First Published: 2007-01-16

The Sunni-Shia Rivalry

Political and, of course, religious discord between Sunnis and Shias complicate the Middle East picture. In the past year, support for Hizbullah during its war with Israel last summer was one of few unifying causes - and it unified only partially. Bernard Rougier summarizes the situation.


Middle East Online

Hizbullah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, called the war in the summer of 2006 between his organisation and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) the “battle of the umma [the Muslim community throughout the world]”. But the battle failed to mobilise Lebanon’s Sunni Islamist groups, whose tracts and statements concentrated on condemning the savagery of the Israeli bombardments rather than voicing wholehearted support for their Shia brothers. The low-key response of the Sunni groups contrasted with the enthusiasm of Muslim Brotherhood militants in Egypt and Jordan, who demonstrated both real and symbolic solidarity throughout the crisis.

All Sunni Islamists present themselves, in their respective countries, as vigilant guardians of Sunni orthodoxy in the face of Shia Islam. To understand their response to more worldly matters we need to distinguish their ideological, confessional and political criteria from the local, national and regional levels at which they operate. Muslim Brotherhood groups in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt supported Hizbullah for strategic and ideological reasons imposed by the struggle against Israel, whereas their Lebanese counterparts gave priority to confessional unity and so supported efforts by the Sunni prime minister, Fouad Siniora, to disarm Hizbullah gradually.

Iraq raises different issues and prompts other alliances. The Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is keen to promote closer ties between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, whereas the leaders of other national groups support Iraqi factions that show no sign of seeking reconciliation. The undercurrent of resentment against, and admiration for, the dynamism of Hizbullah, and of Shia Islam in general, provokes a wide range of practical reactions. The point at which these contradictory forces finally balance out could be decisive in the subsequent development of Islamism in the Middle East.

Since the early 1990s Islamists in countries neighbouring Lebanon have viewed Hizbullah as a movement that can strike a blow for the Arab world against Israeli might. The “party of God” has succeeded in reaching a far wider audience than the Lebanese Shia. Hizbullah, making good use of its Al-Manar television channel, has resuscitated an ideal of nationalist Islamic union that Arab regimes, exclusively concerned with their own survival, long ago ceased to defend against attacks by the United States and Israel.

Hizbullah’s victory in May 2000, when the IDF finally withdrew from southern Lebanon, consolidated the Palestinians’ belief that violence was a more effective way to recover Israeli-occupied territory than humiliating and ineffective negotiations. Hizbullah gradually succeeded in changing the direction of the Palestinian struggle towards targeting national leadership; it also opened the way for more radical elements of the Iranian regime to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Defensive Sunni Arab triangle

The enthusiasm aroused by Hizbullah’s resistance against the IDF in the 2006 war prompted defensive reactions in several Sunni states. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan formed a Sunni-Arab triangle at a political and diplomatic level to counter what they saw as Tehran’s attempt to use Hizbullah to exert influence over the opinions of their citizens.

The Wahabi ulema (scholars) who constitute the Saudi religious authorities are conservative and always seek to bring politics back into line with religion. They repeated the usual Sunni accusations of heresy against Shia Islam in the hope of blocking Iranian influence. At the start of the 2006 war a leading alim (scholar), Sheikh Abdullah bin Jabrin, went so far as to ban any support for Hizbullah.

The jihadi Salafists regard Hizbullah as an unfair competitor that has started trading in their market. In other respects their attitude to the Shia is shared with the Wahabi religious authorities. Jihadi Salafists cite their imagined links with the early Muslims (as-salaf as-salih) as an excuse to disregard any obligation to obey Muslim governments compromised by links with western infidels. Their rejection of western influence in the Middle East sometimes resembles the line adopted by Iranian leaders, except that the Salafists’ central goal is the restoration of an idealised Islamic caliphate.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s ideological guide, was forced to react after two weeks of war during which he found himself, against his wishes, in rivalry with Hizbullah. He urged “all Muslims, wherever they are, to respond to the war waged by the crusaders and Zionists”, yet made no reference to Hizbullah. He reminded the faithful that the battle of the umma was already being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; and that Hizbullah, only active in South Lebanon, lacked the means to realise its grandiose ambitions.

Key figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, accurately reflected the ambivalence of Arab public opinion: They gave political support to Hizbullah but immediately warned of an alleged offensive by Shia Islam all over the Middle East.

A particular grievance

The Sunni Islamists of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria, including Lebanon) have a special grievance against Hizbullah. They see it primarily as the organisation that was instrumental in excluding Sunni fighters from the battle against Israel in south Lebanon at the end of the 1980s. They maintain that, while claiming to promote Islamic resistance, the Hizbullah leadership took over the only active front with Israel. They believe that revolutionary Iran used Hizbullah as a means to establish direct contact with occupied Palestine. This ideological and sociological takeover severed the natural bond between the Sunni Arab grassroots and the Palestinian cause. As Hizbullah defended Palestine and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned it into an Islamist issue through religious propaganda, the cause slipped from the grasp of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Sunni Muslim militants.

The Lebanese Shia were the underdogs during the decades that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fedayeen ruled the roost in their villages. The Shia regained the initiative during the subsequent low-intensity guerrilla war against Israel and restored their prestige as key protagonists at a time when Sunni Arab states had long lost any capacity for military action, while the PLO had opted to seek a negotiated settlement in 1988.

The Sunni Islamists finally found an outlet in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan: An exceptional geopolitical situation enabled them to combine religious fervour, martial violence and international support, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. However the new ideology that emerged in Peshawar, which made jihad an end in itself, caused a rift between activists and governments, and cut activists off from any territorial or strategic base. In the 1990s Sunni Islamism exhausted itself in quarrels about religious identity, while its Shia counterpart, backed by Tehran, adapted its messianic revolutionary fervour to suit Syria’s new power system in Lebanon, which won recognition all over the Middle East for its guerrilla war against Israel.

The Sunni Islamists’ failure to make any real difference to the course of events in the Middle East no doubt explains why its militants have enthusiastically seized on medieval texts that attack Shia Muslims. At a time when Sunni militants feel cheated of any capability for military action against Israel, the recurrent accusations of hypocrisy seem familiar. The influence of Salafist groups from Saudi Arabia has worsened this trend, since the goal of a return to the origins of Islam always increases old resentments.

In February 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood and part of the Salafist movement in Lebanon came out in support of the Hariri family, overriding any misgivings they had about the patriarch of the family. They believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict has to take second place, since the top priority must be to protect Sunni identity in the Middle East. They also believe that the growth of a Shia-dominated regime in Iraq since March 2003, the ideological, social and military power of Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Iran’s emergence as a regional power are part of a larger picture that threatens the future of Sunni Islam.

Strings attached

There were strings attached to their support for the ruling clique in Beirut. Whatever hardliners may think, the Salafist groups were prepared to change the order of their hate list, and to evoke other memories and references better suited to gain potential benefits from events. The cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Hariri family, and its links with the Saudi royal family, were possible arguments for turning against the dominant figure in Lebanese Sunni Islam.

Other issues connected to outside events also have the potential to create sudden tensions within the coalition that has been in power in Lebanon since the elections in summer 2005. The Sunni Islamist community is a potential threat to the Syrian regime and its political allies in Lebanon. Since the deployment of the United Nations Interim Force in South Lebanon last August, the question of how best to control the ideological orientation of militants has become crucial.

Meanwhile Hamas, which is also part of the radical Sunni movement, refuses to support the regime in power in Lebanon. It has opted to dispute the UN resolutions, to continue war against Israel, to support Islamic resistance, even if embodied by Hizbullah, and to stand by the Syrian regime, despite its disagreements with the Islamists. The leaders of Hamas’ political bureau, based in Damascus, are trying to persuade the Lebanese Sunnis to change their attitude towards the Syrian regime because of the importance of the fight against Israel.

Jihadist groups in the Palestinian camps of Ein al-Hilweh and Nahr al-Bared on the Lebanese coast hold a similar view. To avoid denying their religious identity they distinguish between theology and strategy: They hate the Shia for religious reasons, but see the demands of the struggle in the Middle East as pressing enough to justify a pact with Hizbullah to thwart western plans for the region.

That is why Salafists from Ein al-Hilweh condemn international resolutions demanding the disarmament of Lebanese and Palestinian militia groups, but take great care to prevent Hizbullah from moving into the camps on the grounds that they are defending their Sunni identity. They also oppose any form of religious solidarity with Lebanese Sunni who support the Hariri family, blaming the late Rafik Hariri for the exclusion of Palestinian refugees during the 1990s.

[ Translated by Harry Forster]

Bernard Rougier is a lecturer in political science at Clermont-Ferrand University, France, and author of Le Jihad au quotidian (Presses Universitaires de France, 2004). This text is an edited chapter from Liban, une guerre de trente-trois jours, edited by Franck Mermier and Elizabeth Picard (La Découverte, Paris, 2007).

© 2007 Le Monde diplomatique


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