How Iran fueled Islam’s Sunni-Shiite divide

How Iran fueled Islam’s Sunni-Shiite divide
Troops loyal to the shah try to control a crowd of demonstrators in Tehran in November 1978. (AFP)
Updated 09 March 2019

How Iran fueled Islam’s Sunni-Shiite divide

How Iran fueled Islam’s Sunni-Shiite divide
  • Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution deepened the rift between Muslims, author John McHugo tells Arab News in an exclusive interview
  • Academic’s new book "A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is” sheds light on this often-misunderstood rift

DUBAI: The centuries-old sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide is arguably so entrenched that many — even Muslims — would be hard-placed to pinpoint the source of the largest cultural dispute in the history of Islam.

As author John McHugo pointed out in an exclusive interview with Arab News, the origins of the 1,400-year divide were  “virtually unknown” in the West outside specialist academic circles until the Iranian revolution of 1979, which prompted several, varying narratives of the clash between Sunnis and Shiites. Today, the divide is frequently seen as an important aspect of the conflicts that have been ravaging Syria and Iraq over the past few years, and of the power politics playing out elsewhere in the region.

Yet McHugo feels the dispute remains widely misunderstood. “We live in a time of appalling violence across large swaths of the Arab world and many other Muslim countries. When people ask how this has come about, they often find themselves presented with an answer citing the Sunni-Shiite divide.”

This was the catalyst for the scholar of Islam to pen his latest book, “A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is,” in which he aims to combat the myths about the divide.

McHugo explained how the schism between the sects of Islam is more toxic today than ever before, resulting in decades of war in Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but said the dispute is as much political as it is religious.

McHugo said many trace the divide back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. “You could argue that the divide goes back to the last hours of Prophet

Muhammad’s life and people were wondering who would take leadership after his passing,” he said. “Although it goes back that long way, I wouldn’t say there has always been conflict. If an ancient feud between Sunnis and Shiites is truly the fault line that has divided the Muslim world ever since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, why did it receive so little attention before the late 1970s?

“Nevertheless, an ancient religious dispute, a focus for primordial hatreds, can appear to fit the bill for today’s many disasters in the Middle East.”

People in the West, McHugo said, have to be very careful about making these judgments. “Very often Sunnis and Shiites have been able to coexist in harmony. Look what happened in Iraq after the First World War: We found Sunnis and Shiites coming together to resist British occupation.

“We start off from the assumption that there is conflict — of course there are conflicts. It would be stupid to deny that Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals at the moment, but that is often expressed in terms of the Sunni-Shiite divide. This is royally misunderstood.”

McHugo recalled studying Arabic and Islamic studies at Oxford University and the American University in Cairo in the early 1970s. “We had to do a paper on Islamic beliefs and institutions and a typical question might be: ‘What is the Sunni-Shiite divide all about?’ It was all frightfully academic and, more likely than not, the opinion was that this wasn’t something important today and it was fading into history.”

But then came the Iranian revolution in 1979, which launched a radical Shiite Islamist agenda. “Suddenly you had every journalist wanting to show insight into this Sunni-Shiite divide,” McHugo said. “Then they would start writing about what happened in the 7th century — and you suddenly had these two narratives being portrayed and the impression was that you had this sort of struggle going on all this time on the differences between the two branches of the religion about which is the supreme form of Islam.

“But when the Iranian regime happened, what Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, wanted was to get all Muslims behind his Islamic revolution, Sunnis as well as Shiites.”

McHugo, who worked across the Middle East for more than a quarter of a century, said that since many recent conflicts led to reports emphasizing the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Pakistan, he felt a “light needed to be shone” on the subject.

“It was 2014 when I spoke to my publisher saying that the divide was misunderstood. I found myself getting increasingly angry about it all — that is when I decided to explain to the public to make them understand how people in the region think and feel.”

Many people have “blithe assumptions” about the Sunni-Shiite divide. “Because we tend to see so much in the Middle East through a prism of violence, people in the West think of the Middle East as being very violent, which I think is a real distortion.

“For hundreds of years people have lived peacefully and when there are conflicts or crisis there is always a reason — population explosion hasn’t helped, to give one example — but we have got one pair of spectacles about the way we see the Middle East.”





Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to get all Muslims behind his revolution.  (AFP)

McHugo explains how members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. But they differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization.

McHugo opens his book explaining the origins of the divide, highlighting that the sectarian split could be traced back — not because of religious differences from the mainstream — but because of two different perceptions of who should exercise religious authority among Muslims after the Prophet’s death.

But McHugo believes the “divide is less important than it is often portrayed today” because the dispute is paired with politics. “I think that whenever there is a problem between the Sunnis and Shiites we should look at the causes of that problem and often you will find that problem is not to do with religion, it is to do with other political factors.

