Fear of Syrian Sectarianism Spreads Beyond Middle East to Other Muslims
by Stephen Schwartz
Arab and non-Arab commentators alike perceived a definitive regionalization of the Syrian civil war last month, when Iranian regular troops and Tehran-backed Hezbollah forces helped the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad retake the strategic town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, from rebel fighters. Other incidents have pointed in the same direction. They include fighting in northern Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad combatants, simultaneously with the battle for Qusayr, Syrian incursions into the Israel-administered Golan Heights, and threats to Jordan. At the end of June, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 100,000 people had been killed in the Syrian bloodshed.
Transformation of the Syrian conflict into a Shia vs. Sunni sectarian confrontation across the Middle East has been aggravated by extremists within both religious factions. The patron of Assad in Syria, Iran, and its Shia followers in numerous countries, have appealed insistently for support to the Damascus dictatorship, although the Alawite sect that rules Syria has only been considered within Shia ranks since the 1970s, and until the 20th century was viewed as outside Islam altogether.
In a gesture destined to be ignored, the foreign minister of the Gulf state of Bahrain, sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, has called on the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, to withdraw Hezbollah from Syria to alleviate the carnage there. In Bahrain, a Sunni monarch rules over a Shia majority—with the latter agitated from Tehran.
But Rohani is committed to Iran's alliance with Assad, according to Tehran official Ahmad Bakhshayesh. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bakhshayesh said, "The tactics may change but the strategic aims will not change." He described Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah as a "resistance front" opposing Israel, and said, "We don't want Syria to leave the resistance front."
Shia-governed Iraq has also been drawn into the Syrian strife. On June 28, Baghdad foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Sunni Kurd, admitted, "Iraqi Shiite fighters are participating in combat in Syria, just as Sunnis from the Gulf are doing in that country. . . . But that does not come under government policy," he said. In addition, Assad's and Hezbollah's propaganda claims Syria is the victim of an invasion by Wahhabis, Israeli Arabs, and Lebanese Druze partisans.
Sunni radicals have reacted with similar provocative bombast. Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), has summoned Sunni jihadists everywhere to head for Syria in opposition to Iran and Hezbollah. He referred to the latter, whose Arabic name means "the party of God," as "the party of Satan." Al-Qaradawi demanded that "every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that make himself available" for military action in Syria.
At the same time, the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon, a Sunni group with a history of extremist sympathies, issued a fatwa soliciting contributions to the Syrian rebels "by words, money, medical aid and fighting."
Other Sunni fundamentalist politicians with problems of their own have contributed to the rhetorical battle. The London Financial Times noted in its July 6/7 weekend edition that deposed Egyptian president Muhamed Morsi, while in office and as a Muslim Brotherhood adherent, had "endorsed the dispatch of pious young Egyptians to Syria to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad."
Nevertheless, some moderate Sunni Muslim leaders, at the state and clerical level, including some distant from the Middle East, have expressed alarm at the growing sectarian polarization in Syria, fearing its spread through all Muslim societies.
More consequentially than the Bahraini plea for a Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have acted to suppress both Iranian-controlled Shia groups favoring Assad and local devotees of the Muslim Brotherhood. Measures to expose Iranian and Hezbollah activities, making assistance to Hezbollah illegal, and expelling its advocates were followed by a mass trial in Abu Dhabi which found 65 accused MB participants guilty, on July 1, of attempted subversion. They were sentenced to prison terms as long as 15 years.
Meanwhile, panic over the widening Shia-Sunni divide has reached the further limits of the Muslim territories, especially among Sunnis. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Al-Qaradawi appeared at the end of June for a conference of the MB-affiliated "European Council for Fatwas and Research" where he delivered a defense of Wahhabism and strident denunciation of Shia Muslims in reaction to the Syrian horrors.
The Bosnian clerics warned their followers against "involvement in alien schemes and mercenary actions for the aims of others." They asked the international powers to "help end the violence in Syria. . . . The killing of innocent people must end without hesitation." The sermon condemned effectively any involvement of Bosnian Muslims in the Syrian war, and was interpreted by the Bosnian public as a repudiation of Al-Qaradawi's incitement.
Kavazović's predecessor as head of the Bosnian Muslims, Mustafa Cerić, is a member of Al-Qaradawi's "European Council for Fatwas and Research" and had welcomed the Arab cleric in his latest visit to Bosnia. The sermon composed by Kavazović's leadership group indicates, apparently, a distancing from the legacy of Cerić, including disavowal of his links with Al-Qaradawi and any inveiglement with the MB's aggressive effort to seize the leadership of the Syrian uprising. Unfortunately, Bosnian arguments for outside intervention in Syria may be met by the same delays and disregard that allowed the atrocities in that Balkan territory to proceed unimpeded from 1992 to 1995.
Toward the eastern edge of the world's Muslim communities, the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), a leading body of Sunni clerics and Sunni Sufi leaders, issued a comparable warning against fanatical Islamist interference in places including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Syria, and Turkey. Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, general secretary of the AIUMB, condemned the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. He declared that terrorism has "burned Pakistan and [other] Islamic countries" and that "Wahhabis are carrying out their agenda of killing non-Wahhabis in other disturbed Muslim nations."
There are almost no Shia Muslims in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and they are a minority among Indian Muslims, who themselves are a minority, although making up one of the largest Muslim contingents on the planet. The moderate Sunni leaders, rather than seeking a way out for Assad, may see the Syrian turmoil as threatening not only the Middle East, but the whole of Islam. Whether Muslim peace-seekers may prevail over Iranian agents and Wahhabi fanatics contending for dominance in Syria remains to be seen. But the Sunni Muslim voices imploring an end to the Syrian butchery may prove more important than the so-far ineffectual debates of the global powers.