To understand what’s going on in Iraq and Syria we really have to understand the religious dimension of the strife. Here’s a simple explanation:
First we have to understand that the religious strife is totally linked with tribal loyalties. A good parallel is the strife in Northern Ireland. You had Irish Catholics in the South and Protestants in the North, but the Protestants were descendants from Scottish Protestants who were imported to Ireland, so it’s not only religious it’s ethnic.
Muslims are divided into two denominations: Sunni and Shia. Estimates vary, but the Sunnis make up about 85% of Muslims worldwide and Shia roughly 15%.
Sunnis predominate in Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. Shia are in the majority in Iran and Iraq.
When the prophet Mohammed died in the year 632 a conflict broke out regarding the succession. This is the genesis of the Sunni-Shia split. Wars broke out and there has been a feud ever since. Consequently the Shia and Sunni traditions in interpreting and applying the Koran have developed along different trajectories meaning there is now bitter disagreement about leadership roles, governance, application of the Koran’s rules and religious practices.
The Sunni are intent on the introduction of Sharia law–a legal code for a whole nation (indeed the whole world) based on the Koran. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has the goal of implementing a one world government based on Sharia law.
The Sunni were in control in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime and Saddam persecuted the Shia-torturing and murdering their leading families and clerics. The Shia majority in Iraq is slim–perhaps 65% of the population are Shia. The Sunni contest the claim that Shia are a majority saying the numbers are inflated by pro-Shia Americans and that Shias are coming across the border from Iran as part of an Iranian plan to take over Iraq.
At the fall of Saddam the Shia came to power and the present US-backed government is Shia. Since the start of the Iraq invasion in 2003 the worst Sunni-Shia violence has erupted. Sunnis use car bombs and suicide bombers to slaughter Shias. Shias use death squads–killing innocent Sunnis in revenge.
The Sunni-Shia strife extends to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan the Sunni are in a majority and Al Qaeda have launched murder squads against Shias. In Afghanistan the Taliban (who are Sunni) carry out an ongoing murder campaign against the Shia Muslim minority.
In Syria–which borders Iraq–the Sunni are also in the majority but a Shia sect called Alawites (who are only 15% of the population) dominate President Assad’s regime. Sunni Muslims have been engaged for a long time in an ongoing battle against the Alawites for control of Syria.
This map gleaned from this article shows Sunni-Shia geographical influence.
So where does this bring us today? A US backed Shia government controls Iraq and Syria is controlled by Assad’s Shia regime. Iran is a Shia state. In Middle East politics Iran seems stable and strong. Across the region, and across the Islamic world, however, the Sunnis are in the majority.
The murderous ISIS army, the Taliban and Al Qaeda as well as the rebel forces in Syria are all Sunni. They are trying to wrest control from the Assad’s Shia government, the Shia government of Iraq and ultimately set themselves against the Shia state in Iran.
To understand how much the Sunni despise the Shia, many Sunni teachers regard Shia as heretics and traitors to Islam and therefor worse than Christians and Jews.
What is the situation for Christians in Iraq? Iraq is home to one of the most ancient Christian populations in the world. Christians made up about 5% of the population before the Iraq war of 2003. Their numbers are now vastly reduced through persecution and emigration. Christianity was brought to Iraq by the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus. The Aramaic Church in Iraq claims to have been founded by them. The other Eastern rite churches in Iraq are Chaldean, Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, Melkite and the Syriac Churches. There are also Latin Rite Catholics, Byzantine and Protestant. All of them are targeted by the Sunni militants, being forced to either convert or pay a harsh tax or at worst–suffer torture and martyrdom for the faith.
Various governments have used the Sunni-Shia feud to manipulate Middle Eastern politics. In 2005 some analysts detected a shift in US policy away from supporting the Shia to supporting the Sunni. This was seen as a way to counter the threat of Iranian-Shia dominance in the region. While the US says we are supporting “moderate” Sunni groups there doesn’t seem to be much sign of moderation in their murderous tactics. Instead we are seeing Sunni extremist groups running wild, and this week’s rout by ISIS in Iraq, in which they pulled a bank heist and grabbed over $400m dollars as well as American supplied weapons, armored vehicles and equipment shows what happens when we back wild, ungovernable rebel groups. They are very happy to take our weapons and use them against us and our allies.
What to watch out for? It looks like the Obama government is taking a passive isolationist position–allowing the Sunni rebels to run riot. This would be consistent with the present US policy to back the Sunni.
That the Sunni terrorists will continue to behead their enemies, burn villages, oppress women and murder wantonly?
That Christians will be driven from their ancient homeland, see their homes burnt, are captured, tortured, imprisoned and killed?
That’s called “collateral damage”.