A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Bloody ‘Ashura: Is Sectarian Violence Spreading?

For years,we have become somewhat inured to sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi‘ites in Iraq. In Bahrain, government officials have sought to portray the protests as an Iranian-backed plot, and have thus fueled Sunni-Shi‘a tensions there. Sectarian tensions are always present to some extent in eastern Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and sectarian attacks, especially against Shi‘ite mosques and worshipers in Pakistan have been a growing problem..

Yesterday, on ‘Ashura, the holiest day in Shi‘ite Islam, a crowded Shi‘ite shrine in Kabul was attacked. As many have noted, despite Afghanistan's ongoing conflicts, Sunni-Shi‘a conflicts have  been largely absent. Yesterday, however, that changed, and 55 people died.

Even in Egypt, which has only a minority Shi‘ite population of uncertain size, a group of Shi‘ites who, under Husni Mubarak were not allowed to celebrate Shi‘ite feasts, decided to test the waters and pray at the Sayyidna Hussein mosque, a shrine to the Prophet's grandson whose martyrdom is marked on ‘Ashura, and itself a foundation of the Fatimid period (969-1171 AD), when Egypt was ruled by a Shi‘ite dynasty. (Al-Azhar itstelf, today one of Sunni Islam's bastions, was also a Fatimid foundation. They were dispersed and arrested, As the Minister of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) put it, "We were surprised to find them inside, performing barbaric and unreligious rituals. Security forces forced them out."

Egyptian Shi‘a of course, are not being killed, just restricted. But the growing sectarian tensions elsewhere (and Egyptian suspicions of Iran),  may be added to the outright violence in Iraq, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan, and the endemic tensions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

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