Sunni-Shi’i Polemics

The Fall of Baghdad: From 1258 to 2003—A Polarized Memory

by Nassima Neggaz

Over the last decade, the world has become increasingly aware of the conflict-ridden division in Islam between Sunnis and Shi‘a. The reports of daily killings paint a picture of doom for relations between the two communities. Nowhere is this more the case than in Iraq where the casualties in what could be called sectarian warfare mount daily. Can Sunnis and Shi‘a, who are both Muslim, live together in peace? Or is there something about their beliefs that destines them to fight forever?

The narrative of conflict has a lot to do with the way each community remembers the past. History, of course, is not just facts. It is also the way we remember those facts: as defeat or victory. Here we offer insight into the way memory of the past feeds into Sunni-Shi‘i relations. We first consider the history of these relations, including instances of both conflict and cooperation, to shed light on factors that in the past contributed to peace between the two communities. We then go beyond the facts of history to consider how communities relate to their past. As far as history is concerned, it is the memory that matters more so than the facts. Today, it is memory that is being reinvented on a daily basis as a way to justify perceptions of the present. Varied figures (political, religious, cultural) are creating new visions of the past that are often highly polemical in response to a reality on the ground that makes it appear that conflict is intrinsic to Sunni-Shi’i relations and that common ground does not exist. How is the past remembered? How does the past shape the present? Are we destined to repeat the past? Or does it depend on how we remember the past?

First, a glance at the historical facts: The split occurred early: on one side, the partisans of Ali Ibn Talib (cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad), who would later be called Shi‘a ( “partisans” of Ali) and who saw Ali as the rightful successor to Muhammad; and on the other side, the rest of the community who followed the first caliphs and who would later be called Sunnis in reference to their following the sunna, or practice of the Prophet Muhammad. A number of clashes would follow: Early battles took place from 656 to 661 in what is known as the first fitna, pitting the partisans of Ali against his opponents; and from 680 to 692 in what is known as the second fitna, which saw the killing of Hussein Ibn Ali (grandson of Muhammad) in 680 at Karbala and Abdallah Ibn al-Zubayr (grandson of the first caliph, Abu Bakr) in 692 at Mecca. These were open battles. Thereafter the Shi‘a would increasingly operate underground. The revolution that toppled the Umayyads and brought the Abbasids to power in 750 held out hope for a Sunni-Shi‘i reconciliation, but the hope was short lived after the Abbasids consolidated their power. In the aftermath of the revolution, further splits took place between and within the two communities. The Shi‘a would divide into several groups, the most important being the Zaydis, the Isma‘ilis, and the Twelvers (the last being the largest contingent of Shi‘a in the world today).

The first two centuries of Islam (the seventh and eighth centuries) are considered critical for the Sunni-Shi‘i conflict. These centuries saw the formation of the two communities. But it is important to note that in subsequent centuries patterns became more clearly established, including positive engagement through discussion and cooperation. The long reign of the Abbasids, which ended after five hundred years with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, is a relevant case study. The varied policies of the different caliphs show how political wisdom could serve as a powerful tool to assure a sense of security in the two communities and invite fruitful engagement through scholarly discussion. At the same time, examples abound of caliphs whose policies exacerbated tensions and even contributed to conflict. This contradictory legacy can be seen in the reigns of two caliphs: al-Nasir li-Din Allah (r. 1180-1225) and al-Musta‘sim bi-llah (r. 1242-1258).

As documented by historians of the period, the reign of al-Nasir saw a noticeable decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad. In comparison to his predecessors and successors alike, this decline was remarkable. What were the causes? One significant factor is the way he positioned himself as caliph for all groups and sought to treat all on an equal basis. Not concerned like his predecessors to strengthen and unite the Sunnis against their Shi‘i rivals, al-Nasir sought to treat the Shi‘a as an integral part of Islam, whether Zaydis, Isma‘ilis, or Twelvers. By fostering such rapprochement, he interacted with religious leaders of all communities. The environment he created in Baghdad is a witness to the success of policies. There were almost no cases of civil strife reported during his reign. Beyond this absence of violence, one can also notice there a positive engagement in communal relations as a result of the exchange, debate, and cooperation between all communities, not only Sunnis and Shi‘a but also including Jews and Christians.

In contrast, the rule of al-Musta‘sim offers a very different picture of sectarian life in Baghdad. He began his reign only seventeen years after that of al-Nasir, but the social and political landscape of Baghdad had changed dramatically. Sunni-Shi‘i clashes were on the rise, even becoming commonplace during his caliphate. The historical data is rich in examples of murders, killings, and fires that took place on a regular basis in Baghdad’s different neighborhoods, which were largely divided on a sectarian basis. Religious tensions were encouraged by the absence of a strong leader to bring order to the city and also by political mistakes that only aggravated communal suspicions, such as the decision to send the army to the Shi‘i neighborhood of al-Karkh in 1256 in the wake of the violent clashes between the Sunni and Shi‘i inhabitants of Baghdad. Where al-Nasir had managed to create an environment of friendliness in which Sunnis and Shi‘a alike (and also Jews and Christians) no longer felt threatened as communities, al-Musta‘sim only aggravated the tensions and suspicions between them.

