Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.
Among scholars of the Middle East, the term “sushi” is used as shorthand for the expression, “Sunni-Shi’a.” Anyone interested in the history of Islam knows that the seeds of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict were planted the moment Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, closed his eyes forever, in the year 632 CE, without leaving a mechanism for choosing a successor to lead the nation. The conflict that developed as a result, has become an open, bloody battle over the years, and it has been a thread in the fabric of Islamic history throughout all of its 1400 years. This conflict is being expressed on many levels: personal, familial, political and religious. The battle between the two factions of Islam is “for the whole pot,” and it continues to this very day.
In modern times, attempts have been made to bridge over the conflict and to find common ground between the factions of Islam, in order to create a sense of calm between the factions, on the basis of which it will be possible to manage states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where the two factions live side by side, Shi’ites and Sunnis.
Even the Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is the Mufti (religious arbiter) of the Emirate of Qatar, has spoken and written about the need to find a way to “bring the schools of thought closer together,” as if Shi’a is another legitimate school of thought, in addition to the four Sunni schools: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. In the good, old days, they used to call the Shi’a faction the “Jafari school,” after one of the fathers of Shi’a.
The rapprochement year between the Sunni and Shi’a was 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah managed to create the impression that it had won a “divine victory” over Israel. After all, Hasan Nasrallah had survived despite 33 days of heavy Israeli attacks, some of which were aimed at him personally. Hezbollah was compared favorably with the armies of the Arab countries, which had failed in all of their attempts to destroy the state of Israel, and were defeated by Israel’s army in only six days in 1967.
As a result of the Second Lebanon War, Hasan Nasrallah declared in every public arena—especially on his al-Manar (“the beacon”) television channel—that the victory belongs to the whole Arab and Islamic nation, creating for himself the image of being the only leader in the Middle East doing the right thing, ignoring the objections of the infidel West and its paltry servants, meaning most of the rulers of the Arab states. Bashar Assad declared that Hezbollah’s way is the only way to fight and the only method that can defeat the Zionist enemy.
During the war, in the summer of 2006, great crowds across the the Middle East erupted in emotional demonstrations where pictures of Hasan Nasrallah were held high, and those who wanted to make a point also carried pictures of Bashar Assad, the great supporter of Hezbollah. It was convenient for everyone—including religious figures such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi—to ignore the fact that Hezbollah was a Shi’ite group, backed by Iran, because if the Sunni Hamas movement ended up in the same boat as Hezbollah, what evil could possibly have sprung from the Lebanese “al-Muqawama wal-mumana’a” (“Resistance and Defense”) movement, which supports all of the “liberation movements” regardless of religious sect?
The al-Jazeera channel, which serves as a mouthpiece for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement, embraced Hezbollah and dedicated many hours of positive programming to it, and in many Islamic societies—including Israel’s—more than a few people crossed over from the Sunni side of Islam to the Shi’a. Only a small group of Saudi religious authorities were not overcome by the waves of sympathy for Hezbollah. They always had a jaundiced view of the Shi’ite dominance of Lebanon, as well as its influence on the collective Arab discourse.
But enthusiasm for Hezbollah has not survived the storm buffeting the Middle East ever since December 2010, known romantically in the media as “the Arab Spring,” as if presently in the Middle East the birds are chirping, the trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the butterflies are fluttering, people are smiling and there is an air of rising optimism.
The vicious war raging in Syria since March 2011 has cost so far at least one hundred thousand fatalities and many thousands of wounded, turned millions of Syrians into refugees, and Hezbollah is totally engaged in fighting this dirty war in support of the Assad regime. Information about the involvement of Hezbollah in the fighting has been leaking out for more than a year. At first, they buried their fallen in temporary graveyards in the Lebanon Valley, near the border with Syria, to avoid holding funerals in residential areas and disclosing Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Because of the need for secrecy, the families of the fallen were forbidden to observe rites of mourning and memorial services after the fighters died.
With time, the picture has changed, and Hezbollah can no longer hide its Syrian role. In an effort to shore up his popularity, Nasrallah tried to say that the Hezbollah forces were in Syria only to defend a number of “Lebanese” villages, but some of those who heard this story understood that Hezbollah was actually defending Shi’ite villages from attacks by the Sunni rebels.
This story crumbled when faced with media reports describing Hezbollah as an integral part of the Assad regime fighting effort. For the past year, public criticism of Hezbollah has increased in the Arab world because of its involvement in the murder of Syrians, and matters came to a head about a month ago, with the attack on the town of al-Qusayr, which is located on the border of Syria and Lebanon, and serves as a bridge for the transfer of supplies, weapons, ammunition and fighters from the Sunni area of Tripoli in Lebanon to the rebels in Syria. The rebels took control of al-Qusayr about a year ago, which enabled them to drive a wedge between the area of Damascus, the capital, and the Alawite area in the northwest of the country. From the photographs and the reports of the battle for Qusayr during the past month, it seems that it was Hezbollah and not the Syrian army that was fighting for the town.
