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January 20, 2019

End Sunni-Shia strife before it's too late

The Muslim world is in chaos. From Syria to Somalia, Yemen to Egypt, Pakistan to Afghanistan; Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Tunisia, Libya, etc, we see one conflict succeeded by another. And at the heart of these conflicts, we hear a common narrative — Islam is under attack from non-believers or crusaders and must be defended by hook or by crook.

But there is also another common phenomenon to the conflicts that I find most disturbing—young Muslim men and women are recruited in the name of Muslim brotherhood and deployed abroad to fight in ‘defence’ of Islam. But the obvious, and certainly the intelligent question, that one should ask is—are these young people really being deployed to fight for Islam?     

A close analysis of these conflicts reveals that they have nothing to do with Islam. They are nothing but proxy wars between well-known global political and economic interests that don’t want to come out in the open and face each other on the battlefield. Honest analysts now agree that the Taliban that gallantly fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was created, trained and financed by Western intelligence and military strategists to fight on their behalf. After driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the Taliban metamorphosed into a new outfit that is posing a huge security threat to the very powers that created it.

The idea of creating a proxy fighting force could be the most brilliant military strategy ever invented, but it could prove to be a costly political blunder when not well managed. In the Taliban case, for example, those who created this militia did not put in place mechanisms for demobilisation. At the end of the day, we had well-trained and battle-hardened fighters being returned to civilian life without any plans for their post-conflict welfare. Hence, as we speak today, there are no prizes for guessing why the Taliban will remain a thorn in the flesh of global security.

Fast-forward to the current conflict in Syria and Yemen. All and sundry know the conflicts in these two Muslim countries are proxy wars. In both cases, we see fighters from the two main Islamic sects, Sunni and Shia, facing off on the battlefield.

In Syria, we see Sunni fighters propped up by Sunni Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia seeking to overthrow what is perceived to be the Shia government of Bashir al-Assad. In defence of Assad is the resilient and battle-hardened Shia fighting force from Lebanon in the name of Hezbollah—known to be propped-up by Iran. The same scenario is replicated in the conflict in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi fighters are engaged in deadly conflict with the Saudi-backed forces loyal to deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansoor Hadi.

In view of these proxy wars where Shia Islam led by Iran is at war with Sunni Islam led by Saudi Arabia, we see a replay of the Shia/Sunni animosity that rocked the Muslim world after the late Imam Khomeini overthrew the Pahlavi regime dynasty in 1979. But given the delicate situation that global security finds itself in today, my plea is that the international community should not allow this conflict to escalate more than it already has. This is because, as history has taught us with regard to the Taliban, of the incapacity to properly manage and control fighters recruited to fight proxy wars after the conflict is over.

Following the recent Iran nuclear deal, there are those in the Sunni Muslim world who feel that the deal has simply emboldened Shia Muslims. In this regard, we expect to see more and more Sunni young men from across various parts of the world being recruited to fight in Syria and Yemen in ‘the name of defending Sunni Muslims’. The same is expected to happen for Shia young men and women. At the end of it all, once these conflicts come to an end, we face the danger of having so many militarised young men from both sides of the divide getting back to their home countries to become guns for hire for another round of conflicts.

But there is also another issue that has lately led to the increased militancy being witnessed across the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East—the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia and blossomed in Egypt brought out a sense of self-belief in many Muslim youth. Although the Arab Spring failed to meet its expectations, it taught Muslim youth how to mobilise and rally behind a cause they believe in. Since then, it has become very easy for Muslim youth to mobilise through social media to join any radical group that appeals to their aspirations.

And this is the kind of vicious cycle that the international community should be worried about as they handle the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Muslim leaders should also wake up and see the danger they are placing themselves in by allowing themselves to be used to fight proxy wars. Kenya, too, should be very worried by these conflicts because Yemen is just next-door.

We have reports of young Kenyans plucked from their studies in Sudan and recruited to fight for ISIL in Syria. What magnitude of a problem shall we have on our hands a decade from now when these young men survive the conflict and return to the country as battle-hardened ex-combatants. The writing is on the wall, and it is time to take preventive measures before it is too late. 


The writer is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of the Kenya Muslims.      


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