A Guide to the Religious Conflict in the Arab World

Human Wrongs Watch

By Roberto Savio*

Rome, 30 April 2015 — Any decision by Italy to intervene in the Libyan crisis, while politically convenient, would create more problems than solutions.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced recently (April 20) his government was studying the possibility of mounting “targeted interventions” against the Libya-based people smugglers behind the huge surge in numbers of migrants attempting to flee North Africa. But he made clear that Italy would not be intervening militarily.

His statement that “attacks on death rackets, attacks against slave traders (traffickers) are in our thinking” was a timely political manoeuvre, geared toward undermining the growth of anti-immigrant forces in Italy – particularly the extreme right-wing Lega Nord.

It also was a convenient way for Italy to hide its inability to take a real commitment on the issue of immigration.

Likewise, it was also convenient for the United States, as President Barak Obama made clear to Renzi in his recent meeting, that he had no intention of putting American troops on the ground in Libya.

Rome has said it would be willing to lead an international peace-keeping force in its former colony but only if the warring parties first agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire and peace accord.

But the fact that some 20,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean, proves that those refugees prefer death than to life today in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa. It would seem impossible to stop this human tide of desperation by military means.


The memory of Italy’s colonial occupation of Libya, with the use of poison gas, concentration camps and the like, would probably unite all the warring tribes and factions against any invader.

And it would give new strength to the general Arab perception that the West has no intention of abandoning its history of colonial domination or through alliances with various Princes, Sheikhs and strongmen to further its own interest, without any consideration of the Arab populations

The history of the Arab world, without which it is impossible to understand today’s conflicts, is extremely complex and requires extended book reading.

These days few people have the time to do so, therefore, few are able to process the endless string of news about conflicts in the Arab world – in which Europe, the United States and Russia have a direct responsibility.

So, within all the limits that it entails, here are some basic elements to understand why any outside intervention in an internal conflict in Arab countries can only play into the hands of the most radical groups and delay the process of modernization in the region.

Mohamed did not establish the Muslim faith, in the manner of Jesus or Buddha. He did not preach to change the existing system and while his teachings preach peace and tolerance, some are part of his experience as a warrior.

Koran and the Gospels

Mohamed left his message in the Koran, very much like the Catholic church has the Gospels. One special Muslim command is that you relate directly to God and there is no need of a church. This was the position taken by the Sunni branch of Islam, “Ahi al-Sunna,”, the people of the tradition.

Mohammed left no direct heirs and other followers claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, and his descendant to lead the Islamic community and they formed a political faction “Shiat Ali,” – the party of Ali who was killed as a result of intrigue, violence and civil war.

Ali had two sons, Hassan who was poisoned, and Hussein who died in battle. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.

To keep their identity separate, they established a “church”, with priests much like those of Christianity while Sunnis were content with Imams, or preachers.

Not All Muslims Are Arabs

Muslims now number 1.6 billion worldwide, the second largest religion after Christianity, but in 2100 it will be the largest.

Of these 1.6 billion, only 317 million are Arabs. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region and India and Pakistan have more Muslims ( 344 million combined) than in all the Arab nations. Sunnis are in the majority while Shiites are estimated to be less than 10% of the Muslim population.

Muslims form the majority of the population in 49 countries throughout the world. Shiites are only dominant in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.

While Shiite communities exist all over the Arab world, in the countries ruled by the Sunnis they tend to make up the poorest sections of society,. They often see themselves as victims of discriminations and oppression.

Shiites are a very large majority in Iran( formerly Persia) , whose inhabitants are not Arab, which lost some territory , including modern day Iraq, to the Sunnis of the Ottoman Empire in a series of wars between the 16th-17th centuries.

The Iranian revolution of the late 20th century, which overthrew the Shah, establish a radical Shia theocratic state headed by a Ayatollah.

The fact remains, however, that Iran is the most cultured state in the Middle East region , capable of creating an atomic bomb and with a very advanced system of education.

Returning to the Sunnis, among them there is the movement Salafism, sometimes called Wahhabism, which calls for a return to the strict, literalist and puritanical Islam. It was formed in the 18th century by preacher and scholar, Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in the desert of what is now Saudi Arabia.

He made an alliance with a local ruler, from the house of Saud, an alliance who has lasted 250 years, with the two families intermarrying , and the house of Saud conquered the Arabian peninsula with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.


The adherents to Salafism consider the term “Wahhabism” to be derogatory although they consider Shiites and other Sunnis to be apostates and al-Wahhab ordered the destruction of ancient tombs and issued edicts for the stoning of adulterers and forbidding contact with foreigners.

Last century, the Saudi King Ibn Al-Saud had to repress a revolt when he wanted to introduce automobiles and the telephone to his country and today, woman still cannot drive a car in Saudi Arabia..

