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Syria, Iraq and the politics of sectarianism

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Failure of the western-backed rebels in Syria has resulted in increased sectarian tensions in Iraq from where the bulk of the mercenaries flooded into Syria. Many have returned and sectarianism is the tool used to divide Muslims by playing on their emotions.

Recent reports indicate that Syrian government forces are making steady progress against foreign-backed armed groups. Rebel forces have been pushed out of many towns and villages including al-Qusayr, bordering Lebanon, where many Lebanese live. This has forced the Islamic resistance group, Hizbullah to protect civilians from rebel attacks. Hizbullah’s defensive stand has been misrepresented as involvement in the Syrian conflict to shore up the government of Basharal-Asad.

Even if true, this would be perfectly legitimate since Syria is a sovereign country and the government has every right to seek help from whatever quarters it deems necessary to defend itself. Under International Law, supporting rebel groups — whether internal or mercenaries that have flooded into Syria — is illegal. Sending mercenaries into another state constitutes a war crime. This, however, has not deterred countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan to send mercenaries into the country, nor has it deterred the US and its allies from sending in material help.

This is one dimension of the problem. Closely related to the Syrian conflict are events in Iraq. As part of the foreign-instigated mayhem in Syria, many mercenaries from Iraq flooded into the country to destabilize it. It was assumed that the government in Damascus would fall in a matter of months if not sooner. They were joined by mercenaries from other countries including many from Europe. If these people had gone to Afghanistan to fight American and NATO occupation forces, they would immediately be denounced as terrorists. In Syria, they are called freedom fighters!

Beyond such hypocrisy, the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq is the direct result of successive defeats the rebels have suffered in Syria. Hundreds of mercenaries have gone back to Iraq. If they cannot defeat the government in Syria, then they can resume their dastardly acts in Iraq where sectarian tensions have simmered for several years, thanks to US policy. Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has also not handled the situation properly. If it is serious about confronting sectarian violence, then it cannot take sides. If Sunnis are attacked, as their masjids have been, and many innocent people killed in recent weeks, then the government has a responsibility to not only condemn such attacks but to also take immediate steps to apprehend the culprits. The Iraqi government cannot play favourites. If it is not right to attack Shi‘is — as it is not — then it is equally unacceptable to attack Sunnis. The government of Iraq must represent all the people, not just a particular sect. This is also good policy and would increase support for the central government in Baghdad.

Sectarianism has become a vicious tool in the hands of those opposed to the reassertion of Islamic self-determination. In fact, it has been deliberately instigated as part of the US-Zionist-Saudi plot to undermine Islamic awakening movements or target those governments they do not like. In the past, nationalism was used but when internal conflict has to be instigated, nationalism is not much help. Sectarianism is a much more powerful tool because it plays on people’s emotions and ignorance. Creating bridges of understanding is a long, painstaking process; destroying such bridges merely requires planting doubts. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are susceptible to being aroused on emotional issues and led to behave in a manner that is completely contrary to the teachings of Islam.

Sectarianism was instigated and used by US occupation forces in Iraq. Prior to the US invasion, sectarianism was not a major factor in Iraqi society. Intermarriages were common; 30% of Iraqi couples had intermarried across the sectarian divide. This was perhaps not witnessed in any other Muslim country. Iraq also has some of the most important centres of learning for both Shi‘is and Sunnis. Masjids and great centres belonging to both schools of thought co-exist side by side. If Najaf and Karbala represent the two major cities greatly revered by Shi‘is (no less by Sunnis) because they house the tombs of the great Imams, then there are also centres and masjids where such Sunni-revered personalities as Imam Abu Hanifah and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani are buried. It was, therefore, natural and to the credit of the people of Iraq to have developed such good understanding between the followers of the two schools. It was a master stroke on the part of the Americans and their Saudi puppets to destroy such understanding by instigating sectarianism in Iraq.

The government in Baghdad had to be kept in a state of limbo in order to make it dependent on the US military. When the Iraqis refused to go along and did not agree to the extension of American military presence beyond the December 2011 deadline, it had to be taught a lesson. Sectarianism was the one tool that could be used to destabilize Iraq. There was also another factor: instigating sectarianism helped keep the larger Muslim Ummah that is predominantly Sunni away from Islamic Iran, a predominantly Shi‘i country. In fact, behind all the US-Saudi-Zionist moves lies the plan to keep the rest of the Ummah detached from the influence of Islamic Iran because the latter is viewed as undermining US-Zionist hegemony in the region.

The same policy was used to much more deadly effect in Syria. The mayhem there has helped deepen divisions among Muslims through sectarianism, thereby threatening to tear the fabric of the Ummah apart. When we look even 10 years back, there were no such sectarian tensions, at least not on the scale witnessed today. The simple question Muslims must ask is: whose purpose does it serve to instigate sectarian divisions in the Ummah? It certainly does not serve the interests of Muslims. Committed Muslims — ‘ulama, academics, students and activists — must, therefore, strive to address this issue and prevent its poison from spreading. A mere 100 years ago colonial powers had injected the poison of nationalism in the Muslim East to divide it, thereby facilitating the implantation of the Zionist entity in Palestine. Today sectarianism is being used to undermine Islamic self-determination in order to protect the Zionist entity that is on the verge of collapse because of inner contradictions and the rising tide of Islamic self-assertion. Muslims have an obligation not to fall into this trap.