The facts of history demonstrates the importance of good, balanced, and effective leadership in dealing with communities that have different claims to the truth and that need to be assured that their survival is not threatened under a particular rule or political system. Significantly, al-Nasir broke with the past by positioning himself as caliph of all religious groups. A number of his predecessors had adopted a staunch pro-Sunni policy based on the idea that the Shi‘a represented a threat to Sunni religious claims. The reign of al-Nasir is illuminating when viewed against other caliphates when, the sources report, sectarian conflict occurred on a daily basis. The fact that his forty-five year reign stands out as particularly peaceful holds many lessons for the way we think about both past and the present. It is striking that the same groups that fought one another before and after his reign did not do so under his rule. This shows that Sunni-Shi‘i divisions are more a question of power, perceptions of threat, and the need for recognition than they are about insoluble differences. Today, those in power in Iraq can learn from the past. Has Nuri al-Maliki positioned his government as the government of all, inclusive of Sunni Iraqis, who, like their Shi‘i counterparts, need to be adequately represented in their own nation?

This holds for the entire region. At first glance, the Middle East today seems to harbor only doom: clashes between the Shi‘i populace and the Sunni rulers in Bahrain; the marginalization of the Shi‘a as a whole in Saudi Arabia; the civil war in Syria between the Alawite state, supported by its Shi‘i allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Sunni-majority populace; new forms of anti-Shi‘i violence in Malaysia; and ill-treatment of Sunnis in Iraq by the Shi‘i-oriented government. This is to mention only a handful of cases. In general, one notices increasingly hostile language used within each community when talking about the other. This tendency goes well beyond religious circles in Saudi Arabia and Iran. What is driving this violence and mistrust?

Struggle for power is certainly a root cause of sectarian violence at play in all the cases mentioned above. It is the fear of Shi‘i hegemony that makes the Gulf States so committed to keeping their Shi‘i populations out of the nation’s politics. For the Syrian regime and its regional allies, their alliance is driven by their common interest in maintaining a power balance in the region between Sunni and Shi‘i strongholds. In Malaysia, a rhetoric of anti-Shi‘ism is used by political powers as a tool to stoke new fears and attract more votes.

Indeed, it was the fear of the other that pushed several rulers of the past to adopt policies that favored one community at the expense of others. As the case of al-Nasir shows, it is possible to engage the other not as a threat but as equal partner. However, if the issue were only political, if sectarianism functioned only as a tool of power to divide in order to conquer, the problem would be less intractable. It would simply be a matter of forging a political solution. But when the idea of being threatened becomes internalized by communities as a historical given, the chance for peace gets lost and fear triumphs. A hardening division between Sunnis and Shi‘a is observable in the Middle East today. It affects people at large and makes it normal to view the other through the lens of stereotyping. This tarnishes the image of the other and makes the gap between the two communities appear wider and more difficult to bridge.

Second, a glance at the role of memory in the evolving social fabric of the Middle East: Despite its impact in the daily life of the peoples of the region, the question of memory is rarely discussed in the Middle East. How do Sunnis and Shi‘a look at their past? What are some of the current shifts in the way the two communities remember their common past? The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003 is a key turning point. By considering its aftermath, we can address these questions.

The fall of Baghdad in 2003 well illustrates how a political event gets read and interpreted through the lens of sectarian division. When the US invaded Iraq, they hardly could have imagined that they would leave behind a country in a state of physical destruction. They also did not realize that they would leave behind a people divided into clans and sects in a state of deep mutual mistrust. The destruction of the institutions of Saddam’s regime gave rise to a sectarian-oriented government that sought to reverse the many years of Sunni dominance under Saddam by advantaging the Shi‘a this time. This might have been adopted as a way to give a new start to the country by erasing the memory of Baathist rule, but it left the Sunnis in a new situation as minorities without the same rights as their Shi‘i counterparts. The Shi‘a make up about 60% of the population, the Sunnis about 35%. As a result, new modes of discourse arose. Although originating from outside of Iraq for the most part, they had a significant impact within the country largely in response to the political and socioeconomic situation.

After the fall of Saddam, several Sunni groups of varying socioeconomic status began to accuse the Shi‘a of cooperating with the US in their invasion of Iraq. This discourse tapped into the idea that Sunni-Shi‘i relations are destined for eternal conflict. According to this thinking, enmity has existed between Sunnis and Shi‘a since the first century of Islam—and is therefore bound to continue forever. The events in neighboring Syria, which cannot be reduced entirely to sectarian terms, worked to reinforce this thinking, which began to spread widely and rapidly. The outcome is astonishing: Since 2003, Sunnis and Shi‘a have engaged in harsh online debating about the role of the Shi‘a in the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

