Sunni-Shia Bellum Sacrum Fault Lines Deepen
Historically, the term “religious war” (Bellum Sacrum) was used to describe various European wars among Christian denominations spanning mainly the 16th to the 18th century such as the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) which spread widely throughout Europe and on to North America, Central America, the also to the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. There were dozens of other intra-Christian religious wars the seeds of which began to sprout shortly after the death of Jesus Christ.
The Encyclopedia of Wars, by authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, estimate that only 7% of the 1,783 wars they chronicled involve religion. Lebanon is one of these and is still mired in a cold war phase of its 15 year (1975-90) Civil War, from which Lebanon yet to recover. Religious differences are one of the major causes on Lebanon’s many problems today and it is within this context that the mushrooming intra-Muslim war between Sunni and Shia is spreading and intensifying. Sunni comprise approximately 90% percent of the followers of Islam and their increasingly vilified coreligionists, Shia Muslims, 10%. This month Lebanon’s Shia are commemorating Ashoura and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in 680 under increased security with additional checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah forces because Da’ish and al Nursa have announced their intent to target the Shia worshipers.
Many among Lebanon’s older Sunni and Shia generation, report that as youngsters they were not aware of Shia-Sunni antagonisms nor did they harbor animosity with their neighbors. Sometimes inter-marrying, sharing holidays and developing strong friendships with each other. “That is all changed now, perhaps until End Times” according to an employee at Beirut’s Dar al Fatwa in the mixed neighborhood of Aisha Bikar near the American University of Beirut.
The gentleman and his colleague elaborated:
Everyone alive today in Lebanon and for many generations to come will have their family’s lives negatively affected by the rapidly spreading sectarian hostility. The Sunni-Shia hatred is poisonous—it’s the new political Ebola virus! Can it be eradicated? How can we stop it from engulfing the Middle East or has it already done so?” Another added, “And forget about the Christians! In a few years’ time there will probably not be enough of them left in the Middle East to matter.To this observer, the spiraling sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon appears to be coming mainly from Sunni groups and militia who vent a laundry list of complaints against their fellow Muslims. Many but not all stemming from Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war still raging across the anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east.
Members of the two Muslim sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. But there are Sunni-Shia differences in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization and are based in part over a political dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam and adhere to traditions and practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him.
Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction – literally “Shiat Ali” or the party of Ali and they claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.
In Sunni ruled countries, for hundreds of years Shias made up the poorest sections of society and today many view themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression as some extremist Sunni doctrines continue to preach hatred of Shia. Some argue that the Shia-Sunni Bellum Sacrum is more political than religious. If true, the mutually destructive conflict now intensifying in Lebanon would share much in common with other religious wars which were basically political conflicts justified in the name of religion. Iran which supports some Shia militias beyond its borders is in conflict with some Sunni countries, especially regional neighbors who support Sunni militia.
Lebanon’s hemmed population-Sunni and Shia has been put in a difficult situation caught up also in spill-over from the Syrian civil war. Teheran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders is essentially matched by the Sunni Gulf states with Shia and Sunni leaders often seem to be in competition as the latter continue to strengthen their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.
Lebanon is paying a big price. Lawmakers failed on 10/29/2014 for the fifteenth time to elect a new president over a lack of quorum at parliament they will “try again” on 11/19/2014 with likely the same result because those holding power want a deadlock. Only 54 members out the 128 in Parliament showed up, well short of a quorum. The others were instructed to boycott by their parties, including the pro-Hezbollah Change and Reform and Loyalty to the Resistance blocs of the March 8 alliance. Their motive, their opponents the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance claim are purely political. The latest failed session was also boycotted by Speaker Nabih Berri, the Shia leader of the pro- Bashar Assad, Amal militia with Berri insisting he is simply trying to encourage ‘dialogue”.
“It has never been this bad” explains the proprietor of a neighborhood grocery store, agreeing with ever more of his fellow countrymen, as now opening curses both sides in public.
A few brief examples from the past week illustrate the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia clash.
As the Hezbollah continues boycotting Parliamentary electoral sessions due to disagreements with the mainly Sunni March 14 camp over a compromise presidential candidate. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, himself a presidential candidate, this week accused Hezbollah of “blocking Parliament in to order to blackmail political blocs into electing, their puppet, Michel Aoun.”
