ATROCITIES LIKE THE ASHURA MASSACRE AT KARBALA IN 2004 and the destruction of the Askariya shrine in 2006 inevitably become the focus of news reports, serving as markers of escalating conflict. Imprinted as deep in the collective memory as the events of fourteen hundred years ago, they seem to ensure that the Karbala story is one without end, destined only to grow in power and significance with every new outrage.
But destiny is not so straightforwardly determined. Within a hundred years of Hussein’s death at Karbala, the split between Sunni and Shia had begun to solidify, yet it did so more around theology than politics. The extraordinary range of ethnic differences in the vast empire meant that central political authority was hard to maintain; by the ninth century, as the Abbasid dynasty weakened, religious and political authority were well on the way to being separate spheres. In the lack of a political consensus, the ulama—religious scholars and clerics—created an Islamic one across ethnic lines and gained the status they still have today, when more than four out of five Muslims are non-Arab.
Separate Sunni and Shia collections of hadith were compiled, and the differences between them represented competing historical memories. They told different versions of the same stories, disagreeing not on what had taken place in the seventh century but on what it meant. Where Sunnis would see Muhammad’s choice of Abu Bakr as his companion on the hijra—the emigration to Medina—as proof that he intended Abu Bakr to be his successor, for instance, the Shia would see his declaration at Ghadir Khumm as proof of his designation of Ali. The Sunnis, in effect, would honor history as it had taken shape; the Shia would honor it as they believe it should have taken shape, and as they maintain it indeed did in a realm other than the worldly one.
By the tenth century, the Sunni Abbasid Caliphs had been reduced to little more than figureheads. Political power was in the hands of the Buyids, a strongly pro-Shia group from northeastern Persia that instituted the Ashura rituals as we know them today. But Baghdad’s hold on the empire continued to weaken, and by 1258 the city was helpless to resist the Mongol invasion under Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan. The once-great empire split into a welter of localized dynasties, both Sunni and Shia. It would be another two centuries until relative stability was achieved, with the Middle East once more divided as it had been under the Byzantines and the Persians. This time the divide would be between the Sunni Ottoman empire based in Turkey and the powerful Safavid dynasty in Persia—today’s Iran—which made Shiism the state religion. Again, Iraq was the borderland, the territory where the two sides met and clashed most violently.
Yet despite the horrendous eruptions of violence in Iraq—Karbala itself came under attack numerous times, most savagely by the Wahhabis in 1802 and by Turkish troops in 1843, when one-fifth of the city’s population was slaughtered—Shia and Sunnis for the most part accepted difference rather than exacerbate it. On the everyday level, they sometimes even embraced it. The ulama would never be able to control popular religious customs that contradicted official practice. Veneration of Ali was common among Sunnis as well as Shia, and still is. Despite official Sunni abhorrence of “idolatry,” pilgrimage to shrines and prayer for the intercession of holy men remained popular among Sunnis as well as Shia. And while Ashura commemorations sometimes sparked Sunni attacks, at other times Sunnis participated in the rituals along with their Shia neighbors. What happened was less a result of theological difference than of the politics of the time. As with any matter of faith, in modern America as much as in the Middle East of centuries ago, the Sunni-Shia split could always be manipulated for political advantage.
Whatever balance there was would be changed utterly by World War I and the consequent partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire. Western intervention reshaped the Middle East, often in what seems astonishingly cavalier fashion. The British enabled the Wahhabi-Saudi takeover of Arabia, installed a foreign Sunni king over Shia majority Iraq, and shored up the Nazi sympathizer Reza Khan as Shah of Iran. After World War II, the United States took over as prime mover. Motivated by Cold War ideology, it helped engineer a coup d’état against Iran’s newly elected prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh and reinstated the autocratic regime of Reza Khan’s son, Shah Reza Pahlavi, under whom Iran first aspired to nuclear power—with American encouragement. Successive U.S. administrations backed the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom of Saudi Arabia not only for access to its oil but also as a bulwark against Nasser’s pro-Soviet regime across the Red Sea in Egypt. In the 1980s the United States joined forces with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fund the anti-Soviet mujahidin—literally jihad fighters, or as Ronald Reagan preferred to call them, freedom fighters—in Afghanistan, and in a rather stunning example of unintended consequences, these troops later formed the basis of the Taliban. In that same decade, the United States found itself arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, supporting Saddam Hussein in order to counter the fierce anti-Americanism of postrevolutionary Iran, while also supplying Iran in the murky “arms for hostages” Iran-Contra affair.
