New Column: Quietly Smiling (Update August 4, 2006)
Check out my new column on the flare-up in Lebanon over here, Quietly Smiling. Whoever guesses which General I had in mind gets a salute...
UPDATE (August 4, 2006):
This piece of reporting by Neil MacFarquhar (NYT) out of Damascus on the whole Shia-Sunni dimension is interesting and in line with the point of my column...
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
August 4, 2006 Friday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; Foreign Desk; HOSTILITIES IN THE MIDEAST: THE MUSLIM WORLD; Pg. 8
HEADLINE: Hezbollah's Prominence Has Many Arabs Worried
BYLINE: By NEIL MacFARQUHAR; Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo for this article, and Jad Mouawad from Mukhtara, Lebanon.
DATELINE: DAMASCUS, Syria, Aug. 3
To one Damascus University professor, the faint echo of Israeli bombs exploding in the lower Bekaa Valley brings two fears. He recoils at the destruction he imagines across the border, less than 10 miles from his village home, but deeper down he worries that any Hezbollah triumph will come at the expense of his own Sunni branch of Islam.
''Since the Americans invaded Iraq we have all become aware of the danger from the Shiites,'' said the professor, who asked not to be identified by name because discussing sectarian rivalry is taboo in Syria, an authoritarian state run by a religious minority. ''Ordinary people only think of Hezbollah as fighting against Israeli aggression. But the educated classes think that if Hezbollah controls the region, then the Sunnis will be abused.''
Intensifying Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq in the last couple of years has already raised sectarian awareness across the Middle East in ways not experienced since the Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran in 1979. The fighting in Lebanon promises to further increase Sunnis' unease about Shiites challenging their dominance.
Mushrooming public support for Hezbollah has overshadowed the issue somewhat, with public anger focused on Israel for the civilian deaths and widespread destruction in Lebanon. Yet sectarian disquiet persists in whispered conversations, on Web sites, in the corridors of government and in mosques.
Governments like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, whose initial criticism of Hezbollah proved untenable, use ''Shiite'' as a euphemism for Iran's waxing regional influence; the religious put more emphasis on doctrinal differences.
Zabadani, a Syrian resort in the pine-shaded mountains facing Lebanon, fills with Arabs from the Persian Gulf each summer. Many interviewed at random along the main street said they supported Hezbollah in its fight with Israel, but some made their distaste for Shiites clear.
''They think they will be the leaders of all Muslims, and I don't want that,'' said a 45-year-old high school math teacher from Riyadh, who declined to give his name due to the topic's sensitivity. ''Hezbollah is Iranian; everyone knows that.''
He described some of the rituals Shiites perform, including beating and cutting themselves during Ashura to commemorate the battlefield martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. ''This is wrong!'' he said, his face contorting in disgust. ''I don't want to see all this blood.''
The Sunni-Shiite rivalry dates back almost 1,400 years, to Islam's earliest decades. After the Prophet Muhammad died, the group that became the Shiites backed his son-inlaw Ali -- Shiite means partisan, as in partisans of Ali -- as his rightful heir. Ali and his sons died in a series of battles lost to the caliph ruling from Damascus.
The Shiites make up about 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. There is little difference between Sunnis and Shiites when it comes to basic rituals like prayer and fasting, but Shiites have a more hierarchical system. Fundamentalist Sunnis label some Shiite practices -- treating dead religious figures as saints, for example -- as blasphemy.
In Saudi Arabia, puritanical Wahhabi Muslims lace their writings with suggestions that being a Christian or a Jew is far preferable to being Shiite -- often referred to as rejectionist, for rejecting the true faith. And they often disparage the Shiite practice of takiya, or sanctioned lying about beliefs, an insurance policy developed during repeated Sunni inquisitions.
One prominent Saudi cleric, Abdullah bin Jibreen, just reissued a fatwa accusing Shiite groups like Hezbollah of habitually betraying Sunnis. ''It is not appropriate to support this rejectionist party and to fall under its authority, and it is not appropriate to pray for their victory and control,'' the fatwa read in part.
Arguments raged in Internet chat rooms, including rare public criticism of senior clerics for being too aloof from the Arab struggle against Israel. Mohsen al-Awaji, a well-known Saudi religious activist, said such fatwas seemed as though they ''came from another planet.''
But some called Iran's Islamic Revolution one of the worst disasters ever visited on Sunni Islam. In Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, the political leader of the Druse sect, an offshoot of an esoteric branch of Shiite Islam, is among the few who dare voice the belief that Hezbollah needlessly brought destruction raining down.
