The bombing of one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites in Iraq has reverberated across the Muslim world. But so transparent is the attempt to drive a wedge between Islam’s two main sects, that it may, outside Iraq, have the opposite effect to the one the bombers had intended.
“We are expecting a very big demonstration in Bahrain today, and it will be shared between Sunni and Shia, which is a very good thing,” said Sheikh Ali Salman, the young leader of Bahrain’s Shia el Wefaq party.
In Iran on Thursday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, cautioned against retaliatory attacks by Shia. “There are definitely some plots to force Shia to attack the mosques and other properties respected by the Sunnis,” he said. “Any measure to contribute to that direction is helping the enemies of Islam and is forbidden by sharia [law].”
The conciliatory note struck by some Shia leaders in the wake of the Askariya mosque attack reflects the acute sensitivity throughout the region to the danger that sectarian sensibilities in several countries might be inflamed by any escalation towards civil war in Iraq.
To the dismay of many Sunni Arab leaders, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent empowerment of the majority Shia through elections altered the regional balance of power.
In the words of King Abdullah of Jordan, who has expressed alarm at the growing influence of Tehran, this created a Shia “crescent” extending from Iran and Iraq into Lebanon.
One result has been that Shia populations in the Sunni-dominated Gulf have become more assertive in demanding their rights, both where they are in the majority but ruled by the Sunni, as in Bahrain, and in Saudi Arabia where they form less than 10 percent of the population.
At home, the Saudi authorities have reacted delicately, inviting the Shia into a national dialogue and allowing greater debate about their position in society.
Saudi Arabia has also been heavily involved in recent months in efforts to diffuse sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where tens of thousands of Shia gathered in Beirut on Thursday to protest the Samarra bombing.
As the conflict in Iraq has assumed increasingly sectarian dimensions, so tensions have risen beyond its borders. “Unfortunately, the last year has not been a good year for the Sunni and Shia together [in Bahrain]. There have been no clashes, but in general what happens in Iraq is looked at very differently in the Shia mosque and in the Sunni mosque,” Sheikh Salman said.
Bahrain has parliamentary elections later this year, where the position of the majority Shia will be the prominent issue. The political crisis in Lebanon, which experienced its own bitter sectarian civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, shows no sign of abating.
Shia-dominated Iran is also flexing its muscles. While Tehran has little interest in seeing its Shia allies in Baghdad lose control of government in an escalating conflict, its growing influence in the region continues to unnerve Sunni leaders, in particular in Saudi Arabia.
“The sectarian situation in Iraq has a direct impact on its neighbours. It’s a dangerous region,” says Dia Rashwaan, an expert in Islamism at the Al Ahram centre for political and strategic studies.
The Samarra bombing, at the least, reveals the determination of extremists in Iraq to take advantage.