It has become obvious that the central axis of conflict in the Middle East today is no longer the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather the conflict within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites. This war lies behind the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, which pits the Alawite regime, backed by Shiite Iran, against the Sunni Muslim majority of Syria, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
For many years, the Sunni-Shiite war also fed the internal conflict in Lebanon, in which the Shiites emerged victorious through Hezbollah. The Sunni-Shiite struggle was also behind the Shiite insurrection in Bahrain against its Sunni rulers, and it explains a good part of the civil war in Yemen where Zayidi Shiites have been battling the country’s Sunni-led government. Looking at the mounting tensions in the Middle East, Mohammad Kharroub, a columnist for the Jordanian daily al-Ra’I, wrote this month about the possibility of a full-scale war breaking out between the Sunnis and the Shiites.
Right now, Israeli interests appear to be aligned with the Sunnis in this struggle, largely because Iran supports the Shiites’ quest for power. But moving beyond the present, is it true that Israel’s interests are permanently aligned with the Sunni world against the Shiites? Vali Nasr, a former U.S. official who was born in Tehran, reminds his readers of the stereotypes held in the U.S. defense establishment on the Sunni-Shiite split: He quotes a Pentagon official in the 1980s who said that the Shiites were “bloodthirsty, baby-eating monsters.”
There was a political context for these clear prejudices. The U.S., at the time, was funding Afghan mujahedeen and their Sunni extremist allies who fought the Soviet army, while Lebanese Shiites had attacked the U.S. Marines in Beirut. Israel had its own version of these theories. In the 1980s, it was common among Israeli defense experts to say that only Shiites engage in suicide bombings, not Sunnis. But then came the rise of Hamas and al-Qaida, on the Sunni side, which proved – especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – how overly simplistic these stereotypes had been.
The original split between Sunnis and Shiites emanated from the question in the seventh century of who would be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor. The Sunnis believed in the Arabian tradition by which tribal elders chose its most respected member to lead them, as caliph of the Muslim community. The Shiites chose Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, and revered his descendants as the imams of the Muslim community. The martyrdom of Ali’s son, Hussein, in a battle against the Sunni-led Ummayad Caliphate provides one of the most important religious events for Shiite Islam.
Later, these differences over who was Muhammad’s rightful successor evolved into theological differences and even had strategic-military implications when Sunnis and Shiites took control of rival Islamic empires. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry rose to new heights with the establishment of the Safavid Empire in 1501, when Shiite Islam became the state religion of Persia, under Shah Ismail. The Shiite Safavid Empire waged wars with the Sunni Ottoman Empire and, to this day, Sunni Muslims claims that because the Shiites “stabbed the Ottomans in the back” they were never able to get beyond the gates of Vienna and conquer all of Europe in the name of Islam.
It was at this time that the Jews of Shiite Iran suffered far more than the Jews of the Sunni world, where the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jewish refugees from Spain, who had fled the Inquisition. In contrast, at this time the Shiite clergy of Iran developed the idea that Jews were a source of ritual impurity. Thus if a Jew touched a piece of fruit in the market in Tehran, it could no longer be eaten by a Shiite.
Shah Abbas (1571-1629) demanded that Hebrew books be burned; at one point he decreed that Jews convert to Islam or be put to death. He pulled back from this edict, but the idea survived in Persia. In 1839, the Jews of Mashhad were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death, and many outwardly became Muslims, while preserving their Judaism privately.
What about today? With the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, anti-Jewish attitudes became prominent in Iran again. In his book “Islamic Government,” Khomeini wrote: “We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world.” Given his view of the Jewish people, it was not surprising that in 1979 he labeled Israel as a “cancerous growth in the Middle East,” adding that “every Muslim has a duty to prepare himself for battle against Israel.”
This language about Israel as a “tumor” or as a source of infection has been used by Ayatollah Khamenei and others today. Radical Iranian clerics who provide the religious indoctrination of the Revolutionary Guard, like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, say that the Jews are the source of global corruption. Ayatollah Nur-Hamedani, another lecturer to the Revolutionary Guard, has said that the Jews must be vanquished to prepare for the arrival of the Hidden Imam.
Do these Iranian doctrines make Shiite Islam the main problem of Israel? The Shiites of southern Lebanon actually helped Jewish settlements in the north before 1948 and fought the PLO alongside Israel in the early 1980s, prior to the rise of Hezbollah. The leader of Iraqi Shiites, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, rejects Iranian extremism and writes on his website that Jews and Christians are ritually pure. Sistani is far more revered by Shiites worldwide than Khamenei.
Moroever, the Sunni side has a problematic history with the Jewish people that must not be forgotten. Over the centuries, Jews were largely second-class citizens, who paid discriminatory taxes like the jizya (poll tax) and were intermittently exposed to indiscriminate violence with notable pogroms occurring in Fez, Morocco (1912), Baghdad, Iraq (1941), Tripoli, Libya (1945) and Aleppo, Syria (1947).
Since its establishment in 1928, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood has always fed anti-Israel attitudes on the Sunni side. But now with the “Arab Spring,” the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is spreading along with Salafi intolerance of non-Muslims, including Middle Eastern Christians, who are increasingly fleeing the region as a result. Israel must defend its national interests in the Middle East, especially in light of the growing Iranian threat to develop nuclear weapons. But it should not be drawn into the Sunni-Shiite struggle on the basis of incorrect stereotypes of either side.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.