“For instance, if you take what has been happening in Syria, you have Muslim forces fighting the regime of Bashar Assad, who has been using Iranian support. So what happened is, what started off as an Iranian revolution, turned into a kind of proxy war.

“That is what I’m hoping to make people realize — that the violence we see today in many Arab countries is because of the politicization of Shiite Islam and then the turbocharging of sectarian violence which followed on as a result of the Iraq invasion in 2003 up until 2005, when some people carried out a cultivated act of sabotage and sacrilege when they blew two major Shiite shrines in Iraq with the express intention of starting a sectarianism war. And here we are now, in 2019, still recovering from that.”

The author said Sunnis are 85-90 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim population, and Sunni Muslims are present in more countries and regions throughout the world, whereas most Shiite Muslims live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq. Saudi Arabia has one of the largest proportions of Sunni Muslims in the world.

Looking at the future of the Sunni-Shiite divide, McHugo sees signs of hope. “I think a positive thing was the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inviting Iraqi politician Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is a Shiite cleric, and I think that’s very good indeed.

“As time passes, we see more and more people coming out of the woodwork and opposing secular politics. But I think it will take a while for this oil tanker to be turned around. People’s perceptions take a while to change. I don’t want to lie — there is a lot of sectarian hatred that has been sown, particularly since 2005.”

Iran has been a “very, very bad boy here,” said McHugo. “This is in terms of trying to spread its influence, but it does that through both Sunnis and Shiites.

“For instance, you have Hezbollah in Lebanon, which it has backed, but it has also backed the Islamist group Hamas, which is a Palestinian Sunni Islamist fundamentalist organization.

“Then you have internal tension in Iran and you have the Revolutionary Guards who seem a state within the state and control a large part of the Iranian economy that leads to corruption. There is still this revolutionary impulse in Iran and this has still not gone away.”

McHugo said he hopes his book will clarify a “simplistic narrative which is in danger of taking firm hold in the West” — that Sunnis and Shiites have “engaged in a perpetual state of religious war and mutual demonization that has lasted across the centuries; and that this is the root cause of all that is wrong in the Middle East today.

“This is a very convenient narrative. It deflects attention from the immediate causes of the increase in sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites over the past few years. Where bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites occurs, it is usually entwined with political issues.

 The way to stop today’s bloodshed is to sort out those political problems. Unfortunately, that runs up against the vested interests of any player.”


Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri (R) and his Libyan counterpart Najla al-Mangoush (L) give a joint press conference after their meeting in the capital Cairo on June 19, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 21 June 2021

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya
  • The two ministers discussed preparations for a new set of Libyan peace talks in Berlin

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called for the exit of foreign mercenaries from Libya without delay, during a joint press conference with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush.
Shoukry affirmed Cairo’s support for the Libyan Presidential Council during its transitional period to restore security and stability in Libya until the elections on Dec. 24.
He reaffirmed Egypt’s support for the Libyan interim executive authority, noting that he discussed with Mangoush the efforts to restore security and stability in Libya, and advancing relations between the two countries.
Shoukry said that the talks with his Libyan counterpart included discussions about preparations for the Berlin ministerial conference, which will be hosted by Germany on June 23.

HIGHLIGHTS

Egypt’s foreign minister reaffirmed Cairo’s support for the Libyan interim executive authority, noting that he discussed with his counterpart the efforts to restore security and stability in Libya, and advancing relations between the two countries.

The meeting will discuss the Libyan crisis. The two ministers also discussed preparations for a new set of Libyan peace talks in Berlin.
The Egyptian foreign minister said that through this conference, both sides would seek the renewal of the commitment of the international community inside and outside of Libya.
He said that his and Magnoush’s renewed emphasis was on advancing joint cooperation frameworks aimed at ending foreign interference and preserving the capabilities of the Libyan people.
Meanwhile, his Libyan counterpart said: “We need Egypt’s support in the political process, to achieve stability and a cease-fire in Libya.”
Magnoush added that there were signs of hope for the unification of Libyans after the conference in Berlin.

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Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Marib since February when the rebels resumed a major offensive to seize control of the region. (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts
  • Government forces repel ‘massive’ rebel assault on strategic city, forcing retreat

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen’s government warned on Sunday that Houthi military escalation in the central province of Marib and drone attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia threaten peace efforts to end the war in Yemen.

