Special Report – On a Sunday in early June Muhammad Qatta, a roadside coffee-seller in the Syrian city of Aleppo, refused to serve a would-be freeloader. Even the prophet himself would have to pay, he said. Some bearded rebel fighters overheard him. Crying blasphemy, they shot him dead. Muhammad was 15 years old.
On the same day, across the Lebanese border in Beirut, 28-year-old Hashem Salman also met his maker. He had joined a vigil outside the Iranian embassy to protest against Iran’s support for the Syrian regime. Burly men wearing yellow armbands attacked the small crowd with clubs and pistols. Yellow is the colour of Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese party-cum-militia that has lately also entered the fray in Syria. Mr Salman took two bullets in his legs and one in the back.
These killings barely nudged the daily toll from Syria’s civil war, a war that has warped into bloody attrition between the majority Sunni and better-armed Shia Muslims. Yet they generated unusual outrage. Neither victim had played a role in Syria’s fighting. One was a Sunni, the other Shia. Both were killed not just by members of their own sects but by groups posing as their most zealous guardians. The killers in both cases saw themselves as punishing traitors to the faith.
Islam, like any great religion, is a broad tent. Within it, Islamism—the belief that politics is and must be an extension of the faith—comes in many colours, from the black of al-Qaeda to the dark green of Saudi-style Wahhabism to the palest of modernising shades. In whatever dose, the mixing of religion with politics implicitly involves the right to interpret and to impose the will of God. Many Arabs, and not just the avowedly secular, are uncomfortable with this and resent such powers of enforcement. Perhaps that is why, amid the seemingly inexorable rise of Islam as a political rallying force and amid increasingly strident assertions of sectarian identity, doubts are also growing.
The people’s choice
This may seem an odd claim. Since the 1990s Islamist parties have captured majorities pretty much wherever Arabs have held free elections, and have done even better since the Arab spring. In Egypt the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, including puritanical Salafists, grabbed two-thirds of the seats in the first general election after the uprising. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Muhammad Morsi, went on to clinch the presidency. Libyan and Yemeni voters have also strongly backed Islamists, though both countries are politically too fragmented for any one party to dominate. Even Tunisians, despite a long secular tradition, gave far more votes to the country’s main Islamist party, Nahda, than to any other.
It is mainstream Islamists rather than radicals who have won the most votes: men with trimmed beards and ties; women wearing headscarves rather than burqas. These newly empowered movements have generally shied away from imposing harsher religious rules. They sense that apart from a committed minority, voters care more about cleaning up government than bringing society closer to God. Yet as Islamists search for ways to show that they are putting faith into politics, it is not surprising that the tone of their sectarian rhetoric has risen.
This is something new. The Sunni-Shia schism may have lasted for 14 centuries, but most of that time it has lain dormant. Sectarianism has rarely been much of an issue for the bulk of Arabs, who live in countries that are overwhelmingly Sunni. In places that are more mixed, intermarriage has been common in modern times. For many years the Muslim Brotherhood contemplated a grand alliance with Shia Iran, and most Islamists still harbour lingering dreams of a united Muslim umma (nation). But more recently a combination of factors has pushed the two sects apart, ranging from a waning sense of a shared struggle against the West to the oil-greased rise in the influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia (whose Wahhabist state ideology vilifies Shias as heretics) and the empowerment of historically marginalised Shias in other countries.
This split has widened dramatically in recent years, beginning in Iraq. The fall in 2003 of the country’s brutal despot, Saddam Hussein, gave vent to the burning resentment of the Shia underclass he had long persecuted, raising fears among Sunnis who had ruled the territory since Ottoman times. The American occupiers did not help. Sweeping purges of former regime members hurt Sunnis disproportionately. New office-holders were typically chosen by party quota, which favoured the better-organised Shias.