This bloody battle was the straw that broke the Sunni camel’s back. Since al-Qusayr has fallen into Hezbollah’s hands, all the dams of criticism have burst, and the religious authorities of Sunni Islam are attacking Hezbollah with their sharpest arrows of Islamic rhetoric, tipped with deadly venom. The expression they use for the name of the organization is “Hizb al-Shitan”—”the party of Satan”—hinting at the passage from the Qur’an: “The party of Satan are the losers” (Sura 58, Verse 19), which is the opposite of the name “Hizb Allah”—”the party of Allah”—which is also based on the Qur’an (Sura 5, Verse 56).
In homilies given in the mosques and in the media, Yusuf al-Qaradawi calls on all Muslims, male and female, to wage jihad against Hezbollah in Syria, and openly accuses Hezbollah and the Iranians of desiring to devour all of the Muslim countries. He accuses them of being infidels and of hiding their true identity.
Qaradawi does not restrain his tongue. He speaks with contempt about the change in the Syrian constitution that allowed Bashar Assad to succeed his father in 2000 when he was 34 years old, despite the fact that, until then, the president was required to be at least 40 years old. He even mentions the original name of the Assad family—”al-wahsh”—which means “wild beast.” Qaradawi calls on all the Islamic sages of the world to gather in Cairo on Thursday, to discuss how to deal with the Shi’ites in general and Iran and Hezbollah in particular, and to issue decisions on the matter. He views the ascent of Sunni Islam to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen as a blessing, in addition to Gaza, which he visited recently.
Qaradawi clearly admits that he erred in 2006 about Hezbollah, and was fooled by its religious appearance. Qaradawi praises the religious sages of Saudi Arabia who even then, in the days of the Second Lebanon War, were right about Hezbollah and did not fall into the trap that Nasrallah had set for the Arab and Islamic world. He asked forgiveness from those sages for supporting Hezbollah against their judgment.
But Qaradawi is not alone. When 1200 Kuwaiti jihadists were about to leave Kuwait and go to Syria to join the jihad against Hezbollah, the Kuwaiti Sheikh Shafi al-‘Ajami encouraged them to slaughter their enemy and asked the jihadists to save ten Hezbollah fighters for him to have the pleasure of beheading personally.
Even Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, head of the northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel, openly speaks against Hezbollah, which acts against “our brothers” in Syria. It is important for us to remember that “our brothers” to Sheikh Ra’ad Salah might mean the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, but it could also mean the Palestinian refugees in Syria, several hundred of whom were killed and injured in battles between Assad and his opposition, and many thousands of whom fled to Jordan and Lebanon.
IN IRAQ AS WELL
The increasing tension between the Sunni and Shi’a takes its toll in Iraq as well. In the month of May this year, more than a thousand men, women and children were killed in Sunni attacks against Shi’ites, and in revenge attacks of Shi’ites against Sunnis. The increasing tension between the factions in Iraq has generated mutual declarations, each side against the other: “You had better get out of Iraq before it is too late,” meaning before our knives separate your heads from your shoulders. Iran arms and equips the Iraqi army as well as the Shi’ite militias such as the Mahdi Army, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates support the Sunni minority with weapons, ammunition and funds. The “sushi” tension in the Land of the Two Rivers is increasing and a conflagration resulting in an all-out civil war is apparently just a matter of time.
Many Lebanese object to the activity of Hezbollah in Syria because they fear that the civil war will overflow from Syria into Lebanon, and they will be its victims. This week the Sunnis held a demonstration in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut where the demonstrators called on Iran to bring Hezbollah out of Syria. Armed Hezbollah activists attacked the demonstrators with clubs and sticks and beat one of them to death. The fighting continues in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabana and Jabal Mohsen, whose residents are Alawite, and this week too, people were injured there. About two weeks ago Grad rockets fell in a southern neighborhood of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, and all signs point to a “sushi” heating up in the Land of the Cedars too.
There are reports that Hezbollah has demanded the Hamas movement to take its people out of Lebanon because Hamas no longer supports Hezbollah.
The Sunni-Shi’a tension might result in a conflagration in many countries: Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and perhaps even Turkey, which also has a significant Shi’ite minority.
In Israel, we must take into account that in the Middle East the rule “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not always work. Just because the Sunnis and the Shi’ites relate to each other with hostility and hatred, that doesn’t result in love for Israel. In the best case, it may lead to a short-term coalition between Israel and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, but we cannot rely on such a coalition, because we are still the “Zionist entity” which, according to Islam – Sunni and Shi’a alike – has no right to exist.
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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