Such heavy-handed intervention helped create the intense anti-Westernism that today underlies both Sunni and Shia radicalism. The fear and resentment of manipulation by the West were expressed in best-selling fashion by Iranian cultural critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whose 1962 book Gharbzadegi—“Occidentosis,” or “Westoxification”—saw Western cultural and financial dominance as a fatal disease that had to be rooted out of the Iranian body politic and by extension out of Islam as a whole. Ahmad’s call was taken up across the Shia-Sunni divide by Egyptian radical ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who helped lay the groundwork for modern Islamism. In his 1964 book Milestones, Qutb wrote that “setting up the kingdom of God on earth and eliminating the kingdom of man means taking power from the hands of the human usurpers and restoring it to God alone”—a deliberate echo of “Judgment belongs to God alone,” the seventh-century rallying cry of the khariji Rejectionists who assassinated Ali.
Sunni and Shia radicals alike called on a potent blend of the seventh century and the twentieth: on the Karbala story and on anti-Westernism. By the 1980s such calls were a clear danger signal to the pro-American Saudis, who were highly aware that radical Sunni energies could come home to roost in an Arabian equivalent of the Iranian Revolution. Their answer, in effect, was to deal with radical Islamism by financing it abroad, thus deflecting its impact at home. The Saudis became major exporters of Wahhabi extremism and its bitterly anti-Shia stance, from Africa to Indonesia, countering a newly strengthened sense of Shia identity and power—“the Shia revival,” as it’s been called—energized by the Iranian Revolution. The Sunni-Shia split had again become as politicized as when it began.
In such a confrontation, the Sunnis would seem to have a clear advantage since the Shia are only some fifteen percent of all Muslims worldwide. But raw numbers can be misleading. In the Middle East heartland of Islam, the Shia are closer to fifty percent, and wherever oil reserves are richest—Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf coast, including eastern Saudi Arabia—they are in the majority. So long as oil dominates the world economy, the stakes are again as high as they were at the height of the Muslim empire. And the main issue is again what it was in the seventh century—who should lead Islam?—now played out on an international level. Where Ali once struggled against Muawiya, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia today vie with each other for influence and political leadership of the Islamic world, a power struggle demonstrated most painfully in the cities of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As the United States has at last recognized, with thousands of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westerners enter such a power struggle at their own peril, all the more since many in the Middle East suspect that Western powers have deliberately manipulated the Shia-Sunni split all along in order to serve their own interests. The chaos unleashed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have resulted in yet another unintended consequence in American eyes, but it was not so unintended in Iraqi eyes. “The invader has separated us,” declared Muqtada al-Sadr in 2007. “Unity is power, and division is weakness.”
The idea of fitna has now achieved yet another level of meaning, and a still more incendiary one: discord and civil war within Islam manipulated from without, deliberately fostered by enemies of Islam in order to turn Muslims against one another and thus weaken them.
This may be giving Western powers credit for more understanding than they have ever demonstrated, but if they have indeed tried to exploit division, the attempt has only rebounded against them. By now it is clear that anyone so rash as to think it possible to intervene in the Sunni-Shia split and come away unscathed is at best indulging in wishful thinking. It may be tempting to imagine that if the Bush administration had known the power of the Karbala story, American troops would never have been ordered anywhere within a hundred miles of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but that too is wishful thinking. As with Yazid in the seventh century, so with George Bush in the twenty-first, history is often made by the heedless.
After close to a century of failed intervention, Westerners finally need to stand back, to acknowledge the emotive depth of the Sunni-Shia split and to accord it the respect it demands. The Karbala story has endured and strengthened not least because it reaches deep into questions of morality—of idealism versus pragmatism, purity versus compromise. Its DNA is the very stuff that tests both politics and faith and animates the vast and often terrifying arena in which the two intersect. But whether sacredness inheres in the Prophet’s blood family, as the Shia believe, or in the community as a whole, as Sunnis believe, nobody in the West should forget that what unites the two main branches of Islam is far greater that what divides them, and that the vast majority of all Muslims still cherish the ideal of unity preached by Muhammad himself—an ideal the more deeply held for being so deeply broken.