside Damascus. Zaynab was the daughter of the first Shi’i Imam, ‘Ali, and his wife (Muhammad’s daughter) Fatimah, and she’s said to have been buried on the site. As you might imagine, this mosque/shrine is quite important to Shi’i around the world. The caretaker of the shrine/mosque was killed and there are varying reports about whether or not the shrine itself was damaged. The rebels claim that they were just targeting regime and/or Hezbollah forces in the vicinity, but when a big chunk of the resistance is comprised of Salafi-Sunni fundamentalists, who have an aversion to shrines altogether and a particular enmity about the Shi’a, it’s not hard to imagine that the shrine itself was targeted.
Professor Cole links the attack to the continuing violence in Iraq as well as sectarian discord in Pakistan, then writes this:
The war in Syria is not primarily a religious one, though it obviously has a strong sectarian dimension. The same is true of the alarming and ongoing violence in Iraq. These are not religious struggles because they are not over theology. People have organized themselves to fight on one side or another on many grounds, with religious heritage or identity only one of them. The Syrian revolution began with protests by Syrians in the smaller cities of the center and south of the country against unemployment and lack of water for irrigation, as well as against the seedy practices of the Baath police state. Most of the protesters were Sunni but most of them were not protesting on behalf of Sunni theology. It so happens that the militantly secular Baath socialist, Arab-nationalist party is dominated in Syria by the Alawite sect, which technically falls on the Shiite side of the Sunni-Shiite divide. But it is not orthodox in its beliefs, and few orthodox, Twelver Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq or Iran would mobilize on behalf of the Alawite form of Islam, with which they feel no kindred spirit.
He continues on, noting that Hezbollah is in the fight to protect its land conduit to Iran, Iran to maintain the Assad regime that is still its strongest reliable ally in the Levant/Arab world. Iranians going to fight in Syria are being told that they should do so for religious reasons, but the Iranian clerical establishment is telling them this in order to further its own very realpolitik aims. In fact, the issue of whether Shi’i fighters should go to Syria and join the conflict has divided Iraqi and Iranian Shi’i clerics; the Iraqi jurists refuse to call what’s happening in Syria a religious war, except for the militant Muqtada al-Sadr, who actually sides with the Sunni rebels. Why? Well, because the Shi’i in Syria are backing Assad, who heads the Ba’ath Party in Syria, and Muqtada has deep grievances with Ba’athists in general stemming from Ba’athist Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq.
The point is that these conflicts are complicated, and when people like me group opposing camps under labels like “Sunni” and “Shi’i,” it’s essentially shorthand and should be thought of that way unless otherwise specified. The Syrian rebels are mostly Sunni Arabs, yes, but most of them aren’t fighting because they’re Sunni and Assad is Shi’i (actually Alawi, but let’s not add to the complexity); they’re fighting because Assad is a lousy ruler and a dictator and they’re tired of him. The Syrian government and its allies are mostly Shi’i or Alawi, but they’re not fighting because the rebels are Sunni, they’re fighting because governments fight rebellions. That’s to say nothing of the Syrians who haven’t gotten involved in this rebellion, who are mostly Sunnis, and are taking the brunt of the violence anyway. The vast majority of Iraqi Sunnis have been the targets of violence, just as Iraq’s Shi’i population has been. There are obviously historical fault lines between these communities, but here in 2013 these are mostly people (in both groups) who don’t want to fight, and most of the ones who do are fighting for very non-religious reasons.
However (there had to be one, right?), there’s one group involved in the fighting in Syria and Iraq (actually, in Iraq they seem to be the only group doing any fighting) that Prof. Cole doesn’t mention: the Sunni fundamentalists. These are the groups that are allied with al-Qaeda and/or hold to the tenets of Salafism or Wahhabism (not the same thing, though similar in worldview). These guys are fighting for religious reasons. They oppose what they see as centuries of unlawful innovation and corruption that have moved the Islamic community away from its pure roots, the early polity as it existed under Muhammad. They are utterly opposed to the Shi’i on religious grounds; they contend that any Muslim who doesn’t adhere to their beliefs (and who doesn’t wage war against those Muslims who refuse) is an apostate and must be treated as the enemy. My fear, and the reason why I keep using sectarian shorthand when I talk about these conflicts, is that these guys, who are at home amongst the Sunni tribes of Syria and Iraq but who draw jihadi fighters from all over the Islamic world, could escalate the fighting in Syria, or the (very secular!) tensions that exist between many Iraqi Sunnis and the Shi’i-led Iraqi government, or draw Iraq’s Shi’i militias into open warfare, or in some other way cause a much wider regional conflict that is sectarian or is at least indistinguishable from a real sectarian war. Needless to say, that would be a catastrophe.