By Catherine Shakdam – “Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah Heareth and knoweth all things.” Quran 2:244
When ISIL enounced its plan earlier in June to lay waste Shia Islam and destroy everything and everyone related to it, millions across not only Iraq but the Islamic world understood that terror had just came knocking on their door. ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – a terror group so radical in its thinking and brutal in its methods that Al Qaeda itself felt the need to distance itself from its commanders, has, with one simple statement shook the very foundations of the Islamic Ummah (community).
“The Shia are a disgraced people. God forbid that they become victorious over you. How can they when they are polytheists? Don’t stop until you reach Baghdad and Karbala. Be prepared! Iraq will be transformed into a living hell for the Shia and other heretic,”declared ISIL’ spokesman Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani, as he addressed the conquered people of Mosul, thus setting the tone for a sectarian struggle which now threatens to engulf the region in a whirlwind of violence and endless bloodshed.
While radical Islamists have so far reserved their venom for western powers, often equating the United States and their allies to the devil itself in an effort to justify their actions and calls for blood, this sudden change in narrative from anti-western to anti-Shia might prove to be the undoing of the Middle East. Rather than project its hatred outwardly, ISIL is now looking inward, keen to wage a crusade against a group within the Arab people. But if the Shia are on ISIL’s to-kill list so are Christians and all other religious non-Muslim communities. Our modern day crusaders, ISIL militants have proven over the past few weeks to be as crude and gory in their love for slaughter as Reginald of Chatillon during his crusade against Saladin in the 12th century.
Fuelled by rage and a misplaced desire to exert revenge, ISIL hordes could prove to be the most immediate and potent threat to the Islamic world, even more so than Israel, as its present goal is to crumble Shia Islam to the ground. Should the Middle East be forced to redefine itself along sectarian lines, countries would fracture, society would find itself divorced, an entire people – the Arab – would once again find themselves at odds with one another over the eternal dispute of Islam – a schism which occurred more than 1,000 years ago over Imam Ali’s (Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law) legitimate claim to the caliphate of Islam over that of all others.
Analysts have already warned that Iraq could become ground zero for the battle of the two Islam, when Shia and Sunni would come to crash against one another in a fight to the death. While of course the idea of a Sunni army opposing a Shia army is somewhat reminiscent of the infamous Iran-Iraq war, the insidious sectarian nature of this particular conflict makes it much more dangerous. While the Iran-Iraq war had more to do with national sovereignty and the safeguards of one’s territorial integrity, ISIL’s war equates to a fratricide. The repercussions on the region would be disastrous.
With no other option left but to fight, Shia Muslims across Iraq turned toward their political and religious leaders for answer, keen to find solace in their guidance. An answer was born in Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa.
On June 13, in the wake of ISIL’s flash advances in northern and western Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric broke away from his usual detachment from political life by using his stature as religious leader to galvanize Iraqis into opposing terrorists’ onslaught.
The 84-year-old cleric called on all Iraqis – Sunnis and Shia – to rise in solidarity of each other in order to oppose the terror wave which threatens to engulf the country and beyond, the region. Ayatollah Sistani’s call for mobilization sent shockwaves across Iraq, as thousands poured in the streets of Baghdad, Samarra and Karbala, all vowing they would defend Islam until their dying breath.
If Sistani’s rallying call was meant to be universal and non-sectarian, most Sunnis failed to rise to the occasion, feeling somewhat detached from the dire-strait urgency of the situation as they did not feel as being the target of ISIL’s wrath.
A man of the people, a defender of democracy, Sistani has long been known for his moderate views and his distaste for violence and vindication. A scholar, a philanthropist, Sistani has often acted a unifying figure for Iraq, well-loved and respected by all, within both the political and religious arena. It is important to remember that after Sunni militants attacked the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006, one of Shia’s holiest sites, in an act that precipitated the country’s civil war, Sistani blamed the sectarian violence on foreign forces and urged reconciliation between Iraq’s disparate groups. Sistani has never been a warmonger, rather the epitome of restraint and religious tolerance.
But if Sistani meant his fatwa to be universal, only Shia identified with its message.
Hardin Long, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, warned in June that Sistani’s fatwa would “resonate with the Shia population, while Sunni Iraqis will largely ignore it.” And indeed, although Sistani called on all able-bodied Iraqi men, regardless of religious affiliation, to join the fight against ISIL, his fatwa may actually exacerbate the sectarian tensions that have plagued the country.
The Two Jihads
As predicted by many analysts, among whom Dr. Haytham Mouzahem from the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies, Iraq is once again finding itself in a situation whereby Shia men have formed militias, similar to those established in the aftermath of the Al-Askari bombing in 2006, in an attempt to parry ISIL’s advances, thus fanning sectarian tensions at a time when radical Islamists are working to draw in Shia Muslims into a war of the two jihads.
Within days of Sistani’s fatwa In Baghdad – Shia stronghold, the Mahdi Army – a large Shia militia – marched through the streets of the capital in an unprecedented show of force, emboldened by the cleric’s words, endowed by a sense of religious duty.
As thousands lined up in perfect military formation, Baghdad residents recalled the time of the militias, wondering just how long the central government will manage to keep them in line and under its control.
Iraqis now found themselves caught in between the rage of ISIL and the thunder of Shia militias. Residents of Baquba, a city located an hour north from Baghdad; residents have said to be fearful, not knowing which force to fear the most as they fear sectarian tensions will mean they will soon become targets.
To the north of Baquba are ISIL, the Sunni militant group bent on destroying Iraq and the Shias who govern it. To the south are Shia militias who have responded with vehemence and are transforming the frontlines into a sectarian showdown that pays no heed to the state.
Abu Mustafa, a resident told the BBC in late June, “”We have Da’ash [ISIL] on one side and we have Asa’ib ahl al-Haq [Shia militia] on the other. I don’t know who to be more scared of.”
If what is happening in Iraq is anything to go by, sectarian tensions could soon flare up uncontrollably across the region, most particularly in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen where already a stage has been set opposing the two-battling religious sects.
Now that ISIL has defined its agenda against Shia Islam, how long will it take for other Islamic radical groups to emulate such narrative and set the region on fire?