The Spectacle Blog

Sectarian War Across the Middle East: A Matter of Semantics

By on 6.26.14 | 4:01PM

There is something going on that I may not have told you about.

It is really a matter of semantics, but it has turned out to be rather significant. You may have noticed the multiplicity of English translations for ISIS, the extremist Sunni group that has been terrorizing Syria and especially Iraq in recent weeks. The varied translations exist because the Arabic name—الدولة الاسلامية في العراق و الشام—contains a word, "the Sham," that only roughly translates into English. It refers to a geographic area that has not existed since the Ottoman era, but which includes all the land we now call Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

This helps to explain the worrying scope of ISIS's ambition. Evidence of this was reported by Reuters:

The al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades had urged Lebanese Sunni Muslims to attack the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah a day before Wednesday's suicide bombing in central Beirut.

The group posted the message on Twitter on Tuesday, before a suicide bomber - said by Lebanese authorities to be a Saudi national - wounded three security officers in a hotel in the capital close to the Saudi Arabian embassy.

ISIS has declared its intentions to set up a Sunni state across "Iraq and the Sham," but it is not the only organization with visions of sectarian hegemony stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. As an analyst for the BBC wrote:

A fault-line runs from Lebanon on the Mediterranean, down through Syria and Iraq, to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and beyond. It divides Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two sides of Islam. It is the oldest division in the Middle East, but just like the schism in Christianity between Protestants and Catholics, it is as much about power and identity as religion.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have helped stoke the fire, but divisions between Shia and Sunni have also been used and abused by leaders in other Arab countries who have no intention of sharing power with fellow members of their own sects, let alone anyone else. 

On the Shiite side, Iran has embraced this with a propensity to support even non-state Shiite organizations outside its borders. Iran's desire to counteract Saudi Arabia's "petro-dollar" influence with Shiite power in any form explains why Iranian arms and support have gone to Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, the Houthis of Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Other Shias recognize this goal. In fact, as Iran's Revolutionary Guards have moved from Syria into Iraq, Hezbollah has stepped in to reinforce its Shiite brethren in the conflict there.

Even Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has made statements indicating "less-than veiled" criticism of government anti-Sunni policies, has called up enthusiastic Shiite militias to defend the holy sites and cities, according to the BBC.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gone further in promoting the country's crisis as region-wide sectarian struggle. He "welcomed" air strikes by Syrian fighter jets on his own border Tuesday.

It may seem like a matter of semantics, but the far-reaching goal of ISIS hidden within the original Arabic threatens the power grid of the entire Middle East.

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