Aoun who is as anti-Palestinian as Geagea is, denies media speculation “ that the ongoing obstruction is no longer a political maneuver, but an attempt to target Lebanon’s political system.”
Hezbollah is also being accused of joining the Syrian war and sacrificing Lebanese young men while killing many innocent Syrians solely on orders from Tehran. According to one March 14th Member of Parliament:
No one believes, not even the Hezbollah leadership that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to protect Lebanon whose people are paying a big price for their adventure.
Sunni opponents of Shia Hezbollah, including the spokesman for the March 14th alliance claim that “terrorists” or the so-called ‘Takfiries” would never have come to Lebanon if Hezbollah had not invaded Syria and started killing Sunni.
The largely Sunni families of the 27 captive troops and policemen being held for ransom by the al-Nursa front are blaming Hezbollah and the Shia leader of Lebanon’s Internal Security Force, (ISF) Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, for not acting seriously to negotiate their loved ones release from captivity for purely sectarian reasons. On 10/30/14 the families threatened again to escalate their protests and have been burning tires at the Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut while their relatives captors, al-Nusra Front, in increasingly setting up sleeper cells and advocating for the Sunni community in Lebanon is also accusing the ISF director of not being serious are obtaining the release of Sunni captives.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame University – Louaize and Saint Joseph University decided this week to suspend student elections for the current academic year as sectarianism spreads. “The political and security situation in Lebanon, which could impact the campus, will not allow the students to practice their democratic role positively,” USJ board of members said in a statement. Religion is a factor in this conflict also according to campus security guards on the scene trying to maintain order.
The United Nations has warned again this week that foreign religiously motivated jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale and some with religious motives and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism”. More than 1,500 foreign fighters are streaming into Syria each month, a rate that has increased since US airstrikes against Da’ish (Isis) began last month (9/23/14). The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeds 16,000, and the pace eclipses that of any comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights just announced that 560 people have been killed in airstrikes since they began. That group counted 32 civilian deaths, including six children and five women.
The Pentagon estimates that each of the more than 600 US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq costs the American taxpayer approximately $ 9 million which given the claimed “kill count” means each death costs roughly $ 1.4 million each, militiamen or civilians. The rate of jihadists arriving just in Syria, again according to the Pentagon, were 12,000 in July, and 7,000 in March. But other US government’s estimates for just Syria put the jihadist arrival figures at currently 1,500 each month with the numbers accelerating and increasing coming to Lebanon. There are higher estimates according to U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who rank “Democracy Success Story and Arab Spring Winner” Tunisia as the country contributing the most jihadists currently arriving in the Levant.
As noted above, many of the religiously motivated jihadists are coming to Lebanon, especially up north near Tripoli which has seen heavy fighting between Sunni and Shia backed militia. If one credits their social media, several want to fight Hezbollah which they often label the “Party of Satan” and “Iran’s militia.”
On 10/30/13 Saudi National Guard Minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, directing his comments to the KSA’s arch foe Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nassrallah proclaimed that “The parties embracing terrorism in the region have become well-known.” Within minutes Saudi media outlets open with commentary and statements like those currently appearing in Lebanese media outlets such as Naharnet:
Yes those supporting terrorism they are the same who killed Rafik el Hariri and the remaining M14 leaders. They are the same who refuse to abide by Lebanese justice and deliver the accused/witness for investigations, they are the same who in order to remain in power, decide to destroy their country and kill their people and allow a huge inflow of terrorist into their land to show a worse alternative.
Sentiments shared by some in the Sunni community who, unlike during the years following the 2006 July war, and Hezbollah’s widely acknowledged success against the Zionist regime still occupying Palestine, are no longer reluctant to criticize openly Shia Muslims generally and Hezbollah specifically.
Where this all ends is anyone’s guess but a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, even limited area by area as Washington, Tehran and Moscow are discussing would perhaps help—or, as various analysts and some serious scholars postulate, the latest Sunni-Shia manifestation of Bellum Sacrum may take a long time to control if not resolve. Tens of years or centuries they advise only time will tell.
- Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).