Islamists in both camps championed armed resistance to the occupiers, but the arrival on the scene of al-Qaeda, which espouses Wahhabist views, promoted not joint efforts but murderous competition. The Sunni terrorists’ demolition of the golden-domed Shia shrine at Samarra in 2006 set off a vicious round of sectarian “cleansing” that left tens of thousands dead. Iraq’s once-cosmopolitan capital, Baghdad, became a checkerboard of sectarian ghettoes. The country remains divided, the disgruntled, impoverished and violent Sunni part now contrasting with a relatively quiet and prospering Kurdish north and Shia south.
America’s intervention had wider effects. It pushed Iran’s rulers to accelerate their nuclear project. To deter Israel from striking to preserve its regional nuclear monopoly, the Shia superpower also ramped up its long-standing sponsorship of Hizbullah. The Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia flexed its growing muscle in a short but nasty war with Israel in 2006. Two years later its militiamen invaded Sunni quarters of Beirut and imposed a government more to its liking. This has dangerously tipped Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance of about one-third Shia, one-third Sunni and one-third others, mainly Christian.
The religious mosaic in neighbouring Syria is equally intricate, but its cracks had long seemed better sealed. Many bore a grudge against the 12% minority of Alawites, an esoteric offshoot of Shiism to which the ruling Assad clan and much of the officer class belong. Yet that was incidental to the uprising starting in March 2011, which was mainly about freedom.
Mr Assad’s regime worked hard not just to crush the revolt but to turn it into a sectarian battle. His soldiers, unlike those in Egypt and Tunisia, were prepared to riddle unarmed crowds with gunfire. Stunned at first, protesters soon started shooting back with whatever came to hand, validating Mr Assad’s claim to be battling not a popular revolt but an armed insurgency.
Mysterious attacks against Christians and other minorities followed, prompting some to form pro-government vigilante gangs. The regime singled out Sunnis for punishment, sending packs of thugs to slaughter villagers, blasting Sunni districts with artillery and arresting and torturing thousands. As abandoned Sunni homes were systematically plundered, the country’s newly flourishing flea markets took on a new name, souk al sunna.
Until then, Syrian Sunnis had rarely defined themselves in sectarian terms. After all, they made up nearly two-thirds of the population. To their minds, class and regional differences were more important. But Mr Assad’s ferocious repression forced them—and especially the poorer ones, who suffered most—to rethink. By the second year of the uprising the idealistic instigators of Syria’s revolution had increasingly retreated, leaving an enraged, radicalised Sunni-dominated core. It was the zealots and extremists, fuelled by global jihadist networks, who gained a reputation for fighting hardest and most effectively.
A self-fulfilling prophet, Mr Assad now poses as the defender of Syria’s pluralist urban middle class against a fanatical, impoverished and foreign-sponsored Sunni horde. Radical jihadist groups can be counted on to burnish his image by committing atrocious acts of vengeance.
But there was nothing inevitable about Syria’s march into sectarian swamps, and the same is true in other Arab countries. The Sunni rulers of Bahrain, for instance, played out Mr Assad’s role in reverse, albeit less brutally. They depicted the (mostly Shia) marchers who demanded constitutional democracy in February 2011 as an Iranian fifth column. This succeeded in shifting the issue from local demands for reform to a perceived broader threat against all the Gulf’s Sunni rulers. Two years later, in dusty Shia villages just minutes from the sleek waterfront of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, black religious banners and stencilled images of martyrs proclaim sullen resistance.
Scholars see the return of sectarianism less as a revival of Islam’s 1,400-year-old schism than as an outcome of failing modern states. Gregory Gause, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, notes in a recent paper that sectarian identity is strongest in countries with weak central governments, such as Lebanon. The abrupt implosion of Iraq and Syria, which had been highly centralised and repressive states, helps explain their rapid descent into mayhem. An increase in sporadic attacks against Egypt’s 10% Christian minority may also indicate a decline in the state’s capacity to mediate social relations.
