This is a really long post so only read it if you are really interested in this issue.
A large amount of my work now days is concerned with reconciliation between Shia (Arabic: شيعة, Shīʿah) and Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/) muslims. The conflict between the two has been widely publicized in the media. Yet the vast majority of people do not even know what the differences are between these two are. I therefore want to go into significant detail about these two major strands of Islam so that people understand the fundamentals of this issue.
In Christian terms the difference can be seen like the difference between Catholic and Protestant – two strands with the same creeds. They used to kill each other regularly not so long ago and sadly we have seen similar violence and murder between Sunni and Shia. Both are Muslims who fundamentally share the same Islamic beliefs. Their differences are not primarily theological but historical. They date back to the very beginning of Islam regarding who would take over from Mohammed. Over the years several different practices and have developed and these in turn are seen as carrying certain spiritual implications.
The separation dates back to the death of Mohamed. Who was going to take over from him? There were those who thought that the leadership of Islam should be placed under the controls of the companions of Mohamed who were proven capable leaders. There were twelve people who were seen as the right leader team and they became known as the Caliphs. Those who held to this position gave birth to the group that became known as the Sunnis. They where originally lead by one called Abu Bakr. Whom along with Imar, Aisha does the Shea reject. As is much of they’re etching about Mohamed. The Sunni see themselves as orthodox traditional Muslims. This diversity results in a considerable difference in practice on prayer, pilgrimage and fasting. The word Sunni comes from “Hal al–Sunna” which literally means the people of the tradition. They see that their tradition is closer to Mohamed and the prophets mentioned in the Koran. Though Mohamed seen as the final prophet is seen as the ultimate and there are not seen as key people such as Imam Ali and Husain to the Shea. Such leaders after Mohammed are all seen as being merely temporal. The Sunni have also traditionally come under state control, whilst in reality in countries such as Iraq and Iran the Shea clerics are the real ultimate authority.
This results in a major difference in practice between Sunni and Shia. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni (about 85%) therefore Shia are a minority but the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The major division is about the issue of hereditary leadership passed through the hereditary line from Mohammed through his son in law Imam Ali.
Thus the Shia believe in a hereditary leadership believing the rule of Allah passed through a particular line. Ultimate in their beliefs is in the historic Imams. They are seen as being sinless in their very essence, with total authority coming from Allah. The historic Imam’s are venerated like saints and their tombs are venerated as shrines. Pilgrimage to these shrines is a very regular occurrence. This group did not look to the original three caliphs but to Imam Ali. He was both the Cousin and Son in Law of Mohamed. He was seen as the rightful heir of Mohamed and those who follow this tradition are the Shia. A great significance is based on the whole issue of linage to Imam Ali. Anybody in his line is called a Sayed (Sir) and to this day all the Imams of this lineage wear a black rather than white turban.
Shia Islam is not known about much in the West. They are often referred to as Shia Militia and known as the militants who control Iran and have carried out negative activity in Lebanon. The fact is that the majority of Shia are a peaceful and wonderful people. Our relationship to them is particularly very close. Shia Islam is very hierarchical, orders are passed down from the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani based in Najaf a very holy Shia City in the South of Iraq where Imam Ali is buried and has his shrine. The grand Ayatollah is surrounded by the Majoria the other four Grand Ayatollah’s who are next in line to Ali Al Sistani.
When there was a particular onslaught against the Christians in Iraq the Shia offered the Christians sanctuary and protection. The general feeling amongst the Christians is that the Shia will protect them. Most of the recent attacks on Christians have been from a very small section of the Sunni.
Reconciliation between Shia and Sunni is key in Iraq. The extremists are in both groups. Their divide dates back over 1000 years but it is greater than ever. Much of our work has been bringing these two strands of Islam that have been so much against each other because of their years of difference. It is the leaders of these groups that listened to each other over two years and became best friends with each other. It is this group that we have remained close friends of. They trust us and we love and give to them and at one level it is working.
The fact is that much if the violence is caused by the Sunni extremists. Many of these are linked to the Whabbi and Salafi movements that come out of Saudi Arabia. Included in this group is Al Qaida and those connected to them. At a previous meeting of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq after a major massacre of Christians a joint fatwa (religious injunction) was issued by both the Shia and Sunni together. This was a major sign of reconciliation and it was done to protect the minorities from murder. The Fatwa worked immediately and no Christian has been killed from that day. This is a wonderful example of how reconciliation saves lives.
