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

  • 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.”


Artists take a stand in Lebanon’s peaceful uprising

Updated 7 min 6 sec ago

Artists take a stand in Lebanon’s peaceful uprising

  • What blankets the walls of the ongoing 'revolution' in Beirut and other cities is art
  • For the protesters, public art is a means of communicating their political message

BEIRUT: Cries were heard in the town of Khaldeh, south of Beirut, on the night of Nov. 12. They were different from the sounds that have become the background noise of the Lebanese Revolution.

A soldier had killed Alaa Abou Fakher, a local official from the Progressive Socialist Party headed by Walid Jumblatt, a political leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, marking the third death in 27 consecutive days of protests.

The killing has escalated tensions that were already running high amid a nationwide protest movement that started off as a reaction to proposed new taxes before morphing into a veritable “people power” movement.

Protesters are demanding changes to Lebanon’s sectarian system of government, calls that have prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and will likely lead to more departures.

Meanwhile, what blankets the revolution’s walls of Martyr’s Square; the ring (the tunnel linking west Beirut to east Beirut); the ESCWA (the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia) boundary wall; the area next to Parliament; throughout Tripoli; and in countless other places is another form of protest: Art.

“The art we were trying to express has documented almost all the incidents of the revolution so far, day by day,” said Said Fouad Mahmoud, a graffiti artist who has been practicing for 11 years. “Some people are good with speech, others with song, and we raise our voices with drawings. I drew pictures of the moments that affected me the most: The role of the female in the revolution; the guy cleaning with one leg; and the first day of the revolution, with the flag and the fire.”

Graffiti by Said Fouad Mahmoud. (Supplied)

Many of the progressive-graffiti-laden walls fall under the umbrella of Iman Nasreddine Assaf’s Art of Change initiative, which she founded in May in partnership with local Beirut-based NGO Ahla Fawda and UK-based Where There’s Walls.

“Our purpose is to promote urban art to more than just the graffiti scene in order to spread important messages throughout the community,” said Assaf. “Our revolution walls are in support of, and part of, the demonstration and revolution. They are expressing people’s pain and demands and the impact has been strong. Art is the international language that touches all.”

Art has emerged as a favored medium of the revolutionaries to convey their political message. To this end, Art of Thawra (Art of Revolution), an Instagram page, is collecting and showcasing relevant artworks produced during the 2019 protests.

“There’s been a drastic increase in street art during this revolution,” said Mahmoud. “People are trying to send messages through their paintings. The art indicates how civilized people have been during the protests and how peaceful the revolution has been until now. I hope it will remain peaceful until the end. If it does, then it means art played a major role in this revolution because art is peace in itself.”

Lebanon’s contemporary art community has issued numerous statements regarding the closures of spaces, programs and exhibitions as artists, curators, and gallerists participate in protests for non-sectarian unity. Beirut’s art community had just assembled for the Home Works event when the protests began on Oct. 17.

The message from the organizers, Ashkal Alwan, postponing the event stated: “Artistic and cultural institutions and initiatives are in no way isolated from broader civic, political, economic, and ideological context but rather shaped as a result of and in response to historical events and their repercussions.”

On Oct. 25 the Beirut Art Center sent out a similar statement: “In solidarity with and participation in the popular uprisings taking place across Lebanon against the current systems of power, we the undersigned cultural organizations and structures collectively commit to Open Strike, and call for our colleagues in the cultural sector to join us.”

Another artistic expression of solidarity is visible at leading Lebanese art dealer Saleh Barakat’s space in the Clemenceau area of Beirut. On Nov. 8 he opened a show featuring an installation by Palestinian Beirut-based artist Abdul Rahman Katanani.

Graffiti by Said Fouad Mahmoud. (Supplied)

A series of temporary abodes made using painted scrap metal and wood, and surrounded by barbed wire — much like the surroundings of the Sabra refugee camp where the artist lives — were stationed throughout the gallery.

Katanani’s immersive and precarious installation, on view until Jan. 4, asks the question: What future awaits Lebanon?

“Many are now trying to figure out a good balance between getting their work done and participating in the public upheaval,” said Basel Dalloul, founder and director of the Dalloul Foundation. “Cultural production in all its forms can and will be one of the economic drivers of a future Lebanon.”

Ayman Baalbaki, one of Lebanon’s most recognized painters, “is not involved in creating art right now,” said Barakat. “He is going to all of the protests and is completely involved in the need for political change.”

The design duo David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem, whose studio goes by the name David/Nicolas, said in a statement: “What’s happening today is very important for all of us Lebanese who would like a brighter and honest future where corruption is not surrounding us.

“We are trying to work but it is not easy. Right now we are focused on how we can help our country.

“On the other hand, creativity is stronger because the revolution gives you such a push.

"Most places are closed and open spontaneously. Thank goodness for social media, so that we can show what we are doing to the world.” 

Marwan Sahmarani, a Lebanese painter known for his bold abstract canvases replete with their gestural brushstrokes and vibrant coloring, noted the difficulty of working during a time of turmoil.

“It’s a disturbing moment for everyone,” he said. “There are many feelings, good and bad. I divide my time when needed between my studio and the street. But what do I paint that can be relevant now and not fall into a journalistic rendering of current events?”

Individuals in the creative scene have joined hands in camaraderie to produce several initiatives in solidarity with the protesters. One is Nour Al-Thawra, staged by Sara Beydoun, founder of Lebanese fashion house and social enterprise Sara’s Bag, and her friend Mariana Wehbe.

On the evening of Nov. 6, a group of Lebanese women gathered in Martyr’s Square, each carrying a lighted candle. “Let’s light a candle for the strength we have shown and the resilience that will never die,” wrote Beydoun on her Instagram account. “Bring a candle and your peaceful prayer and let’s combine all of our strengths to light up Martyr’s Square.”

Beydon told Arab News: “We all want one thing — the Lebanon we dream of.”

Wehbe agreed. “Sarah and I have been on the ground since day one,” she said. “Like every Lebanese woman from this revolution, each one of us is trying to find her way to help, support and move this forward.”

The candle-bearing crowd of women, which the pair turned into a moving video that went viral, was driven by the need to create a “peaceful symbolic prayer.”

“It was a prayer for our country, for our future, for unity, no matter where you come from and what your religious beliefs are,” said Wehbe. “It is a symbol of unity and protection for love, compassion and for our home, Lebanon.”