Last week, we read about the Sunni-Shia split and the significance of important shrines in Shiism. This NYT article discusses the shrine of Zeinab in Damascus and its role in the ongoing Syrian conflict:
“Inside the revered shrine here, under ceilings sparkling with mirrored tiles, men and women still pray, pressing their faces to the tomb they believe holds the remains of Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. But the streets outside, once impassable with pilgrims and shoppers, are now sparsely trafficked. Gone are the chattering picnickers who packed the shrine’s blue-tiled courtyard, now crisscrossed by armed men in unmarked fatigues …
As Syria convulsed in conflict, the thought that the shrine could be destroyed alarmed the faithful. Zeinab, who lost her brothers and sons in battle and came to Damascus as a prisoner, has long been honored, particularly by Shiites, as a symbol of sacrifice and steadfastness.
Religious fervor helped galvanize tens of thousands of Shiite fighters to flock from Iraq, Lebanon and across Syria, in theory to defend the shrine, in practice to fight alongside Syrian forces on many fronts. And it drove some Sunni extremists in the insurgency, who regard Shiites as infidels, to declare the shrine a target.”
Back in 2006, Jeff Stein wrote an op-ed piece for the NYT in which he told of the puzzlement of American counterterrorism officials over one of the most basic divisions within the Islamic world. I see no better case for the importance of understanding the Islamic world in today’s world. Stein says this:
FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”
A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?
After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.
This is the new blog for the “Islam and the Modern Middle East” course. Look here for more information,