I get very frustrated when I hear that what is simply needed is advocacy with governments, diplomats and foreign ministries. These people can do nothing about such crisis but they can put pressure on governments to support organizations like ours to fund their engagement on such work. We were very fortunate the Danish Government came up quickly with all the funds to support our engagement. Providing all the security in the world would not provide the security needed. What made the difference was that the very people we were dealing new the people committing the violence. They could put pressure on their people to observe the Fatwa and stop their evil ways. What came out of this meeting was complex intelligence so I cannot share it all here but we then managed to have a very productive meeting between all the relevant coalition ambassadors and our delegates. One thing I can mention is how these terrorist cells are training and using children to be suicide bombers.
An organization exists called the “Birds of Paradise”. This is an evil Sunni terrorist group that teaches children between the ages of 7 and 12 to be suicide bombers. The belief being that they are less likely to be caught by security. The effect is horrendous. Many innocent people are killed and maimed. This group is very closely linked to Al Qaida and is very closely linked to the terrorism we are seeing today.
The Battle for Power (the Sunni Loss of Power)
Much more could be written on the cause of terrorism but ultimately it can be summed up in two words Loss and Power. Wherever there is terrorism ultimately you will find that the perpetrators feel that they have been involved in serious loss. As regards the Sunni terrorists they feel that since 2003 they have experienced major loss in all the follow areas:
- Political Influence
- and ultimately Power
We may be able to see that ultimately the events are caused by the process of debathfication but the effects are the loss of all of the above. The result is the ultimate loss of power. Ultimately the ruling minority has lost their power because of democracy. The result is that there is a minority within the minority who feel that the only way to maintain their power is to fight for it. Even if they cannot regain their power they can at least show their level of force within their minority group by causing a breakdown in the power of the majority.
The Battle for Power (the Shia Loss of Power)
Whilst the Shia may be the majority they also have a great sense of loss resulting in an increasing sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia. The loss caused has been life with so many of their community killed. This has in turn meant that many families have lost their income because they have lost their sole earner. Then there is a major religious dimension to this loss because so many of their places of worship have suffered major destruction resulting once again in loss. The loss between the two is what results in what has become known as religious sectarianism. Both Sunni and Shia feel that they have suffered major loss. Though 80% of the terrorist activity is carried out by members of the Sunni Community there are Shia involved in revenge attacks.
To add to the sectarian divide there have been several outrageous Sunni religious declarations and sermons on TV stating that at first the Shia should be killed and only then the Jews and the Christians.
The Reconciliation Process
The reconciliation process take place at two main levels. One is at the High Level with the most senior religious leaders and the other is at the grassroots levels with community religious leaders. There is also a key relation to the key political leaders. From the Christian side this includes COR member Yonadam Kanna and Minister Sargon Slewa. From the Muslim side Vice President Huzaie who is Shia with Sheik Khalid Al Mullah who is Sunni.
The grassroots work amongst the community religious leaders is involved directly in reducing violence. It has been very successful in doing this by preventing their community from getting involved in violent sections of working with their community such as Al Qaida and the birds of paradise.
The fact is that this process only works if the most senior religious leaders are behind it. That is why it is most essential that there are regular meetings of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq. It is these leader’s that have the authority to influence those who are below them and prevent them and their people from becoming involved in violent activity.
High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq has not met recently and we see a major growth in sectarianism. It is essential that it does so at least twice a year. This work was originally totally supported by the US DOD. After political change this support stopped. We then saw a major rise in violence; in particular we saw a major onslaught against the Christian community with 58 people being killed in one Syrian Catholic service. It was after this terrible attack that the Danes came to the rescue. The first ever-joint Iraqi Sunni Shia Fatwa was produced which totally condemned all violence and murder of minorities. We did not expect the results of this Fatwa to be immediate but they were and the onslaught against the Christians stopped in it entirety.
It is essential that the grassroots work continues costing only about $10,000 a month. This money has come jointly from the British Embassy and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East of which I am the president. As regards the International meetings of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq, we have seen how these are essential to truly bring about a major reduction in violence. These meetings are considerably more expensive and one average have cost $250,000 per meeting. These meeting have happened at various points since 2003 and have had major positive effect. It is hoped that several supporters can be found to enable this essential process.
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