In an interview in his mountain redoubt at Mukhtara, Mr. Jumblatt said Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, represented the same ideology espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- awaiting the return of the Mahdi, or savior, at the end of the world.
''He's part of the Shiite Armageddon,'' Mr. Jumblatt said of Sheik Nasrallah.
In a televised speech last Saturday, Sheik Nasrallah tried to assuage fears about Shiite dominance. ''I say to the Lebanese that none of you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance, but you should be afraid of its defeat,'' he said. ''It will be a victory for every Arab, Muslim, Christian and honorable person in the world who stood against the aggression and defended Lebanon.''
He also referred to the sectarian tension, thanking those who confront attempts to sow sedition and tear apart the ranks of Muslims.
Since the beginning of this outbreak of violence, extremist Sunni groups like Al Qaeda have tried to portray their struggle as parallel with Hezbollah's, as a fight against Zionism and the sinful West. But the late Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued long screeds that labeled all Shiites heretics deserving death for collaborating with the Americans.
Even mainstream Sunni leaders like King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke darkly of a ''Shiite crescent'' emerging from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The Shiites were last ascendant from the 10th to the 12th century. During much of that period a Shiite dynasty ruled Egypt and a large swath of the region, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saladin, the commander who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, overthrew the dynasty. So the comparisons now springing up between Sheik Nasrallah and Saladin are anathema to Shiites.
Modern Egypt lacks any significant population of Shiites and views them with some tolerance.
In a recent newspaper column, Ahmed Fouad Negm, a poet, described an episode at a rally in support of Hezbollah. A clean-cut young man -- the archetype of a secret-police infiltrator -- shouted, ''You people, Hassan Nasrallah is a Shiite!''
A woman yelled back in mock horror, ''Does that mean he's Christian?''
The security agent, answered, ''No, of course he's Muslim.''
''So why are you picking on him?'' the women responded, prompting widespread snickering.
Egypt's grand mufti, Sheik Ali Gomaa, the country's highest religious authority, issued a statement supporting Hezbollah, while Sheik Youssef Qaradawi, whose program on Al Jazeera makes him one of the Arab world's most influential clerics, defined supporting the guerrillas as a ''religious duty.''
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist group founded in Egypt, has been particularly outspoken. Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a member of its guidance office, said that the United States had invaded Iraq to divide Muslims and that it was better to support a Hezbollah-Iranian agenda than an ''American-Zionist'' one.
''Which one is more dangerous to the Muslim world?'' he said in an interview, before attacking ''the regimes who tremble before Iran. They are weak and tattered regimes who don't acknowledge the will of their people.''
When pressed, though, a vague ambivalence emerges. ''Iran would be at the end of our list of enemies, even though it's not an enemy,'' he said. ''Let's combat the American danger on the region before we 'compete' with Iran.''
Unease exists in Egypt on a popular level, too. Sheik Khalid al-Guindy runs a well-used dial-a-fatwa service, where the faithful can pose religious questions. Most callers voice frustration over not doing enough to help, but a few raise sectarian doubts, he said.
They ask questions like ''Does this mean that the Shiites are the ones who are right and the Sunnis have been mistaken?''
''The problem is that they are looking at the battle as one between Israel and a specific group -- the Shiites,'' Sheik Guindy said he told his callers. ''This is not true. The battle is against Islam specifically and the Arabs generally, and we shouldn't differentiate. I think talking about sectarian differences at this time is one of the greatest sins.''
Syria has long adhered to a secular, pan-Arabist viewpoint, not least because a tiny minority of Alawites -- members of a Shiite offshoot -- control the country. Here, even in official news reports about Iraq's sectarian fighting, a bombed mosque is not identified as Shiite or Sunni.
But recently Sheik Mohamed al-Bouti, a populist imam, was allowed to address the differences. The sheik a Sunni cleric, recently interrupted his usual televised Koranic lesson to describe the whispered fears he was hearing at his mosque that a Hezbollah victory would expand the ''Shiitization'' of the Arab world.
''Oh my followers!'' he said. ''This is wrong! This is what Israel wants! These sectarian differences will only lead to strife. When there is war, when there is holy jihad, then we have to unify as one Islamic and Arab nation. Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of the whole nation.''
Watching the rising tide of Islam, even secular Syrians who support Hezbollah worry that their lifestyle is at risk. Leaving the Arab-Israeli dispute unsettled for decades has opened the door to all manner of religious extremists, they argue.
''The idea of a Shiite crescent is imaginary,'' said Hunein Nemer, a lawyer and one of the Communist Party members of Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament. ''But let me tell you a fact: once this situation lasts for a long time, then the influence of the Islamic groups will grow more and more.''