In a statement carried by the official news agency SABA, Yemen’s foreign ministry slammed the Houthis for stepping up shelling of residential areas in the central city of Marib, as well as intensifying ground offensives in the province and firing explosive-rigged drones and ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia.
The ministry accused the Houthis of executing Iran’s “subversive” policies in Yemen and seeking to derail efforts to end the war.
“Those terrorist attacks and the ongoing military escalations are clear messages and responses to all regional and international efforts to bring peace and end the war in Yemen,” the ministry said, renewing the government’s support to the Kingdom in defending its soil against Houthi strikes.
The warning comes as fighting between the Houthis and Yemeni government flared up over the last two days in Marib after the rebels resumed their push to seize control of the strategic city.
Yemen’s defense minister said that dozens of rebel fighters were killed in key battlefields outside the city of Marib after army troops and allied tribesmen repelled a large Houthi offensive.
Speaking to Arab News on Sunday from Marib, a local military official said that on Saturday, the Houthis mounted a “massive” assault on government forces in Al-Kasara, west of Marib city, and retreated after suffering heavy casualties and losses in military equipment.
“We crushed their waves of fighters, burnt two armed vehicles and captured a key Houthi military leader along with his group,” the official said.
Thousands of combatants and civilians have been killed in Marib since February when the rebels resumed a major offensive to seize control of the oil- and gas-rich region, the Yemeni government’s last bastion in northern parts of the country.
At the same time, dozens of civilians in the densely populated city have been killed after Houthis targeted residential areas with missiles, mortal shells and drones.
A week ago, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad told Arab News that the government “would not allow the Houthis to capture Marib” as it had thrown all of its weight behind the “make-or-break” battle.
The latest round of fighting in the province comes as regional and international mediators shuttle between Riyadh, Muscat and Sanaa to make a breakthrough toward reaching an agreement to end the war.
At the same time, Awad said that the Omani delegation that visited Houthi-held Sanaa earlier this month could not convince the rebels to accept the UN-brokered peace initiative, adding that the Yemeni government is in favor of stopping fighting immediately to ease the humanitarian crisis in the country.
“We see that the first humanitarian step is a comprehensive cease-fire on all fronts — on the ground and in the air. This is the most important step, because it will stop the bloodshed and will open crossings and passages,” the minister said, adding that along with halting hostilities, the peace plan calls for reopening Sanaa airport, lifting restrictions on Hodeidah port and resuming peace talks.


Turkish tourism operators look forward to welcoming tourists back

Turkish tourism operators look forward to welcoming tourists back
Germany has removed Turkey from its list of high-risk countries, but Britain, the third-biggest source of holidaymakers, still keeps Turkey on its travel ‘red list.’ (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Turkish tourism operators look forward to welcoming tourists back

Turkish tourism operators look forward to welcoming tourists back
  • Turkish tourism operators and industry representatives are urging Turkish authorities to apply strict measures for incoming Russians because Russia has also seen a significant growth in coronavirus cases in recent days

ANKARA: Russia is resuming air traffic with Turkey on Tuesday as Turkish tourism operators look forward to welcoming tourists back after a lost season.
The decision was made following a visit of delegation to Turkey to assess safety measures after Russia decided not to allow tourists to travel to the country until at least June 21 due to the “serious epidemiological situation” in the country.
Turkey is a top holiday destination for Russian tourists. In 2019, more than 7 million Russian tourists visited the country. This number fell to 2.7 million last year because of the pandemic, dealing a big blow to tourism revenues.
The announcement was welcomed by Turkish tourism operators. The fall in daily COVID-19 cases from a record high of 60,000 in April to below 6,000, with strict weekend lockdown measures and a nationwide inoculation drive, also provided a favorable environment.
Thousands of facilities, restaurants, cafes and tour and transfer vehicles in Turkey have been recently provided with the “Safe Tourism Certificate” through a governmental program.
Turkish tourism operators and industry representatives are urging Turkish authorities to apply strict measures for incoming Russians because Russia has also seen a significant growth in coronavirus cases in recent days, with daily figures reaching peak values.
Goksel Gungor, the co-founder of YTM Tourism Villa Aparts in Fethiye, the Mediterranean resort town, said they were welcoming thousands of Russian vacationers for the summertime villa and yacht tourism before the pandemic.
To meet the criteria of safe tourism, all his staff are fully vaccinated, and they have the necessary certificates. He said that they will get additional certificates that were required by Russian authorities for welcoming their nationals.

They also conducted detailed disinfections in all villas and will allow a full day for cleaning and air-conditioning in each accommodation before welcoming a new batch of tourists.

FASTFACT

The decision was made following a visit of delegation to Turkey to assess safety measures after Russia decided not to allow tourists to travel to the country until at least June 21 due to the ‘serious epidemiological situation’ in the country.

“Each year, we were usually getting about one thousand Russian tourists by the end of April and were hosting them until the middle of October at our villas and yacht facilities. So far, only Ukrainians came, but Russians are mostly preferred in this region because of their high purchasing power,” Gungor said.

