Raed Mansour al-Banna was born in the Jordanian city al-Salt into a well off middle-class family, studied law, moved to the United States in 2001, but was refused a reentry visa after he filed fraudulent information about a travel to his country of origin. In February 2005, the same al-Banna drove a heavily loaded truck to a health clinic in the Iraqi city al-Hillah. Many were waiting in line outside the building, and people were swarming in the local bazaar nearby. The 32-year old al-Banna detonated his car bomb, killing 166 persons in addition to himself, wounding a further 146. One of the worst suicide attacks in the history of Iraq was a fact. al-Banna was Sunni Muslim, his targets where Shias.
The internal Islamic conflict between Sunni and Shia has been ongoing for 1,400 years. This conflict has a history more than a thousand years longer than that between Israel and its neighbors. Significantly more people have been killed in battles between Sunnis and Shias than in those between Israel and its neighbors, even if we consider only the latest 70 years.
According to calculations by Professor Gunnar Heinsohn – associate of The Raphael Lemkin Institute for Xenophobia and Genocide Research at the University of Bremen – working with researcher and author Daniel Pipes, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has claimed significantly fewer lives than other conflicts in the region, over the same span of years. Heinsohn and Pipes write: ”Some 11,000,000 Muslims have been violently killed since 1948, of which 35,000, or 0.3 percent, died during the sixty years of fighting Israel, or just 1 out of every 315 Muslim fatalities. In contrast, over 90 percent of the 11 million who perished were killed by fellow Muslims.”
It is therefore hardly an overstatement to claim that the problems of stability and peace in the Middle East are about internal Muslim contradictions more than anything else.
”Arabs are prone to denial when it comes to our problems”, says the Arab journalist Hazem Saghieh. ”We’re all brothers”, we insisted, preferring to resort to comforting platitudes rather than admitting that we had a problem.”
Rather than exposing the deep and violent fracture within the Islamic world, comments Saghieh, people chose instead to focus on other issues, which can temporarily create a pretense of unity.
Israel is possibly the best example of this kind of proxy enemy. Even the battle against secularization, in the forms of European colonialism or pan-Arab nationalism, constituted such temporarily unifying shadows. But experience shows that the fights between Sunni and Shia will take off again sooner or later, usually with explosive force: The US invasion of Iraq, overthrowing the Saddam Hussein (Sunni) regime is a recent, clear and very bloody example of this mechanism. Also the current fighting in Syria has its roots in this 1,400-year-old conflict.
We have all seen the movie The Godfather. It describes the same phenomenon. The strength of a clan-based community is closely coupled to its weaknesses. This is particularly notable in the status of the leader. The good clan leader is able to balance the fear and threat of violence with an assurance of loyalty and protection, as long as one submits to the position of the leader. If a leadership struggle erupts, it usually becomes a battle of life and death, as the respect one covets emanates from the power one can bring to bear in critical situations. In this also, however, lies the weakness of the clan community: its inability to liberate the persons it claims to protect. Free men, free thinking men, are the Achilles heel of the clan society. If an individual starts to behave too freely relative to the leader and the clan, he must ether be exiled, forced to change his ways, or as a last resort, killed.
The state of affairs, on the other hand, that distinguishes the opposite of the clan society – an open civil society, preferably with a constitutional democracy, is that every person is free to choose who he wants as leader, without coercion from ether clan or family – and that any missteps are corrected, in a peaceful, open and timely manner.
Islam has not reached that state.
This essay by Kenneth Karlsson will continue in the next issue of Dispatch International.