For the last 1,000 years, Sunnis have been the majority in and dominated the landscape of the Middle East.
In a sea of Sunni Muslim states, the lone Jewish state and small pockets of Shia communities are an obvious minority who do not have the demographic advantage.Yet Israel and Shia powerhouse Iran tend to make headlines more than most of the Sunni Muslim states that encompass the region.
One would initially think that the two groups have common ground since they both are at odds with the Sunni majority. So why just why, in Shia eyes, do the Jews constitute a potentially greater threat? And……. vice versa? Yet the 2 are bitter enemies and the rivalry is so big that Iran-Israel tensions threaten to drag the rest of the world into potential conflagration.
When Israel was first formed in 1948, Shia Iran became the second Muslim country to befriend them under the Pahlavi dynasty; Along with Turkey and Albania, Israel made 3 solid non-Arab Muslim friends in its fledgling stages of independence.
Shia Muslims are 20% of the global Muslim population. They have their origins in the faction that supported the Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. However, the Sunnis decided he was not legitimate and picked their own Caliphs. The Shi’a reject the legitimacy of these Caliphs : Instead, they saw Muhammad’s family — starting with Ali as the Prophet’s rightful successors.
In Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, one can see Shias chant “death to Israel…..death to America” during processions on their holy day of Ashura. One may ponder : it wasn’t Jews or Americans who eventually killed Ali, but Arab-Muslims, so why do they parrot such rhetoric you ask?
This reflects the Caliphs’ rejection of Ali’s leadership has creating a 1000+ year culture of rebelliousness that finds the Iranian Ayatollah’s rhetoric of defying America and Israel attractive. We think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as an ethnic war between Arabs and Jews, but it also has a clear religious dynamic to it. After all, Israel is far away from Iran.
Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, with an Orthodox Christian minority. The fact that they are Muslim majority elicits way more sympathy from religious Muslims more than secular or non-Muslim Arabs in the current era.
However, secular Arab military dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria and Egypt (until 1979) were Israel’s biggest enemies in its founding days. Today Iran and the Shia dominated axis has taken that mantle and the religious dynamic is more clearly highlighted.
The Shias did not have such widespread an anti-Israel stance until the 1979 Islamic revolution. Israel’s first hostility with a Shia leader was with the Alawite dominated government of Hafez Assad in 1973.
Seven Shia-Arab villages were depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The displaced ended up in Lebanon (there was no concept of a ‘Palestinian people’ then). Their descendants ended up in Lebanon and you don’t have any of them identifying as “Palestinian Shias.”
With Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran rescinded its recognition of Israel and the embassy got shutdown, this killed the relationship between the two. Some analysts believe that the Mossad were reluctant to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini while he was in exile in France because they did not feel that Shias were a threat. His successor Ali Khamenei is just as anti-Israel.
Iran exports the revolution
Also, in 1979, Israel was preoccupied in a multi-faceted conflict in Lebanon which has around 20 different ethno-religious groups.
In former Israeli PM Ehud Barak 2006 words about 1982: “When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.” In addition Shia civilians were seen waving Israel flags and handing thirsty IDF soldiers water.
Lebanon today is haven for the Shia militia Hezbollah, which despite claiming to be only anti Zionist, is severely anti Semitic, despite claiming not to be. Hezbollah General secretary Nasrallah has called Jews “a cancer which is liable to spread again at any moment,” and with whom there can be “no coexistence.” He has also described them as “the most greedy and miserly people on earth.”
The Shia Israel alliance in Lebanon would be short lived : In the village of Nabatiye in 1983, a tragedy struck!
During an Ashura procession in October, a Shia group saw IDF military vehicles as an insult to their religious sensitivities and reacted angrily, stoning the convoy. The Israeli soldiers, out of fear, fired their rifles, killing two Shi’a and wounding others.
The Shi’a community who once coexisted peacefully with Lebanon’s Jewish community, exacerbated by Iran, began to stir against Israeli presence.
Because of the religious significance of the date on which the incident occurred, the hostility took on religious overtones. Iran also saw it as an opportunity to export the revolution! It is believed that Hezbollah was born of an amalgamation of Shia hardliners in 1985 in the wake of this ‘Ashura incident.’
Whilst Israel and the Christian (mostly Maronite-Catholic) militias were preoccupied fighting Palestinians (dominated by seculars Sunnis & Greek Orthodox Christians), the Shias took the upper hand right under Israel’s very nose.
Christians and Sunnis always had held more bureaucratic power under the constitution and the Shias had long been underdogs.