“The region counts the hours for welcoming the long-anticipated Russian tourists who postponed their bookings rather than canceling them. And our prices remained more or less stable so as not to discourage them. The depreciation of Turkish lira will also help Russians to spend money easily compared to past years,” he added.
Germany recently removed Turkey from its list of high-risk countries, but Britain, the third-biggest source of holidaymakers, still keeps Turkey on its travel “red list.”
Bulut Bagci, president of World Tourism Forum Institute, expects that all European countries will lift the ban on their nationals coming to Turkey by the end of July.
“This summer, along with going to the Mediterranean resort towns, Russian tourists will be visiting Turkey’s famed Cappadocia and the southeastern province of Mardin. This is the first time that they have diversified their destination preferences to experience different places in the country,” he said.
Tours to Mardin are currently on sale in the Russian market, where it is promoted as “a dream city and city of civilizations.” Individual groups are also expected to visit the town during summertime. Tour operators from Russia recently visited the town to check the safety at the facilities.
However, Bagci believes Turkey needs to diversify its tourist profile and develop a strategy to attract tourists from Islamic world and African region as well.
“We should take lessons from the pandemic crisis. We should diversify the tourist flows and not be dependent on one source. The package that one African tourist buys is equivalent to the package of five Russian or European tourists. We should not only market our summer destinations, but try to market tourism products that appeal to the Islamic world,” he said.
Russian authorities simultaneously decided to lift flight bans to the US, Cyprus, Italy, Macedonia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Jordan and Ireland.

 


Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown
Updated 20 June 2021

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown
  • The Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last for three to four days, state TV says

TEHRAN: Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone an unexplained temporary emergency shutdown, state TV reported on Sunday.
An official from the state electric energy company, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last “for three to four days.”
He said that power outages could result. He did not elaborate but this is the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant, located in the southern port city of Bushehr. It went online in 2011 with help from Russia. Iran is required to send spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia as a nuclear nonproliferation measure.
In March, nuclear official Mahmoud Jafari said the plant could stop working since Iran cannot procure parts and equipment for it from Russia due to banking sanctions imposed by the US in 2018.
Bushehr is fueled by uranium produced in Russia, not Iran, and is monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA did not immediately respond to request for comment on the reported shutdown.
Construction on Bushehr, on the coast of the northern reaches of the Arabian Gulf, began under Iran’s shah in the mid-1970s. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the plant was repeatedly targeted in the Iran-Iraq war. Russia later completed construction of the facility.
The plant, which sits near active fault lines and was built to withstand powerful quakes, has been periodically shaken by temblors. There have been no significant earthquakes reported in the area in recent days.


Nuclear deal talks will not be open-ended, Iran warned

EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
Updated 54 min 12 sec ago

Nuclear deal talks will not be open-ended, Iran warned

EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
  • The longer Iran produces banned nuclear material, the harder it becomes to restore the pact, say Western officials
  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on world powers to “wake up”

VIENNA: Western officials warned Tehran on Sunday that negotiations to revive its nuclear deal could not continue indefinitely, after the sides announced a break following the election of a new hard-line president in Iran.

Negotiations have been ongoing in Vienna since April to work out how Iran and the US can both return to compliance with the nuclear pact, which Washington abandoned in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, and Iran subsequently violated.

Sunday’s pause in the talks came after Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner and fierce critic of the West, won Iran’s presidential election on Friday with 62% of the vote amid a historically low voter turnout.

Raisi will take office in early August, replacing Hassan Rouhani, under whom Tehran struck the deal agreeing to curbs to its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating position: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei already has final say on all major policy.

The Western countries say the longer Iran violates the deal and produces banned nuclear material, the harder it becomes to restore the pact.

Talks on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers cannot continue indefinitely and a decision needs to be made soon, a senior diplomat from the ‘E3’ grouping of France, Germany and Britain said on Sunday.

“We continue to make progress but we still need to resolve the most difficult issues. As we have stated before, time is on nobody’s side. These talks cannot be open ended,” the diplomat said

“Delegations will now travel to capitals in order to consult with their leadership. We urge all sides to return to Vienna and be ready to conclude a deal. The time for decision is fast approaching.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan echoed those comments telling broadcaster ABC News that there was still “a fair distance to travel,” including on sanctions and on the nuclear commitments that Iran has to make.

On Sunday, Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said a Raisi government would be a “regime of brutal hangmen” with which world powers should not negotiate a new nuclear accord.

Bennett opened his first Cabinet meeting by slamming Raisi and calling on world powers to “wake up” to the perils of returning to a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Bennett said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had chosen the “hangman of Tehran” to be the country’s next president, a man “infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”

He said Raisi’s election was “the last chance for the world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement and to understand who they’re doing business with. These guys are murderers, mass murderers.”

* With AP and Reuters

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