On the morning of June 25 and in the days that followed, Iraqi newspapers were overloaded with articles condemning the brutal killing of four Egyptians Shiites in a village near the Giza governorate.
Naturally, prominent Iraqi political and religious figures issued statements condemning the killings and many comments were posted on the pages of social media sites, where the incident was displayed with links referring to fatwas recently issued by clerics accusing Shiites of apostasy.
The Iraqi public, which has been preoccupied with the heated internal crisis that has been ongoing for years now, had not paid proper attention to the changes that had occurred in Egypt since the Jan. 25 revolution until today. Yet, despite this, the incident involving Shiite Sheikh Hassan Shehata — who was burned alive by residents of his village in Egypt — seemed more horrifying than the series of daily explosions occurring in Iraq and claiming hundreds of lives.
The level of sectarian fears prevailing in the Middle East in general — which has been further exacerbated by the Syrian crisis turning into an existential battle between forces who believe they represent the Sunni and Shiite sects — justifies the events that shook up the region’s entities, which are not really as strong as portrayed in their national anthems.
Yet, the killing of four Shiites in Egypt not only stirred the ire of Shiites of Iraq, but also triggered horror among its Sunnis and spread panic among Shiites in Syria, Egypt and the Gulf, following the Hawija incident in Iraq. It is worth mentioning that religious and sectarian minorities in the Middle East feel they are paying the price for the conduct of their sects in the countries in which they constitute a majority.
Indeed, the Middle East has been shaken up since the outbreak of sectarian war in Iraq in 2006, and it’s likely that it was previously disturbed by the historic change of the political regime in 2003.
Moreover, Iraqi Shiites have started claiming “the religious majority’s right to rule.” This central turning point in the history of the region allowed for the emergence of a political discourse similar to that of Bahrain's Shiites and Syria’s Sunnis, claiming they are entitled to take power.
The sectarian crisis spreading in the region today reflects the loose national borders of the region’s countries, which were drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.
Moreover, while the whole region is faced with the challenge of defining the concepts of “homeland” and “religious sect,” this does not mean that the Middle East is on the verge of the formation of new states and the fragmentation of others, despite the prevalent political and popular trends.
Over the course of the past century, different schools have defined the concept of “homeland”; some retained a nationalist approach when discussing whether there is a homeland for Arabs extending from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Persian Gulf. Others have retained a geographical, social and economic approach, looking to the example of the Gulf states system.
Yet all these ideas never went beyond the geographical borders drawn by Sykes-Picot, even during attempts to form a unified Arab state between Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and between Syria, Egypt and Yemen in the 1960s.
Furthermore, the regimes governing the region continued pushing for retaining the concept of sanctity of the borders, as another interpretation for the concept of the sanctity of sovereignty continued. These regimes consistently tried to oppress religious discourse, which did not really respect this sanctity.
Religious discourse first emerged with the Iranian revolution in 1979. This was soon coupled with calls for taking the revolution beyond the Iranian border, by “exporting revolution,” which Saddam Hussein's regime deemed sufficient justification for waging war on Iran in 1980.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei confirmed that the outbreak of the Jan. 25 revolution in Egypt was an extension of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and called on Egyptians to bring an Islamic regime to power. Despite the Egyptian and Arab circles’ heavy condemnation of said calls, the actual situation — two years following Khamenei’s statement — reveals two main developments:
First: The Arab Spring revolutions represented a breaking away from the repression suffered by religious movements in the Middle East for decades.
Second: This breakthrough quickly led these religious movements to begin upholding a cross-border discourse.
Iraqi Shiites’ increased focus on the incident of Hassan Shehata at the media, popular, political and religious levels was preceded by an escalated tone toward events in Bahrain and attacks against Shiite shrines in Syria.
On the other hand, Sunni Arab political discourse had agreed with the position of the Iraqi Sunnis on the occupation of Iraq, and escalations and tensions were stirred against what Arabs considered attempts to create a “Shiite Crescent” in the region stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Arab political discourse also attacked what it considered Iranian support for the Bahrain events and Yemen's Houthi movement. This tension was reflected in Cairo, which repeatedly stressed its concern over the “extension of Shiism to Egypt.” In this respect, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Tayeb, known to be a moderate cleric, asserted in a speech delivered on Sept. 30, 2011 that “Al-Azhar will not stand idly by against attempts to spread Shiism in Egypt.”
These circumstances will not only allow for the recurrence of the incident of Hassan Shehata in Egypt or other Arab countries against Shiites, but they also pave the way for incidents similar to that of Hawija in Iraq and other countries against Sunnis. An accusation of “sectarianism” is one of the many kinds of deeply-rooted historical discrimination present in our region. State policies and fatwas issued by clerics, which are still frantically trying to “demonize” one another, feed this discrimination.
Surely such “demonization” justifies the Shiites’ disregard of the positions taken by the vast majority of Sunnis condemning the Shehata incident or denouncing acts committed by Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in Iraq. It also justifies the Sunnis’ disregard of the condemnation by a vast Shiite popular base of the Hawija incident practices and the participation of Hezbollah in the fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
On a different note, a broad, tolerant popular base insisting on maintaining the sanctity of borders, composed of Shiites and Sunnis in the region, seems to be completely excluded from the scene, since extremists — although a minority — have greater influence and dominate the region, and are about to transgress its borders.
Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. He has been managing editor of Al-Hayat’s Iraq bureau since 2005, and written studies and articles on Iraqi crises for domestic and international publication.
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