LAHORE – Turmoil has seized much of the Muslim world. In Syria, a brutal war has already taken 250,000 lives, displaced half of the country’s 21 million people, and sent a million refugees to Europe seeking asylum. In Yemen, the Houthi tribe has risen up against the government, and are now facing Saudi-led airstrikes. Conflicts like these reflect a number of factors, the most prominent of which are the conflicts between Islam’s two sects, Sunni and Shia, and between fundamentalists and reformists.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime enjoys the support of Shia powers, especially Iran, whose regional influence depends on a Shia regime remaining in power. And that is precisely why Sunni powers – most prominently Saudi Arabia – are committed to toppling that regime. Yemen’s government, by contrast, is Sunni-led, and thus has Saudi Arabia’s support, hence the bombings of the Iran-backed Shia Houthis. Unsurprisingly, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have intensified lately, a trend that culminated in the severing of diplomatic relations over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a popular Shia cleric.
The chaos fueled by these conflicts – and by instability in other countries in the region, such as Afghanistan and Iraq –has enabled the rise of some truly contemptible forces, beginning with the Islamic State (ISIS). That group has gained so much influence that US generals have asked President Barack Obama to authorize additional troops to join the fight against it. Moreover, there are reports that the United States may postpone the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, where an increasingly brutal war against the government has enabled the Taliban to gain territory and created an opening for ISIS to become active. ISIS has also penetrated Pakistan.
The religious element of the conflicts raging in the Middle East today is a major reason why they have been so difficult to defuse. The Sunni-Shia schism goes back to the year 632, when the Prophet Muhammad died without indicating how the fast-growing Islamic community should pick his successor. Those who became the Shia believed that the position should remain in the prophet’s immediate family and supported the selection of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Those who became the Sunni supported the choice of the community’s senior members: Abu Bakr, who had served as a close adviser to Muhammad.