Dunsmore: World Islam

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(Host) The resignation of the pope has raised the attention of the mass media on the Roman Catholic Church – for the moment. But it has also prompted commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore to reflect on just how much more of a factor than Catholicism Islam has become in shaping events of our world.

(Dunsmore) Recently nearly a hundred Shiite Muslims were
killed in a bombing attack in Pakistan near the Afghanistan
border. This week there’s been a new wave of bombings of Shias in
Iraq. And in Syria, the civil
war  continues with 60,000 Syrians
now believed killed.

While this is a political struggle between the forty year
dictatorship of the Assad family and those who wish to be free of its despotic
rule. But, it should be noted that much of this civil war can now be
directly related to the dispute between Sunni and Shiite Muslims – a conflict
that dates from the 7th century over the method by which the prophet
Mohammed’s successors should be chosen.

There are ethnic, economic and political differences in
Syria to be sure. But at this stage
of the fighting, it mainly boils down to religion. The Assad’s are Alawites, a
somewhat mystical 9th century off-shoot of the Shiite sect. They make
up only 12% of Syrians.  By contrast
about 75% of Syrians are Sunnis. There are some religious lines that are
blurred.  But it’s
largely sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiites which now fuel
this civil war. And it’s a conflict made more complex because
Syria’s neighbors are directly
interfering to protect their stakes in the event the Assad regime ends-or

Over the centuries Sunni Muslims became the majority
Islamic sect and the most dominant, while the Shiites evolved as the least
politically powerful and the poorest. But that dynamic changed with the 1979
Iranian revolution when the Shah was overthrown and replaced by a Shiite

When Israel invaded Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that gave
Iran an excuse to intervene too. In
came its Revolutionary Guard which proceeded to organize Lebanese Shiites under
the banner of Hezbollah, the Party of God, into a significant political and
military force, That’s also when Iran and Syria cemented their current three
decade alliance.

When the United
States invaded Iraq in 2003 it overthrew the Sunni dictator
Saddam Hussein, who was Iran’s most significant enemy. Today
Shiites control the government of Iraq and Iran enjoys unprecedented influence

Many analysts believe Iran’s aspirations to become a
nuclear power is not to wipe out Israel – which given Israel’s own
nuclear arsenal would be suicidal for the mullahs of Tehran. In this analysis
what Iran really wants is to expand Shiite
influence while challenging Sunni ruled Saudi Arabia,
which as the keeper of Islam’s Holy Places is the acknowledged Muslim power
in the region.

It’s been credibly reported that America’s main concern about Iran getting the bomb is that it would prompt the
Saudis and perhaps the religious Sunnis of Egypt,
to try to go nuclear as well.

That would make the world a far more dangerous place-
because both the Sunni’s and the Shiites have militant, fundamentalist wings.
And these extremists are evidently willing to use any means to
return Islam to the glory days – of the Middle

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