In February the outspoken Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, warned Moscow against “siding with Shiites”, suggesting that Russia’s 20 million predominantly Sunni Muslims could cause an internal strife. The wording of this warning implied that Russia is in fact engaged in a religious war between Shia and Sunni Muslims, after it intervened on behalf of the Syrian government headed by Alawite president Bashar al-Assad.
Syria has been caught in an insurgency of mostly Sunni Islamist and Salafi militias, with large swaths of territory taken over by terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra. Portraying the armed conflicts in the Middle East in sectarian terms brings about a dangerous precedent. It creates narratives and sets out discourses in wider audiences that sometimes out of laziness to research, but most of times out of deep-rooted indoctrination lead to a false understanding of political and social realities.
Indeed, as a self-fulfilling prophecy the end result might be an all-out sectarian war accompanied by terrorist acts. Al-Jubeir words also reflect an already existing conspiracy theory popular in jihadist circles. A myth of ‘evil Shia-Christian alliance’ whose aim is to subjugate the Sunnis in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon may have the beginnings in the Iraq War.
Nevertheless, the importance of cooperation between Christian and Shias stems from common minority status and the need to maintain ethnic and religious plurality in face of growing radicalism. This is not to say that Sunnis are “natural enemies” of Shias and Christians, because if we learned something from the modern history of the Middle East, it is that sectarian affiliation did not play a role in alliance formation.
The Saudis definitely did mind the support for the Shia Zaidi monarchy in Yemen, if it meant the defeat of the Nasserists. Nor was a Sunni-Shia schism an obstacle when Assad assisted Sunni militants in Iraq to undermine foreign occupation or when Libya’s Qaddafi threw support behind Shia Iran, rather than his Sunni Arab fellow Saddam Hussein. Why then, do actors of different sects or religions team up together? The answer lies in what could happen if they don’t.
During the sectarian violence that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi-Christians were caught in the crossfire. Having been accused by Sunni militants of siding with ‘crusaders from the West’ and having their churches blown up, more than half of the pre-war Iraqi-Christian population was forced into exile.
In Syria, the secular Baath regime’s history of opposing Islamist movements and embracing minorities, such as the Christians and Alawites, has quickly became a target of accusations of Sunni marginalization. This notion has become so mainstreamed into the Syrian opposition that it often attracts foreign militants with sectarian agendas and dreams to impose Sharia law. Once again, many scared Syrian Christians began to prefer the status quo with Assad in power.
After years of brutal war and what the Western media described as a “spillover”, a threat of militant Salafism quickly began appearing in Lebanon too. Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah, has increasingly tried to reach out to the country’s Christians in show of coexistence. After the civil war, Muslim-Christian alliances started to form out of political necessity, even though this was rather a rare occurrence beforehand.
A political division in Lebanon is no longer characterized by the Christian dominance over Muslims, but rather the Saudi-Iran rivalry. It must be noted though, that despite cultural efforts of Hezbollah, and even broadcasts reserved for Christian celebrations on Al-Manar (TV station run by Hezbollah), Christians’ political orientation is far from one-sided. The Christians in Lebanon remain divided between the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance and the pro-Iran March 8 camp led by General Michel Aoun.
A similar trend of Shia-Christian rapprochement has been greatly demonstrated in Iraq after the Islamic State (ISIS) managed to capture several provinces. Semi-autonomous and mostly Shia militias have been placed under the common umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi. Al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Units, have provided training to the remaining Christians who formed their own militia ‘Syriac Sons’ Brigades’. Interestingly, both Shias and some Christians have been disillusioned by the Peshmerga ‘betrayal’ and believe that the Kurds intentionally allowed ISIS to capture Christian areas to which, after liberation, could claim exclusive rights.
Regardless of credibility of this theory, one can speculate whether the Shias and Christians would have ever tried to build such a partnership if it weren’t for the deranged sectarian ideology of ISIS. The Iraqi-Christian refugees welcomed by their Shia countrymen and posters depicting Jesus Christ along with Shia Imam Hussein, as two important martyrs and role models for Christian and Shia faiths respectively, have become a common sight.
Similarly, in annual pilgrimages to the holy city of Karbala, where millions Shia Muslims from across the world gather to commemorate of death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, special attention is given to Christian delegations. They are often standing with big crosses in the middle of the marching crowd. Such a scene would be unimaginable somewhere in Mecca, where Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam forbids entry to non-Muslims.
For various reasons this kind of inter-faith solidarity with local Christians is indeed not so visible in case of the Sunnis, though it is clear that the overwhelming majority disagrees with ISIS ideologies and their brutal tactics against minorities. Still, Sunni militancy and terrorism strengthen efforts of the region’s minorities to work more closely together. It is in the interests of the Shias to keep the Christians as allies, while developing their own image as tolerant and peaceful Muslims.
No wonder it may seem like Russia currently prefers a Shia rule, as it presented itself as a protector of Christian minorities in the Tsarist era. Balancing against a threat appears to be an expected tactic for those who feel most threatened. However, if the region is to be a place of coexistence between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and other minorities, any attempts to impose sectarian domination in the form of support, but also silent tolerance of groups like ISIS and al-Nusra, must be immediately rejected as an alternative.