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Hatred between Sunnis, Shiites abounds in Mideast

Monday - 6/24/2013, 3:56am  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 file photo, Muslim Sunni and Shiite pilgrims pray outside the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. There are distinctions in theology and religious practice between the two sects. Some are minor, like in prayer. Shiites pray with their hands by their sides, Sunnis with their hands crossed at their chest or stomach. Hatreds between Shiites and Sunnis are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria's brutal civil war. Hard-line clerics and politicians on both sides have added fuel, depicting the fight as essentially a war of survival for their sect. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

LEE KEATH
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- It's not hard to find stereotypes, caricatures and outright bigotry when talk in the Middle East turns to the tensions between Islam's two main sects.

Shiites are described as devious, power-hungry corruptors of Islam. Sunnis are called extremist, intolerant oppressors.

Hatreds between the two are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria's civil war. On Sunday, officials said four Shiites in a village west of Cairo were beaten to death by Sunnis in a sectarian clash unusual for Egypt.

Hard-line clerics and politicians on both sides in the region have added fuel, depicting the fight as essentially a war of survival for their sect.

But among the public, views are complex. Some sincerely see the other side as wrong -- whether on matters of faith or politics. Others see the divisions as purely political, created for cynical aims. Even some who view the other sect negatively fear sectarian flames are burning dangerously out of control. There are those who wish for a return to the days, only a decade or two ago, when the differences did not seem so important and the sects got along better, even intermarried.

And some are simply frustrated that there is so much turmoil over a dispute that dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

"Fourteen centuries after the death of the prophet, in a region full of destruction, killing, occupation, ignorance and disease, you are telling me about Sunnis and Shiites?" scoffs Ismail al-Hamami, a 67-year-old Sunni Palestinian refugee in Gaza. "We are all Muslims. ... You can't ignore the fact that (Shiites) are Muslims."

Associated Press correspondents spoke to Shiites and Sunnis across the region. Amid the variety of viewpoints, they found a public struggling with anger that is increasingly curdling into hatred.

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BACKGROUND

The Sunni-Shiite split is rooted in the question of who should succeed Muhammad in leading Muslims after his death in 632. Shiites say the prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali was his rightful successor but was cheated when authority went to those the Sunnis call the four "Rightfully Guided Caliphs" -- Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and, finally, Ali.

Sunnis are the majority across the Islamic world. In the Middle East, Shiites have strong majorities in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, with significant communities in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other parts of the Gulf.

Both consider the Quran the word of God. But there are distinctions in theology and religious practice between the two sects.

Some are minor: Shiites pray with their hands by their sides, Sunnis with their hands crossed at their chest or stomach.

Others are significant. Shiites, for example, believe Ali and a string of his descendants, the Imams, had not only rightful political authority after Muhammad but also held a special religious wisdom. Most Shiites believe there were 12 Imams -- many of them "martyred" by Sunnis -- and the 12th vanished, to one day return and restore justice. Sunnis accuse the Shiites of elevating Ali to the level of Muhammad himself -- incorrectly, since Shiites agree that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, a central tenet of Islam.

The bitter disputes of early Islam still resonate. Even secular-minded Shiite parents would never name their child after the resented Abu Bakr, Omar or Othman -- or Aisha, a wife of Muhammad, who helped raise a revolt against Ali during his Caliphate. When outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt earlier this year, the sheik of Al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni theology, told him sharply that if the sects are to get along, Shiites must stop "insulting" the "companions of the prophet."

But only the most hard-core would say those differences are reason enough to hate each other. For that, politics is needed.

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IRAQ

If Syria's war has raised the region's sectarian hatreds, the war in Iraq played a big role in unleashing them. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the long-oppressed Shiite majority there saw a chance to take power. Sunnis feared the repression would flip onto them. The result was vicious sectarian fighting that lasted until 2008: Sunni extremists pulled Shiite pilgrims from buses and gunned them down; Shiite militiamen kidnapped Sunnis, dumping their tortured bodies later.

ABDUL-SATTAR ABDUL-JABAR, 56, is a Sunni cleric who occasionally preaches at the prominent Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni-dominated Azamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. Two of his sons were killed by Shiite militiamen. He blames the United States and Iran for Iraq's strife.

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