Early Divisions at Root of Sunni-Shia Conflict

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Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq continue to clash violently, and their conflict appears to have no solution. Juan Cole, Professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan, talks with Andrea Seabrook about the differences between the two Islamic sects and why the differences seem so intractable.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The religious differences that contribute to Iraq's sectarian violence have deep historical roots. We asked University of Michigan professor of Middle East history, Juan Cole, when the split took place between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Mr. JUAN COLE (University of Michigan): Well, it's something that occurred over a long period of time in scholars' views, but the key moment was when the prophet Mohammed died. And the question was, who would succeed him?

There was a group that said, well, it should be the elders of the Meccan community, the city where the prophet was born. And there was another group that said, no, it should be somebody - a blood relation of the prophet. Almost a dynastic principle was put forward, especially by the city - people of the city of Medina, which was where Mohammed sought refuge when the Meccans turned against him.

So that dynastic principle was invoked with regard to the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. A son-in-law was about the closest you were going to get to a direct successor since the prophet Mohammed didn't have a son who lived to his majority.

SEABROOK: What does that translate to in terms of modern differences between Sunni and Shia?

Mr. COLE: Well, the first thing to say is that the differences are not great, but they do have to do with early authority figures and how you viewed them. The people who supported Ali became known as the partisans of Ali or the Shiite Ali. They became known as the Shiites, and they rejected the elders of the community that were selected by the noble tribe of Koresh(ph) in Mecca.

The first three caliphs of Sunni Islam, the pope-like figures for the Sunnis, are not viewed in high regard by most Shiites. The Shiites felt that Ali should have been the first of the caliphs. So there is a difference in the value that they give to these early figures, and in popular ritual, Shiites even have been known to curse those first three figures that are so honored by the Sunnis.

So these ceremonies, often held in public where Shiites curse the caliphs, are routine sources of public disturbance where you have mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods all over the Muslim world, in places like Lahore in Pakistan or in Iraq.

SEABROOK: Is this animus the reason why things have taken such a violent turn between the two groups? Have they always been that way?

Mr. COLE: Well, we have to be careful about reading the present into the past, of course. For most of the 20th century, for instance, there was hardly ever any trouble between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. At certain periods of time, the conflicts have been greater than at others. If you go back to the 11th century in Baghdad, you would find Sunni-Shiite riots in some neighborhoods of Baghdad that are eerily similar to what's going on now. But that cooled down after a while and in the 19th and 20th century, these religious ideologies haven't really been the most central issues in people's lives.

SEABROOK: Are there in fact places where Sunnis and Shia live together and share political power peacefully now?

Mr. COLE: Well, of course there are, and Pakistan is an example, where there are some tensions, but on the whole, by and large, Sunnis and Shiite both are part of the body public. In Afghanistan, what we called the Northern Alliance was an alliance of Sunni Tajiks, Sunni Uzbeks and Shiite Hazaras, and so they jointly took over Kabul together in 2001. Also in India, Shiite and Sunni Muslims coexist without regular violence for the most part, although, as I said, in these ritual moments where the Shiites curse the caliphs, that can cause occasional rioting.

But the degree of rancor and hatred and sheer brutal violence that's going on in Iraq right now between Sunnis and Shiites is - I mean, I think you have to go back to the 1500s to find another period in which it was this bad.

SEABROOK: So it sounds like the political aspirations of different powers in the region are exacerbating these theological/cultural differences between people, as is often the case in ethnic conflicts.

Prof. COLE: Yes. I really don't think that people in Iraq are fighting over Shiism and Sunnism very much. I mean, you know, one prays with their hands at their side, another prays with their hands folded in front. I don't think people are killing each other over those kinds of minor differences. I think they're killing each other because these religious ideologies are now being marshaled in a quest for power.

SEABROOK: And then of course there aren't just Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq. There are, in fact, Christians. Baghdad used to have a fairly sizeable population of Jews. How do other religions and other sects of Islam fit into the society in Iraq?

Prof. COLE: Well, there are two frameworks in which non-Muslims have fit into society. Islam was unique, I think, among the great world religions in the medieval period in making an explicit place for non-Muslims in society. So Jews and Christians were considered people of the book and were allowed to practice their religion. They weren't first-class citizens but they weren't chased out of the country altogether either, as happened, say, to Jews in Spain or at some points England and Christian Europe. But then a tradition of secular law began to grow up that recognized all Iraqis as citizens and as having all the rights of citizens.

SEABROOK: Professor Cole, in your view, how does one stop the violence between Sunni and Shia? Do you appeal to them on religious grounds or political grounds?

Prof. COLE: Well, it's always political. And the thing that has to ultimately be done is to have the community leaders make a compact with one another. This was done in Lebanon at the end of their civil war. I'm afraid I think that people only make such compacts once they've exhausted all of the possible benefits they can see to violence, and I don't think we're there yet.

But if Iraq is to survive, at some point Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Sunni cleric Avari(ph), and Kurdish leaders are all going to have to sit together, despite the fact that they fought with one another, and come to an understanding about what the character of the Iraqi nation is going to be.

SEABROOK: Juan Cole is professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Professor Cole, thank you very much.

Prof. COLE: You're very welcome.

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