Across Arab World, a Widening Rift

Sunnis and Shiites have long prayed together at Cairo's Shiite shrine to Imam Hussein. But growing sectarian friction has frayed that amity.
Sunnis and Shiites have long prayed together at Cairo's Shiite shrine to Imam Hussein. But growing sectarian friction has frayed that amity. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 12, 2007

CAIRO -- Egypt is the Arab world's largest Sunni Muslim country, but as a writer once quipped, it has a Shiite heart and a Sunni mind. In its eclectic popular culture, Sunnis enjoy a sweet dish with raisins and nuts to mark Ashura, the most sacred Shiite Muslim holiday. Raucous festivals bring Cairenes into the street to celebrate the birthdays of Shiite saints, a practice disparaged by austere Sunnis. The city's Islamic quarter tangles like a vine around a shrine to Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's most revered figure.

The syncretic blend makes the words of Mahmoud Ahmed, a book vendor sitting on the shrine's marble and granite promenade, even more striking.

"The Shiites are rising," he said, arching his eyebrows in an expression suggesting both revelation and fear.

The growing Sunni-Shiite divide is roiling an Arab world as unsettled as at any time in a generation. Fought in speeches, newspaper columns, rumors swirling through cafes and the Internet, and occasional bursts of strife, the conflict is predominantly shaped by politics: a disintegrating Iraq, an ascendant Iran, a sense of Arab powerlessness and a persistent suspicion of American intentions. But the division has begun to seep into the region's social fabric, too. The sectarian fault line has long existed and sometimes ruptured, but never, perhaps, has it been revealed in such a stark, disruptive fashion.

Newspapers are replete with assertions, some little more than incendiary rumors, of Shiite aggressiveness. The Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustour, aligned with the government, wrote of a conspiracy last month to spread Shiism from India to Egypt. On the conspirators' agenda, it said: assassinating "prominent Sunni figures." The same day, an Algerian newspaper reported that parents were calling on the government to stop Shiite proselytizing in schools. An Egyptian columnist accused Iran of trying to convert Sunnis to Shiism in an attempt to revive the Persian Safavid dynasty, which came to power in the 16th century.

At Madbuli's, a storied bookstore in downtown Cairo, five new titles lined the display window: "The Shiites," "The Shiites in History," "Twelve Shiites," and so on. A newspaper on sale nearby featured a warning by its editor that the conflict could lead to a "sectarian holocaust."

"To us Egyptians," said writer and analyst Mohammed al-Sayid Said, the sectarian division is "entirely artificial. It resonates with nothing in our culture, nothing in our daily life. It's not part of our social experience, cultural experience or religious experience." But he added: "I think this can devastate the region."

The violence remains confined to Iraq and, on a far smaller scale, Lebanon, but to some, the four-year-long entropy of Iraq offers a metaphor for the forces emerging across the region: People there watched the rise of sectarian identity, railed against it, blamed the United States and others for inflaming it, then were often helpless to stop the descent into bloodshed.

"This tension is the most dangerous problem now in the region," said Ghassan Charbel, editor of the Arabic-language daily al-Hayat.

The schism between Sunnis and Shiites dates to the 7th century, Islam's earliest days, when a dispute broke out over who would succeed the prophet Muhammad. Shiites believe the descendants of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, and son-in-law, Ali, were deprived of divinely ordained leadership in a narrative of martyrdom and injustice that still influences devout Shiite readings of the faith.

Over centuries, differences in ritual, jurisprudence and theology evolved, some of them slight. But the Shiite community -- as a majority in Iraq and Bahrain and a sizable minority in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- is shaped far more today by the underprivileged status it has often endured in an Arab world that is predominantly Sunni. For decades, the Saudi government banned Shiite rituals; a Sunni minority rules a restive Shiite majority in Bahrain; Lebanese Shiites, long poor and disenfranchised, often faced chauvinism that still lingers.

Episodes of sectarian conflict litter the region's history: Shiites revolted in medieval Baghdad, and rival gangs ransacked one another's tombs and shrines. The conflict between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Empire in Persia was often cast as a sectarian struggle. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was portrayed in parts of the Arab world as a Shiite resurgence.


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