In most cases, sectarian nastiness has been less a product of religious dogma than of contests for power or resources. “More often than not, the intricacies of faith and theology are about as relevant in Iraqi sectarian dynamics as Christianity is in the rhetoric of European far-right groups,” writes Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi scholar at the National University of Singapore. “It is religion as identity rather than religion as faith that is being mobilised.” Yet Mr Haddad cautions that this may be changing. Scriptural arguments for sectarianism are no longer the preserve of crusty sheikhs from Qasim, the Wahhabist heartland of Saudi Arabia. Hizbullah’s recent dispatch of fighters into Syria has provoked a torrent of Sunni abuse. Mosque sermons recalled distant historical episodes of supposed Shia perfidy. Yusuf Qaradawi, a popular television preacher who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood, said he regretted his past efforts at reconciliation with Shias. He blasted Hizbullah as the party of Satan and called for jihad.
This increasingly ugly tone bodes ill for sectarian relations across Islam. The underlying geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, reflected by proxy in Iraq and Syria, may yet come to a dangerous head. But there are grounds for hope, too.
The most important one is that, in the more peaceful political climate of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, Arabs have, for the first time, subjected Islamists to practical tests of government. During decades of persecution under dictatorial regimes, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed the luxury of being in perpetual opposition. They could criticise without having to offer policy alternatives beyond the Brothers’ slogan, “Islam is the solution.” As they have now found, running the place is a lot more difficult than carping from the sidelines.
This test has been conducted most visibly in Egypt, where despite its initial electoral success the Brotherhood struggled to secure longer-term gains. Its troubles were partly of its own making. The Brothers have long believed that they represent Egypt’s true silent majority. In contrast to what they see as a corrupt and slavishly Westernised elite, the Islamists present themselves as the embodiment of native cultural authenticity, with high moral standards. Their tight internal organisation gave an impression of quiet competence that proved highly successful at the polls. Many hoped that this would translate into effective government.
Easy to say, hard to do
Those hopes have been dashed. In the words of an international consultant who advises regional governments, the Brothers turned out to be “high on will, low on skill”. Mr Morsi put far more effort into trying to consolidate his own control than into dealing with Egypt’s dire economic and social problems. His appointments plainly showed a preference for piety over competence. A new constitution, which Mr Morsi forced through last December against strenuous objections from non-Islamists and legal experts, proved riddled with flaws.
In power, Egypt’s Islamists took on many of the characteristics of the ruling party that kept them out for so long. Mr Morsi has shielded the army and police from scrutiny of repressive tactics that left perhaps a thousand Egyptians dead in repeated bouts of unrest. Under his watch courts freed dozens of former regime officials accused of abusing power. At the same time they prosecuted young revolutionaries, including on such charges as “insulting the head of state”. The Brotherhood’s haughty moral attitude and its instinctive secrecy limited its ability to reach out to political opponents. Instead, Mr Morsi’s government tried to co-opt or subvert his foes, using state-controlled media, state-subsidised goods and tactics such as holding televised “dialogues” that excluded authoritative opposition figures.
All this took a steep toll on the Brothers’ standing with the Egyptian public, which has turned out to be far more sophisticated, complex and fickle than they had assumed. Following their convincing win in parliamentary elections at the end of 2011, ten months after Egypt’s revolution, they fared progressively worse at the polls. Mr Morsi won the presidency by a whisker in June 2012, but after peaking at 80% in September last year, by last month his popularity had plunged to 30%, according to polls. Even before the latest mass uprising, described by one commentator as a “popular impeachment”, and the army coup, the Muslim Brothers had been heavily defeated in elections for university student councils and professional syndicates, bodies they had long dominated.
Egypt’s myriad bickering secular parties are not well placed to profit from the Brothers’ demise. If national elections are held in the near future, the biggest gainers might be the Brotherhood’s Islamist rivals, the puritan Salafists. Yet it has become increasingly clear that the appeal of the Islamists stems not so much from their religious standing or their promises to impose sharia law as from their superior ability to harness the resentments of Egypt’s poor. With problems proliferating, from surging unemployment to crippling power and fuel shortages, it was perhaps not surprising that a large section of this vast underclass took to the streets for a second time.