Between the years 1987 and 2007, Saudi Arabia has spent 87 billion dollars propagating Wahhabism – erecting 1,500 mosques and 210 Muslim centers – and is still spending between 2 and 3 billion dollars a year to spread its verson of Islam.

All this may seem familiar to Europeans which endured wars of religion from 1524 to 1648. The protestant followers of Martin Luther in 1517 did not intend to create a schism within the church , just its reformation.

But in 1525, Pastor Muntzer led a revolt against the main Protestant church, calling for more strict and puritanical rules, which led to the deaths of 100.000 people. Pastor Rothmann, in 1532, ordered the destruction of all statues and paintings in all churches.

Even the Roman Catholic church saw a strong movement for returning to purity. According to historians, in 1498 the monk Savonarola did burn at least 6.000 works of art from the renaissance period.

Religion and Power

And, like with the house of Saud, religion was used for power. Princes and kings decided to become protestant, and made war which destroyed Europe at the time. It is estimated that 10 million people lost their lives in those 124 years. Germany, in 1617, lost 30% of its population when the Swedish army destroyed 2,000 castles, 10,000 villages and 1,500 towns.

The Qataris, a protestant sect in the south of France, were wiped out on the order of the Catholic king. When somebody objected to Simon de Monfort, who led the massacre, that there were some Catholics among the inhabitants, he replied: “Kill everybody, God will find his own.”

Tens of thousands of people were burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition .

For the Salafist purists Jihad , or holy war, against those who do not follow them is a must. They are against “Sheikistas” or Muslims who have forsaken the adoration of God for the adoration of the oil sheiks of the Arabian Peninsula, with the Al Saud family at their head. e Salafi Jihdaists have established the Islamic State (IS), carving out parts of Syria and Iraq, and seek to depose all Sheiks and Presidents and unify the Arab world back to “purity.”

It claims that Arab rulers have been corrupted by their oil weath and alliances with the historical enemies of the Arab world, and must be deposed with their wealth distributed to all Arab citizens.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchs have lost control of the movements that they helped create and finance. Salafists/Wahhabists are trying to create a world movement and are attracting young people from Europe and the United States, who dream the creation of a pure and uncorrupted Islam, which will destroy all opposition to return to the times of Mohamed.

The Salafist movement has metamorphosed in Nigeria with Boko Haram, in Somalia with Al-Shaabab, and everywhere where there is some disorder. They have outpaced other Islamists such as Al Qaeda, which was intent on destruction but not to building a caliphate like IS wishes.

Since the “ArabSpring” which began in Tunisia in 2011, Saudi Arabia has wsatched with dismay as the United States abandon its support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and feels Washington is giving legitimacy and support to Iran, by opening negotiations. And the new King of Saudi has decided to take an active role in the region, by intervening in Yemen, to block a Shiite sect, the Houthi, from taking over the country.

The Middle East Complex Mess

The Middle East is now a complex mess, where all wars are instigated or financed from outsiders and where alliances shift according to the local situation.

The Syrian drama, which as seen 220,000 people die, and five million refugees fleeing the country was instigated by Europe and United States, who wanted to topple Syrian strong man Assad. Russia has three times vetoed U.N. resolutions for ending the conflict. And now, those Syrian refugees are going to the shores of Libya, and embarking on perilous trip to Europe, where massive public opinion is against admitting them.

What is clear is that, interventions in Iraq (where Saddam Hussein was deposed) , in Libya (Qaddafi removal), and Syria (attempt to oust Assad), have only succeeded in destabilizing the region, and caused untold suffering. They have also contributed to the radicalization of Salafists, the fight between Sunnis and Shiites, and spawning a number of terrorists within Europe.

The battle within Islam is a fight that must find its solution inside that world and outside interventions will only exasperate the situation and delay any conclusion. It took Europe 125 years to end its religious wars. Nobody can say how long it will take for the Muslim world, but it will not be a short time.

Meanwhile, foreigners should keep out…

*Roberto Savio is the founder and former Director-General of international news agency Inter Press Service (IPS). In recent years he has also founded Other News, a service providing ‘information that markets eliminate’.

Roberto Savio: utopie@ips.org. http://www.robertosavio.info. The author has granted permission to Human Wrongs Watch to publish his article. 


Other articles by Roberto Savio on Human Wrongs Watch

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OP-ED: International Relations, the U.N. and Inter Press Service

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Thatcher, Reagan and Their “Revolutions”

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Hugo Chávez’s legacy to Latin America

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After Two Lost Decades, Japan Went to Sleep

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A Personal Experience with the American Justice System

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Banks and Politics Do Not Mix Well

2015 Human Wrongs Watch

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