Related post: What Arab Spring? This is Saudi Winter! – by Abdul Basit
EVERY year Shia Muslims commemorate the loss of Hussein, a grandson and would-be heir to the Prophet Muhammad who was murdered in 680AD. They mark both his martyrdom on Ashura, the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, and the end of the traditional mourning period 40 days later.
Modern tragedy has intruded on these rites with dismal regularity in recent times, as Sunni [usually Wahhabi or Salafi] extremists have repeatedly targeted Shia pilgrims. This Ashura, which fell on December 5th, bombs killed some 30 Shias in Iraq and 55 more at a crowded Shia shrine in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Bombers struck again in Iraq on January 10th, killing 19 Shias. Five days later an attack on a Shia procession in the Pakistani province of Punjab killed 21, and another huge bomb in the Iraqi port city of Basra killed 53.
This gory toll has largely been confined to the sectarian-racked swathe of territory between Pakistan and Iraq, with vicious echoes in the small Gulf state of Bahrain, where the minority Sunni government last year bloodily crushed an uprising led by the majority Shia. Another outlying danger zone is Yemen, where the large Zaydi Shia community, already in open revolt in the north of the country, faces threats from virulently chauvinist Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda. But the growing Sunni-Shia schism, exacerbated by the row over Shia Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is now creating discomfort for Shias farther afield.
A mob led by Sunni fanatics torched Shia property on December 29th in eastern Java in normally placid Indonesia, forcing hundreds of villagers to flee. Local police did nothing to protect the Shias, who are a tiny minority in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country. Their proportion in the Gaza Strip, the slice of Palestine run by Hamas, a branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, is even smaller. Even so, Hamas security men wielding clubs stormed a private gathering of some 25 Shias held to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period for Hussein’s death, sending several to hospital. This was despite Iran’s being a notable patron of Gaza’s Islamist rulers.
Egypt’s small Shia community has also felt a chill Sunni wind. On Ashura, Egyptian police forced hundreds of Shias to abandon a ceremony at the Mosque of Hussein in Cairo, where the Shia martyr’s severed head is said to be buried. A government official said that a stop had been put to their “barbaric rituals” so as to protect them from attack by angered citizens.
Worse may be expected in Syria, where a regime dominated by Alawites, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, is bloodily failing to suppress an uprising largely led by members of the Sunni majority. The mixed city of Homs has already witnessed tit-for-tat sectarian violence. If Syria descends into sectarian strife, reverberations will hurt next-door Lebanon. Shias and Sunnis each account for a third of its population, but in recent years the powerful and heavily armed Shia party, Hizbullah, has bucked traditional Sunni dominance. Its loss of a powerful backer in Syria could again upset Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.
Some Shias blame their apparently growing isolation on a global conspiracy. Shia rebels in Yemen recently described the capture of Radaa, a town in the south, by al-Qaeda forces, who declared it an Islamic emirate, as an American-Saudi plot to foment schism and weaken Islam. Shia websites in Pakistan assert that America and al-Qaeda are collaborating to destroy Iran and Syria.