The war against the Shia catches all in its crossfire

World View: Sunni attacks on their Muslim neighbours have left the West with strange bedfellows

Share

It is a ferocious war waged by assassination, massacre, imprisonment and persecution that has killed tens of thousands of people. But non-Muslims – and many Muslims – scarcely notice this escalating conflict that pits Shia minority against Sunni majority.

The victims of the war in recent years are mostly Shia. Last week a suicide bomber walked into a snooker club in a Shia district of Quetta in Pakistan and blew himself up. Rescue workers and police were then caught by the blast from a car bomb that exploded 10 minutes later. In all, 82 people were killed and 121 injured. "It was like doomsday," said a policeman. "There were bodies everywhere."

Responsibility for the bombing was claimed by the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni fundamentalist group behind many such attacks that killed 400 Shia in Pakistan last year.

The dead in Quetta come from the Shia Hazara community, many of whom migrated from Afghanistan in the last century. "They live in a state of siege," says Ali Dayan Hasan, of Human Rights Watch. "Stepping out of the ghetto means risking death. Everyone has failed them – the security forces, the government, the judiciary." In this they are little different from the 30 million Shia in Pakistan who are increasingly beleaguered and afraid in the midst of a rising tide of anti-Shia sectarianism.

The atrocity in Quetta will soon be forgotten outside the area ,but the victims were not the only Shia community to come under attack last week. In Bahrain, where the Shia majority is ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family, the high court confirmed prison sentences – including eight life sentences – on 20 activists who took part in the pro-democracy protests in 2011. This happened even though the original sentences were passed by military courts using evidence extracted by torture.

The sectarian nature of what is happening in Bahrain has never been in doubt. At the height of the crackdown the Bahraini security forces bulldozed 35 Shia mosques, husseiniyas (religious meeting houses) and holy places. The authorities claimed that they were inspired by a sudden enthusiasm to enforce building regulations despite the political turmoil.

Sunni-Shia friction has a long history but took its most vicious form after the overthrow of the Shah by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and the creation of a revolutionary theocratic Shia state in Iran. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 appeared to end Iranian hopes of spreading the revolution to its neighbour, but after the US invasion of 2003 – to the dismay of the White House and to the horror of Saudi Arabia – Iraq became a Shia-run state. "We are the first Arab state to be controlled by the Shia since the Fatimids ran Egypt 800 years ago," one Iraqi Shia activist exulted to me at the time.

As a result of the Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq in 2006-07, Baghdad became an overwhelmingly Shia city. The Sunni in the capital increasingly lived in ghettos. The government, army, police and judiciary came under Shia control. Across the Middle East, the Shia appeared to be on a roll, exemplified by Hezbollah's success in withstanding the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006. In Afghanistan the traditionally down-trodden Shia Hazara community flourished after of the defeat of the Taliban. However, the overall extent of the Shia success was exaggerated: in most Muslim countries the Shia form a vulnerable minority. In the last two years the Shia revolution has been succeeded by a Sunni counter-offensive. The Shia democratic uprising was crushed in Bahrain, and Hezbollah wonders how it will fare if, in future, it faces a hostile Sunni government in Damascus. Until a few months ago the sectarian and ethnic balance of power in Iraq looked stable, but prophecies of a Sunni takeover in Syria are having destabilising consequences.

The uprising in Syria is not so far wholly sectarian, but is on its way to becoming so. Shia and Alawite villagers flee as the rebel Free Syrian Army moves in. A video posted on YouTube shows rebels ransacking and burning a Shia husseiniya outside Idlib in north-west Syria.

All this leaves the US and its Western allies with new dilemmas. In 2003 the US found that in Iraq it had opened the door to Iran by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Its solution was to try to keep power itself in Iraq through an old-fashioned occupation, but this failed disastrously. From 2007 it adopted a new strategy known by some in the White House as the "redirection", making US policy more militantly anti-Iranian and pro-Saudi and, therefore, inevitably more pro-Sunni and anti-Shia.

In a revelatory piece in the New Yorker in 2007, Seymour Hersh described how this "redirection" has moved "the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran, and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims". Iran, strengthened by the outcome of the US invasion of Iraq, was demonised as a greater threat than the Sunni radicals. Its allies, Hezbollah and Syria, were targeted for clandestine operations. Hersh says "a by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to al-Qa'ida."

In fact the main al-Qa'ida franchises in Iraq and Pakistan have always been more enthusiastic about killing Shia than killing Americans. The success of the Arab Spring movements was in part owing to the new willingness of Washington to tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, judging that this would not open the door to jihadis seeking to wage holy war.

The logic of the US policy of covertly co-operating with fundamentalist Sunni groups has reached its logical conclusion. There is now "good" al-Qa'ida on our side and "bad" al-Qa'ida fighting on theirs. In Syria, the former operates under the name of the al-Nusra Front, labelled by the US as the Syrian branch al-Qa'ida, and is the main fighting force of the rebel National Coalition. This is recognised by the US, Britain and many others as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, in Mali an advance last week by the forces of the local al-Qa'ida franchise, of whom we don't approve, led to immediate action by the French army and air force against them. The hypocrisy of it all is baffling.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Ebola outbreak took three months to diagnose because it had never previously been detected in West Africa (Reuters)  

My hero of 2014 sacrificed herself to save countless others

Ian Birrell
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month