Illustration by Eric Timothy Carlson
Illustration by Eric Timothy Carlson

For most of Islamic history, Sunnis and Shiites have managed to get along under the guidance of strong governments -- mostly run by Sunnis who kept the Shiites in their place. But when governments are on the edge of collapse, as in Iraq a few years ago and in Syria and Afghanistan today, the old sectarian tensions flare.

The consequences matter not just for victims such as the 63 Shiites killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 6, the Shiite holiday of Ashura, or the more than 30 unidentified people whose bodies were dumped in an Alawite neighborhood in Homs, Syria, the same day. They matter for anyone who wants to see peaceful change in the Muslim world. Radical transition breeds instability; and instability has a nasty habit of generating sectarian violence. Understanding the structure of this violence is the only hope of preventing it.

The Sunni-Shiite divide started over constitutional politics and was annealed in violence. When the Prophet Muhammad died, in 632 A.D., some followers believed his most qualified and virtuous companion should be chosen as commander of the faithful by the leaders of the community. Others opted for the principle of descent, preferring Muhammad’s closest relative, his cousin and son-in-law Ali.

Discord within the close-knit community eventually led to civil war. In the resulting conflict, the anti-family faction defeated shi’at Ali, the party of Ali -- and killed Ali and his heir, Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson.

Ashura Celebrations

Ashura, the Shiite holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, recalls these events that happened more than 1,330 years ago. Where Shiites can worship freely, the holiday’s dramatic ritual marches, in which young men mourn their slain imam, are symbolic markers of communal pride. A few years back, before the Sept. 11 attacks, I happened to witness a particularly moving Ashura march along Park Avenue in New York, which was at once somber and inwardly ecstatic.

In recent years, Afghanistan’s long-oppressed Shiite minority, who overwhelmingly belong to the Hazara ethnic group, have been celebrating Ashura in the cities more openly than at any time in recent memory. Although the country doesn’t have a particularly pronounced history of Sunni-Shiite violence, the Hazara have been an oppressed class since the consolidation of modern Afghanistan in the 19th century. Whatever the many inadequacies and failures of the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, it has at least improved the quality of religious freedom relative to the period of rigidly Sunni Taliban rule.

Until this week, when a Pakistani terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, coordinated simultaneous attacks against Ashura celebrations in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. The attacks were taken directly from the playbook of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which perfected the technique of targeting public Shiite celebrations in the course of its attempts to provoke a civil war in Iraq between 2005 and 2008. By killing Shiites, radical Sunnis aren’t just going after people they consider heretics. They also hope to radicalize other Sunnis, and to associate occupation forces with the unpopular empowerment of a previously oppressed minority.

Beyond these immediate tactical goals, the anti-Shiite attacks in Afghanistan, like those in Iraq, aim to tell the world that the official, U.S.-backed government cannot protect its civilian population, and is therefore not legitimate.

The breakdown lines in Afghanistan are traditionally more ethnic than religious-sectarian, pitting the mostly Pashtun Taliban against the Tajik and Hazara communities. Yet the overall effect of delegitimation is the same as it was in Iraq.

Iraq Surge

The U.S. surge strategy in Iraq helped reduce such attacks. In Afghanistan, however, the surge is over, and U.S. troops are decreasing in number, not increasing. The attacks bring home the reality that Afghan security forces are still some distance from being able to protect either the Afghan borders or the country’s populace, if they ever will be.

State weakness is also the immediate cause of sectarian violence in Syria. The growing effectiveness of the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad means that almost everyone can now imagine the collapse of the last standing Baathist regime. Under these conditions, what began as a peaceful protest movement suppressed violently by the state runs the risk of devolving into civil war.

On one side are the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority of the Syrian population. On the other are the Assad family and its closest allies in the military and secret police. They, along with perhaps 3.5 million other Syrians, are Alawites. Although the point is rarely noted, the Alawites are a type of Shiite sect. (For example, they celebrate the holiday of Ashura.) Their name, derived from Ali, indicates that they venerate Muhammad’s heir beyond the norms of orthodox Shiism -- even to the point of considering him divine. Indeed, the sectarian-Shiite aspect of the Alawite faith helped facilitate the Assad regime’s contacts with Shiite Iran.

Caught in the middle are Syria’s Christians, who like other such minorities in Iraq and Egypt long had little choice but to rely on dictators for protection. Now they find themselves associated with a regime for which they had no particular love. No doubt this is also true of many ordinary Alawites, who benefited from their position relative to the regime but may not have had any deep connection to it.

The dumping of bodies in sectarian neighborhoods in mixed cities such as Homs is another legacy of the worst days of violence in Iraq. At the height of the troubles there, terrorists backed by al-Qaeda frequently kidnapped and killed innocent civilians, using their mutilated remains as messages to the other side.

In Syria, as in Iraq, one of the goals is to provoke the other side into all-out violence. It isn’t entirely clear who would benefit by these particular killings -- whether they were carried out by extremist Sunnis or by Alawite supporters of the regime trying to convince the world that civil war is the only alternative to continued Assad rule.

Either way, the killings are a grim reminder that a peaceful transition in Syria depends upon decapitating the regime while preserving the state -- as the U.S. signally failed to do in Iraq.

Failed states will mean more of the sectarian violence that claimed thousands of lives there. This time, there will be no David Petraeus ex machina to bring it under control.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.