But the complexity of the conflict lead to Shias being able to shift the tide. As the Sunnis and Christians either died in conflict and/or emigrated, the Shias emerged stronger than ever both politically and militarily.
Hafez Assad coming from the Alawite clan (a syncretic Shia sect) felt the camaraderie and enabled this growth: Hezbollah returned the favor by backing his son against defectors and ISIS in the ongoing Syrian war. It’s militia were initially trained and organized by a contingent of 1500 Iranian revolutionaries who arrived from Iran with Hafez Al Assad’s assistance.
Until his death, in 1984 Saad Haddad, leader of the pro-Israeli faction, South Lebanon Army (SLA) did his utmost to create an alliance with Shias – he was not successful.
Then in 2000 PM Ehud Barak withdrew, demolishing the SLA along with the Maronite-Israel alliance and strengthened Hezbollah.
The 2003 Iraq war, toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and allowed multiple Shia militias to emerge in the Levant- the Mahdi Army, lead by Muqtada Sadr is the most powerful of these; All have a pro-Iran and anti-Israel stance.
The war with ISIS caused Shias from every corner of the globe to rally in Syria from 2011 onwards to fight alongside the Assad regime : This strengthened the global Shia jihad and Syria has been Israel’s long-standing enemy since inception.
Nevertheless, the Shia axis consisting of Hezbollah, Iran, Houthis in Yemen and the numerous Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan now face an Israel which has warmed up to the Middle-East’s Sunni Arab majority as nations like Saudi and UAE which were once hostile entities have great relationships with Israel now.
Of note : even though Shia Iran is the champion for Arab-Shias in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi, it’s own Arab-Shia minority are fighting for an independent state (Khuzestan) citing systemic persecution from the ethnic Persian majority.
The religious aspect
Because Jerusalem is considered by the Shia and Sunni Muslims both to be third-ranking of their holiest sites, from religious perspective they seek to recapture the city : The existence of the foundations of the Temple of Solomon (Suleiman in Arabic) underneath means that the reoccupation of the Mosque by Muslim forces cannot happen without the eradication of the Jewish state; this condition the Iranian axis refuses to compromise with.
Karbala, Najaf, Mecca and Medina are currently under Muslim jurisdictions (Sunni and Shia both) : Jerusalem remains the only major holy city outside of Islamic control.
Iran lacks the military sophistication of Israel and its backer – Russia is not as powerful as the US. However, this is countered when Sunnis rally to Iran’s side : Notably, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. Malaysia and Qatar have also been supportive of Iran’s rhetoric.
Even though many Sunnis, notably groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda who are known to despise Shias (who they accuse of following a pervesion of their religion akin to idolatry), Hezbollah has scored a major propaganda victory among many Sunnis, making it arguably the strongest Shia proxy of Iran after the Assad regime. Sheik Nasrallah dons a black turban and carries the title of “Sayyid,” both identify him as a descendant of Prophet Muhammad. Still, his brand of religious dogma is highly politicized.
Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda also defied protocol and criticized the royal family’s anti-Iran position, writing on his website “this is not the time to express our differences with the Shiites because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists.”
Concurrently however, Sunni support for Israel also grows in the wake of Shia dominance. Just as Assad and Houthis see victories in battle over the Sunni forces, some of them…..turn to Israel. We saw Netanyahu visit Chad while flying over Sudan – two former enemy states. Even apart from Gulf leaders opening up to Israel, Sunni Muslim support for Israel is also present among its own citizens and non-citizens. Many Sunni nations like Egypt, Saudi, UAE etc probably feel that allying with Israel would be in their best interest by preventing Iran from exporting the revolution to their Shia minority communities.
On the other hand, even if Iran is the main rallying point for Shias, there are those of the sect who do not share negative disposition towards Israel:
Israel enjoys good ties with Shia majority Azerbaijan and Shia majority Bahrain (which has a Sunni ruling royal family).
Minor Shia sects like Dawoodi Bohras visit Ashkelon where the head of Ali, founder of this sect is buried for centuries following his demise in battle.
Plus……. we have Imam Tawhidi in Australia, who is an outspoken Muslim supporter of Israel. He is believed to be the first Shia imam to have visited Auschwitz and from there he tweeted “The Jew is NOT my enemy.”
So although Shias and Jews have had good relationships in the past, today they both vie for supremacy in the Middle-East arena because they have become a lot more dominant than they had been in the past. While there exists a war of words and ideology between Israel and its Shia opponents coupled with proxy warfare, we can only expect things to continue unless and until Iran decides to reduce hostilities.