Significantly, the debate is not confined to 2003. Connections have been constantly drawn to the fall of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols in 1258 when the army of Hulegu Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) captured the city and razed it to the ground before rebuilding it. They killed the caliph and sought to erase all trace of Abbasid rule under their administration of they city. In a break with the pat, the Mongols sought to create a balance between the communities by granting greater power to the Shi‘a in general at the expense of the Sunnis. A number of historians from this period accused the Shi‘i vizier of the time, Ibn al-Alqami, who had worked for the Caliph al-Musta‘sim, of having plotted with the Mongols to bring about the downfall of the caliphate. These writings are often shaped by literary topoi, but they get read today as evidence that the Shi‘a are eternal traitors and have always acted against the interests of the Sunnis, making it impossible to trust them. Since 2003, the story of Ibn al-Alqami has been central to the disputes between Sunnis and Shi‘a in the region. The story used to be known only by those with expertise in the history of Islam, but it now circulates widely, so much so that a new term has been coined to define the Shi‘a of today: the alaqima (a plural derived from the name ‘Alqami). Internet forms are riven with heated polemics about the role of the Shi‘a in assisting both the Mongol and American invaders. Some go so far as to collapse historical distinctions between the invaders and their master plans. The impact has been so pervasive that many, both young and old, swear that the Shi‘a of Iraq today are but the grandsons of Ibn al-‘Alqami and that Nuri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, is the modern Ibn al-‘Alqami.

These polemics indicate the extent of memory polarization. Sunnis and Shi‘a not only view two major events in Iraqi history in very different terms. Their memories of them play out in their communal relations. One might think that the people of a single nation would seek a common understanding of their history, but the polemics have put the narratives of treachery and betrayal on a pedestal beyond a more balanced adjudication of the past. Why are so many susceptible to these narratives? Why would they prefer to blame and hate the other rather than look to establish mechanisms of coexistence. Have not Iraqis, Sunnis and Shi‘a, lived in harmony for long periods? One can attribute this readiness to judge (rather than understand) the other to several factors: a dearth of real knowledge of the past; a drive to establish the truth of one’s religion at the expense of others; and a lack of human compassion.

This crisis has revealed the extent to which intolerance has become mainstream and also the willingness of political and religious figures to harden rather than soften the hearts of their audiences. One might say that such tensions are not new, but the violence and readiness to condemn are a concern for all. In the past, as we have seen, Baghdad experienced times of peace when the communal boundaries were not rigidly drawn, allowing for scholarly exchange and collaboration. Ironically, today, it would not be possible to contemplate the creation of a joint Sunni-Shi‘i institute where scholars and students contribute to mutual knowledge of the beliefs and laws of the two communities. Indeed, there is little knowledge in the two communities of the history of the other. Cross-communal exchange was taboo before 2003, but the situation after 2003 led to the explosion of propaganda and stereotypes, and this fostered communal anger rather than attempts to understand the large and complex picture of Sunni-Shi‘i relations over time.

When a community feels threatened, they reread the past in order to find some sort of justification for their present condition. This is not at all new. Political and religious leaders have a real responsibility in this sense. In both the past and the present. Whenever rulers play the sectarian card, religious leaders respond by promoting conflict-ridden and inexact narratives to mobilize people by prodding them to embrace these politics as part of their historical reality.

Third, what is the way forward beyond the current chaos? The history of Sunni-Shi‘I relations may be complex, but it is also full of examples of peaceful coexistence. History suggests that such coexistence requires good responsible leadership above all. Religious and tribal leaders are also key since their words influence the public at large. As a general rule, there is need for Sunnis and Shi‘a to respect one other’s truth claims and also to recognize the sufferings that they other has endured. Memories of the past in the region are highly selective. It is common to deny that one’s community may have hurt the other. It is common not to acknowledge the pain of the other community. If many Shi‘a feel that Sunnis have not acknowledged their sufferings, the Sunnis of Iraq today are paying the price for that. The failure to give them recognition is but a thinly veiled revenge for a long history of Shi‘i sufferings at the hands of the state. It is easier to think in simplified terms such as “good” and “bad” than it is to think about the overall human condition that binds together people of different groups. As a result, stereotyping becomes the norm and serves as a means to excuse the ill treatment of millions of men, women, and children based on current interpretations of the deeds of their forefathers, interpretations that are inspired by current political events rather than real historical knowledge. A common Sunni-Shi’i reading of history is needed in order to move forward. The clashes over the past haunt the present. As long as Sunnis and Shi‘a refuse to think together about their past, they will be limited in the way they foresee a peaceful future, since it is this history that binds them together geographically, culturally, and personally. If political and religious leaders are unable or unwilling to extend their hands to greet one another, it will fall to the people to overcome the differences and build a future common ground. The critical tools for this are education, knowledge, and, above all, a readiness to look at one another with compassion and a willingness to forgive.

Nassima Neggaz, post-doctoral research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, received MA degrees in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris and in Arab Studies from Georgetown. A Fulbright Fellow from France, she went on to receive her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies in 2014 from Georgetown University, where she wrote her dissertation on “The Fall of Baghdad in 1258 and 2003: A Study in Sunni-Shi‘i Clashing Memories.” She has been sought out for her analysis of Syria’s Arab Spring, including a recent article in the Boston Globe and a 2013 interview on NPR on the use of language codes among Syrians amidst the revolution.

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