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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 06:54 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 06:54 | SYDNEY

Islam straining at the seams

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7 December 2011 09:06

Context is everything. So it is worth pausing for a moment to understand some of the elements that influence the minds of politicised Shi'a in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.

Just as many in the Sunni world harbour a deep dislike of the Shi'a as dissenters from 'orthodox' Islam, many in the Shi'a world see themselves as perennially persecuted by the stronger Sunni establishment. In response, some Shi'a have adopted a quietist outlook while waiting for more favourable political conditions; others believe that only by standing up to oppression will they be able win their right to express themselves as equals, religiously and politically. 

Imam Hussein Shrine, Karbala, Iraq. (Photo by Flickr user James_Gordon_Los_Angeles.)

The former approach is embodied in the quiet influence of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, while the latter informs the approach of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iran's hardliners and the Sadrists in Iraq.

Yesterday's events on the day of 'Ashura give strength to those Shi'a who see themselves as a persecuted minority in a Sunni world. Sixty dead at Shi'a shrines in Afghanistan and another 32 killed in Iraq. At the same time, Bahraini Shi'a are denied political rights and the opportunity to serve in the security forces. 

For centuries the leitmotif of Shi'ism was largely that of political and religious oppression. But the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries have altered that. The Iranian revolution of 1979 presented a new face of political Shi'ism — one that was confrontational and aggressive, but also one that delivered.

Lebanon's Shi'a only achieved political power commensurate with their numbers when they organised themselves politically in the 1960s and 1970s and then became the strongest group militarily through Hizbullah. Iraqi Shi'a only advanced politically through a foreign invasion that toppled their minority Sunni overlord.

In the West, it is easy to concentrate on the possibilities that the Arab Spring offers for a more democratic Middle East. More disturbing is the way sectarian blocs are forming and religion is becoming the focal point of conflict. The GCC wants to expand its membership to include other Sunni monarchies, the Arab League and Sunni Turkey impose sanctions on Alawite Syria while Shi'a-majority Iraq and Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon refuse to follow their lead. 

It is not hard to view these 'Ashura bombings as more than just another episode in the centuries-old conflict between two sects of Islam. They may presage a broader and more overt sectarian conflict in the region that has been bubbling below the surface since the fall of the Sunni bulwark Saddam Hussein.

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