The great divide

Don’t know your Sunnis from your Shias? You are not alone, but their conflict will shape the future

In 2006, the investigative reporter Jeff Stein concluded a series of interviews with senior US counterterrorism officials by asking the same simple question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?" He was startled by the responses. "One's in one location, another's in another location," said Congressman Terry Everett, a member of the House intelligence committee, before conceding: "No, to be honest with you, I don't know." When Stein asked Congressman Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House intelligence committee, whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia, he answered: "Predominantly - probably Shia."

Wrong. Al-Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim terrorist group that considers Shia Muslims to be heretics. In Stein's words, "Al-Qaeda's Sunni roots account for its very existence." Osama Bin Laden and his ilk are the ideological offshoots of the hardline Salafi, Deobandi and Wahhabi brands of Sunni Islam that today dominate Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Afghanistan and large parts of Pakistan. And the leading thinkers behind modern Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda are all Sunnis: Abul-Ala Maududi, Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam. So is it too much to expect US officials to understand the implications of the Sunni-Shia divide? Perhaps. As the former senator Trent Lott confessed: "They all look the same to me."

Shias and Sunnis are indeed united on core beliefs - in God, the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran - but there remain major doctrinal, jurisprudential and political differences between the two sects. The split occurred in the wake of Muhammad's death, in AD632. Some Muslims supported the right of the Prophet's family - specifically his cousin Ali - to succeed him, but more endorsed the Prophet's companion Abu Bakr, who then took power. The latter became the Sunnis (or followers of the sunnah, the lifestyle, of the Prophet), the former the Shias (or partisans of Ali).

Ignorance of these two sects of Islam, which together comprise a fifth of humanity, extends far beyond Washington, DC. I remember once, when I worked in television, a senior executive claiming he'd made a bet with his wife that Shias were the bigger group and Sunnis the minority. "You're Shia, aren't you?" he asked me. "So are you guys the majority? Am I right?" I had to break the bad news to him.

According to the Pew Forum, of the total Muslim population across the world, 10-13 per cent (or roughly 200 million people) are Shias and between 87 and 90 per cent are Sunnis. Most Shias (68-80 per cent) live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq. And there are only four Shia-majority Muslim nations: Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

But confusion reigns. At the Iraq inquiry, Tony Blair - now head of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation - linked Shia Iran to the "extreme and . . . misguided view about Islam" promoted by Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda, before claiming that Iran had been "supporting" al-Qaeda attacks inside Iraq. It seems Blair is ignorant of al-Qaeda's view of Iraqi Shias. In 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (since killed by US forces) wrote: "They [the Shias] are the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom." Shia Islam, he concluded, "is the looming danger and the true challenge".

Blair's war in Iraq served to exacerbate the age-old divide between Sunnis and Shias - leading to Iraqi elections, for example, organised on sectarian lines - and fed the insecurities of the Sunni-dominated Muslim world. The al-Qaeda view of Shia Islam has since seeped into the Sunni mainstream. Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has long considered Shias to be "disbelievers", but now newspapers in secular Egypt warn of a Shia threat, and last year Jordan put six Shias on trial for "promoting" Shia ideology.

Shia determination

Sunni leaders point to the threat of Shia extremism from Iran. Iran's ayatollahs fund Hamas and Hezbollah - both proscribed terrorist groups in the west. But contemporary Iran is qualitatively different from Afghanistan under the Sunni Taliban, with its cultural barbarism. Middle East experts agree that the Shia institution of ayatollahs, or scholars, interpreting and up­dating Islamic law, has acted as a theological bulwark against al-Qaeda's distinctive brand of nihilistic and apocalyptic violence.

Nor should Shia Iran, and the challenge of its nuclear programme, be confused with the terrorist threat to the west from al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremism. Not one of the 111 Muslims imprisoned in Britain on terrorism offences is believed to be a Shia. Most Sunnis, like Shias, reject extremism and violence, but in the context of terrorism, it is important to understand the exact nature, and ideology, of the threat. To lump all Muslims together is self-defeating.

Vali Nasr, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, argues that wars within Islam between Sunnis and Shias "will shape the future" of the Muslim world and, in particular, the Middle East. "Ultimately," he predicts, "the character of the region will be decided in the crucible of Shia revival and the Sunni response to it." Perhaps he overstates the point. But anyone who claims to care about the future of the Muslim world needs to understand this 1,400-year-old split at the heart of Islam.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle