For a week and half now, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Shia rebels in Yemen. These rebels have taken control of large swaths of land, overthrowing the Western-backed government and expanding their control into the south of the country. The rebels, the Houthis, are backed by Iran, a Shia country. 10 other Sunni-majority countries have joined the Saudi coalition, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan. Even Turkey and Pakistan, who usually avoid military engagement in the Arab world, have joined the coalition fighting against the rebels. Civilians are being killed in droves. A refugee camp was bombed. Yemenis have no electricity or water. The humanitarian situation is getting worse as the days go on. Along with the chaos in Iraq, this campaign could spur a broader Shia/Sunni worldwide conflict.
Islam has two primary branches: Sunni and Shia. The split goes back to a difference of opinion about who should take power as the caliph of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Sunnis held the belief that Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of the prophet, should be the caliph. The Shias wanted Ali, the cousin of the prophet, to be the successor. This led to a separation and ultimate bloodshed. Since then, many religious differences have emerged, including various Sunni and Shia groups. They all have different interpretations of the faith. However, the current Shia/Sunni conflict is less about theological differences and more about power in the Muslim world.
The Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, also backed by Iran, has fought a brutal war against dissent since the civil war broke out in 2011. The emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS, a Sunni group, has worked in Assad’s favor. The media attention has been taken off Assad, who has killed 200,000 Syrians. John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State has said he is willing to negotiate with Assad in order to combat the Islamic State and work for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militant group and ally of Assad has led ground operations in Syria against many rebel factions, including al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra and have been very successful.
In Iraq the situation is similar but is even more sectarian in nature. Iraq is home to the most sacred shrines in Shiism. Shias are being slaughtered mercilessly by the Islamic State in Iraq. Iraq’s borders were drawn after World War I with no consideration for the different groups forced to live together under the same government. Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds all reside in Iraq and have become more and more divided and hostile towards each other as war continues to tear the country apart. Car bombs regularly go off in Baghdad’s Shia neighborhoods. This isn’t unique to Iraq either. In Pakistan, two Shia mosques have recently been bombed, killing dozens. Shias have been kidnapped in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been hesitant to the idea of forming a coalition to combat the so-called Islamic State. However, when a marginalized Shia rebel group take over Yemen, they act swiftly. This shows the lack of humanity and value of life the leaders of these countries hold. There is a lot of emphasis by the U.S. placed on Iran, its nuclear capabilities and links to terrorism, but authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia get a pass.
Saudi Arabia wants to crack down on any Shia dissent. Activists there are regularly imprisoned and face harsh sentences. The Saudi establishment is fundamentally anti-Shia. This is the same as other Gulf states such as the island nation Bahrain in the Persian Gulf where the U.S. backed government has brutally suppressed a rebellion since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Although Shias and Sunnis have always held different beliefs, they’ve been able to coexist for centuries. The last 50 years has seen more sectarian bloodshed than any other era. Instead of religion being a source of unity, compassion, and acceptance of the other, some have instead declared anyone who doesn’t follow their specific interpretation of Islam an apostate. They use this logic in order to justify oppression, injustice and murder.
In an authentic hadith (saying of the prophet), Muhammad (peace be upon him) said this: “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false tales. and do not look for the others’ faults, and do not do spying on one another, and do not be jealous of one another and do not hate one another, and do not desert one another. And O, Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers!”
Until we, as Muslims, unite and show compassion for one another and walk humbly upon the earth as our prophet taught us, there will be little progress to end these sectarian disputes.