America is currently engaged in the military occupation of Iraq after overturning an oppressive regime led by notorious dictator Saddam Hussein, a devout Sunni Muslim. However, the political void once filled by a murderous tyrant has been replaced by the eruption of civil war in the historical epicenter of Islamic culture. Two groups have been involved in a near constant struggle for control over the area, as well as significant influence over the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide (Adherents.com, 2000).
The modern era, the “communication age”, provides a particular vehicle through which control and power can be attained, and perhaps the current era could be better identified as the age of politics and military.
Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have come to employ both of these aspects of influence in a competition for power that has raged for centuries and has allowed radical leaders of both parties to distort the fundamental religious issue, exploiting it for political gain. As long as both groups continue to distort the religious foundations of the original Sunni-Shiite separation there can be no religious understanding, only further political and militant reaction.
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in the seventh century his followers, known collectively as Muslims, separated into two groups in direct opposition of one another. The majority were called Sunni and called for the highest members of the Muslim community to elect an individual fit to succeed Muhammad and lead his followers. The minority called for the successor to be of Muhammad’s family, and thus chose Ali, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah.
They came to be called the Shia, or “partisans of Ali” (Abdulwaheed Amin, 1989). Therefore, it can be argued that the origin of the Sunni-Shia split is political in nature. However, the scope and worldwide implications involved in national politics today indicates that leaders are motivated by more than religious intents. One such factor that has altered the general atmosphere of politics in the region is the, historically speaking, relatively new discovery of a vast underground oil supply throughout the countries of Iran and Iraq, which provides considerable motivation to control the politics, population and resources of the area. This fact has not been unrecognized by countries with imperialist tendencies such as the United States, England and the Soviet Union. This added a new level of tension to an already turbulent atmosphere.
In the early twentieth century Iraq was under Sunni control, while Persia was ruled by the monarchy and Shiite clergy. However, in 1925 a military officer named Reza Pahlavi gained control through a coup and began creating a secular government outside the sphere of influence of the Shiite clergy. Pahlavi was now the Shah, and “Persia” was now called “Iran”. This period has been acknowledged as the beginning of the contemporary atmosphere of war and exploitative politics that has ravaged the Middle East and its inhabitants for nearly another full century.
It was in the 1930’s that Shah Pahlavi began gaining international notoriety, primarily in the U.S. and Britain, when he began a weak, yet visible relationship with Nazi Germany, causing the international superpowers to declared control over Iran, eventually ousting him and replacing Pahlavi with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The second Shah Pahlavi, however, was ousted in favor of nationalist Mohammad Mosadegh. Shah Pahlavi was then returned to control by the American CIA in cooperation with England. Shah Pahlavi soon tightened his grip over the population, creating a highly feared secret police similar to that of Nazi fascist Adolf Hitler’s notoriously merciless S.S. hitmen. The severe tactics employed by the Shah forced many political dissidents to seek asylum in the only place where the Shah’s secret police could not intervene: mosques.
The mosque provided a safe haven for many dissidents, including Rouholla Mousavi Khomeini, who was politically exiled in 1963 to Sunni-controlled Southern Iraq. Khomeini believed in a return to a religious clergy-run state, fostering a mixture of anti-imperialist, communist and Shiite fundamentalist inclinations.
Khomeini returned in 1969 after the Shah’s hurried exit amidst social upheaval under his rule, with the title of Ayatollah, a high honor bestowed upon high ranking Shiite clerics, meaning literally “sign of God” (Iran Chamber Society). Khoumeini was not satisfied with implementing his idea of non-secular government in Iran and soon focused his attention on Sunni-controlled Iraq. The major reaction among Sunni’s was rejection of Ayatollah Khoumeini’s ideology, and staged fierce resistance to it, most notoriously by Saddam Hussein, who, in 1980 ordered the invasion of Iran in an effort to seize the nation’s oil fields.
Realistically, the goal of religious tolerance will likely never be fully realized in the Middle East as the foundations of bi-partisan divisiveness between Sunni and Shiite are extraordinarily deep, with both sides wielding virtually equal fervor. The particularly inter-woven nature of politics, military and religion in the Middle East, in the contemporary world, is an increasingly volatile mixture the results of which have already been witnessed.
Essentially, the religious base of the entire Sunni-Shiite separation was also political in nature, and as politics evolved and valuable resources were discovered, the implications of controlling the area also grew exponentially. Therefore, radical leaders have recognized, and seized the opportunity to command large numbers of Muslims by distorting the religious issue, making broad generalizations and demonizing the enemy.
The intervention of foreign superpowers whom are not culturally knowledgeable enough to fully understand the gravity of the situation has served to intensify the causes of both sides, rallying more Muslims to the Shiite or Sunni cause under the banner of anti-imperialism.
As long as foreign powers continue to intercede in a multi-generational war that has raged since the seventh century, and as long as radical fringes of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims continue to distort the fundamental religious issue in order to exploit more Muslims to fight for their cause there can be no real religious tolerance or compromise short of a strict separation of mosque and state.