The violent murder of four Shiites last week in the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Egypt once again brought the increasing polarization of Sunnis and Shiites throughout the broader Middle East to the fore.
The reshaping of the Middle East as part of the romantic name coined by the West – the Arab Spring – has exposed the historic depth of the Sunni-Shiite divide in all of the main arenas (Syria, Egypt) and even in secondary arenas (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen) and the integral part this divide plays in reshaping the Middle East, while making Iran a key and influential player.
In Egypt, the raging mobs led by Salafist religious leaders, stormed the home of Hassan Shahata during a Shiite religious ceremony marking the birthday of the 12th Shiite Imam Mahdi (who according to Shiite beliefs is supposed to return and redeem the world and to lead it “with justice”). Preceding the storming of the home, which resulted in the death of Shahata and several of his supporters, was anti-Shiite incitement by Salafist religious leaders in the media and on social networks. In general, Egypt (which was for a brief time in the 10th century a Shiite nation during the reign of the Fatimid Caliphate) has for many years waged a battle to block attempts of Shiite infiltration, encouraged by Iran and through Hezbollah as its subcontractor, and the phenomenon of ‘Shiitization.’
This issue, a permanent factor behind tensions between countries, did not disappear, even after the ouster of former Egyptian President Mubarak. Iran condemned the murder and even attacked Morsi’s weakness. Iran’s expectation of warmer relations between the two countries following Mubarak’s ouster is dissipating.
The roots of the Sunni-Shitte rift began in 632 ACE. Prophet Mohammad died without leaving an heir. Battles over the successor have remained every since and have left their imprint in the religious-political-social spheres of the Muslim world. Long-standing attempts to “bring the two schools closer” have not only failed, but have even managed to deepen the rift, becoming harsher, more complex and more charged, as Iran’s sphere of influence over the largely Sunni region increases.
For a brief moment, it appeared that Hezbollah would serve as a bridge between the Sunni and the Shiites after what Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei called “the divine victory” in the Second Lebanon War (33-day war as defined by Iran) in 2006 with Israel. Nasrallah was heralded on the “Arab Street,” but Iran’s true intentions quickly became clear, and the role that the committee carved out for itself and for Hezbollah in correcting a historical wrong of the Sunnis – stripping the House of Ali from the Prophet’s legacy.
In the “eye of the storm” of “Hezbollah victory” in 2006, Sunni religious leaders were dazzled, including the most prominent - Hezbollah, and chose to ignore the unbreakable bond between Iran and Hezbollah, and Nasrallah and Hezbollah plan to implement the Iranian plan to launch a golden age and comeback of historic Shiites.
In Iran, the Arab Spring became the “Islamic Awakening” and an opportunity to promote the agenda of the Shiite Golden Age. Iran viewed the chaos and turmoil in the Middle East as an opportunity to increase its subversive activities and to promote its agenda in various arenas with a Shiite minority. This was particularly conspicuous in Iraq, Bahrain (a Shite majority ruled by a Sunni minority) and Saudi Arabia.
Above all else, Iranian involvement in Syria in an attempt to keep Bashar Assad in power stands out, as does Hezbollah’s involvement in the fight and victory in Al-Qusair, which might prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Iran and the Shiites. If some had wondered whether Hezbollah was a Lebanese or Iranian organization, the battle in Al- Qusair answered that question. Hezbollah, headed by Nasrallah, is an Iranian organization that strives to promote the Iranian agenda through its emissaries in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and North Africa.
The battle at Al- Qusair was the straw that broke the Sunni camel’s back, and while not deterred from criticizing the Shiites up to that point, after Al- Qusair, the criticism became scathing, with the expression Hizb al-Shaitan (Party of Satan), which became a popular nickname for Hezbollah, at the heart. The desire to avenge the death of 100,000 dead in Syria is feeding various extremist Sunni groups across the Muslim world to wreak vengeance on the Shiites, further fanning the flames of this historic Sunni-Shiite battle.
Adding to this tension is the political aspect of the Gulf nations. Headed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they are providing assistance to the Sunni rebels in Syria and the Sunni minority in Iraq, as well as helping Bahrain stand strong against the Shiite tsunami. Iran, for its part, is standing strong and breathing new life into the “Shiite devil,” a name used by the Sunnis, providing active assistance in the form of arms, money, training and propaganda to the Shiite minority in an attempt to take control of the main areas of contention, while exploiting American weakness and hesitation.
The historic religious tensions have reached the boiling point and are spilling over into the political arena. Syria today is the battleground for the Sunnis against the Shiites, Arabs against the Iranians, the old Middle East order against the new order, the US vs. Russia, West vs. East.
Rouhani’s statements during his first trip following his election focus on restoring ties with the Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia – will encounter a harsh and bloody reality. Historical reality, which will probably be unable – or permitted to by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC – to return the “Sushi demon” back into the bottle.