September 16, 2014
Host: The Stimson Center
Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya
Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Hayat
Like any major world religion, Islam has a long history of theological divisions and arguments, which have in turn given rise to a wide variety of beliefs and outlooks regarding a single, unified definition of what “Islam” is. However, according to Mr. Melhem, the Sunni-Shi’a divide that is currently being exacerbated in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East, is not one of those ancient divisions. Instead, he believes that is a purely modern phenomenon, something that has only developed and grown steadily worse over the past few decades. The past failures of Arab nationalist leaders has given rise to ideologically based states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have in turn given rise to religiously oriented militant groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Hezbollah. Although these groups and their supporters typically act out in the name of religion, it is important to realize that their actions are usually oriented towards very practical social, economic, and political goals. Despite their religious overtones, the divide between Sunni and Shi;a communities has never centered on theological doctrine but rather on very earthly and immediate gripes.
In recent years, the world has seen in Syria how demands for political and social rights quickly evolved into a sectarian conflict, due in large part because of the involvement of ideologically aligned third parties such as Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, IS, and others. As the crisis has worsened, experts have been able to see how the outpouring of refugees have destabilized neighboring countries, hurt their economies, and given rise to sectarian clashes in what were previously peaceful locales.
Prior to the civil war in Syria, Lebanon – a country that is roughly 27% Shi;a, 27% Sunni – was relatively peaceful. However, since the war began and refugees began flocking to Lebanese cities, Ms. Karam and others have noted an uptick in Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. She does not however see these clashes as being religiously motivated. In Tripoli, the most restless and dangerous areas are also the poorest – in the most restive area, Bob al-Tabbaneh, 87% of the inhabitants are living in poverty. This reality, when coupled with the polarizing and more vocal rhetoric coming from Hezbollah – a Shi’ite group – and various Salafist groups, explains why levels of violence are rising. As those who are powerless and in poverty see these groups act unilaterally, and in pursuit of their own personal agendas, in Syria, they respond through the most basic means available to them, violence. In such cases, it is not so much religion that is driving conflict; it is the peoples’ political and economic frustrations that are driving them to action.
Although it is easier to point to religious differences as the sole cause of conflict, it is doing a disservice to the region to look at it so one dimensionally. Further, for years, prior to the war in Syria and prior to the rise of Hezbollah, IS, and other extremist groups, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Kurds, and many other different religions and cultures throughout the Middle East were able to coexist peacefully and prosperously. To suggest that there are long-standing and historical divides that keep the people apart detracts from the real issues at hand, such as poverty, corruption, lack of political representation, etc. In order to achieve positive change, citizens and leaders, both in the Middle East and around the world, need to address their problems directly. Already, in the past, the region’s tolerance and potential have been demonstrated. The people now need to remember that, acknowledged their current challenges, and move towards a unified and prosperous future.