Community forum: Examining divide within Islam
How many readers remember the old saw that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”? And isn’t that the truth! Well, a senior United States government official has recently reported that Iran is the greatest supporter of terrorism in the world.
As difficult as it is for any American to stomach, that can be viewed in a number of different ways. Ask yourself, “How would I label an American Christian missionary caught in a fight for his life in a country wildly hostile to his Christian beliefs. If he took up the sword and smote someone, would he be a terrorist?”
Now take a look at Iran, the leading Shiite nation in a world of Sunnis who clearly would like to eliminate all Shias. In fact, the Pew Center, in a comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries, finds that there are 1.57 billion Muslims living in the world today. Of that number, 10-13 percent or 157-204 million are Shia and 87-90 percent, or 1.37-1.41 billion are Sunni. There are nine Sunnis for every Shia on the face of the earth and these are people who are happy to kill each other. Not very good odds if you are a Shia.
The Shia are like a gigantic tribe in Islam, but one wildly outnumbered by their main competitor, the Sunnis. Add to that the fact that the Shia are spread out all over Islam, existing in countries that are majority Sunni, and the picture becomes more clear. In the Middle East, the only Shia majority countries are Iran, 90-95 percent; Iraq, 65-67 percent; Azerbaijan, 65-75 percent; and Bahrain, 65-70 percent.
In Syria, the ruling Shia represent only 17 percent of the total Syrian Muslim population, in Lebanon they are 30-35 percent; Yemen, 35-40 percent; India, 25-30 percent; Kuwait, 30-35 percent; Saudi Arabia, 10-20 percent; Turkey, 10-15 percent; Pakistan, 10-20 percent; Afghanistan, 10-15 percent; Qatar, 10 percent; Oman, 5-10 percent; and the UAE, 10 percent.
As the country with the largest Shia population, Iran can be viewed as self-appointed protector of the world’s Shia. When the Shia come under Sunni attack as they have in Syria, the Iranians commit whatever is necessary to their defense. There is nothing covert about this support. In fact, Iran has set up an entire governmental structure designed to support any and all Shia groups in the Middle East.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) plays a preeminent role in the defense of Shia Islam. The IGRC is designed to protect the country’s Shia Islamic system by preventing foreign interference as well as hostile coups. The IGRC is comprised of about 125,000 military personnel which includes ground, naval and air capabilities and in addition controls roughly 100,000 troops in the Basij paramilitary militia and an additional 2,000-5,000 members of the Quds force, the successor organization to the Shah’s Imperial Guard.
Over the past decades, Iranian military and paramilitary assets have been involved, either directly or indirectly, in just about every Middle East conflict that involved Shias. The Iraq war, the Lebanese civil war and unrest, the Syrian war, Hizbullah operations against Israel, and support for the Shia Houthi rebels in the Yemen conflict are all concrete examples of Iran assisting fellow Shia Arabs in their conflict with Sunni Arabs.
It probably seems convenient for American administrations to refer to these operations as “terrorism” or “terrorist operations.” The term “terrorist” carries with it a connotation that simply would not obtain if American officials were referring to these operations as military or as sectarian, either of which would be far more accurate. But of course, this will not happen because it does not meet the needs of any of our recent administrations, Republican or Democrat. No, on an emotional level and to keep the American populace on the “right track,” we need to label our enemies as “terrorists.”
If you are one of those Americans who wants to try to understand what is really happening around the world, you might consider the strong possibility that the Shia Iranians see themselves locked into a death struggle with Islam’s Sunnis and that in order to preserve their beliefs, they have to confront the Sunnis any time they or any of their Shia brethren feel threatened. Further, add in the fact that the Iranians, probably rightly, see American involvement in their region as anti-Shia and pro-Sunni and you will probably begin to see the depth of distrust that has existed between Iran and America since we engineered the 1953 coup.
The Sunni-Shia schism has existed since the seventh century. It doesn’t have much to do with terrorism, but far more with regional power politics. Since it is not going away, it’s important that Americans understand the nuances of this divisive situation.
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