The differences in beliefs between Sunni and Shia Muslims are significant, but the reasons for the violence are rooted in the belief that any deviation from Allah’s will or Mohammed’s words is blasphemy and\or apostasy and must be punished. Additionally, in Iraq it is all tied in with resentment over Saddam’s minority Sunni rule which oppressed Shia being overthrown by the US and elections which saw a Shia dominated government elected which has suppressed Sunnis. The only solution is separation of mosque and state but that is “haram” to both so the liberal and secular and feminist Iraqis are the most oppressed.
Sunni and Shia don’t agree on who should rule the Ummah. Shia are obsessed with the lineage of Mohammed. Sunni believe that the Caliph should be chosen by Islamic scholars not be given power based on nepotism or genealogy. Sunni view Shia are heretical in many ways. To make it more complicated there are many different sects of Sunni and Shia as well as other sects considered even more heretical by Salafis than Shia, such as Druze, Alawite, and Sufi. The particular sect of Shia that control and rule Iran are sometimes referred to as “Twelvers” in reference to their belief, similar to the Christian belief in the Second Coming and the Rapture, that the Twelfth Imam who was likely murdered as a child, but in any case disappeared, will return to Earth from being “hidden” or “occulted” and bring on an apocalypse to punish sinners and reward the Ummah. Sunni see this as heresy as no prophet is supposed to come after Mohammed. Sunni also object to the near worship of the “martyred” Ali on the same grounds. Think of the theological conflicts between mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons and you’ll get the idea.
The Koran has numerous verses that command Muslims to kill unbelievers and one that says “There is no compulsion in religion”. When Mohammed presented his new religion to the pagans, Jews, and Christians of Arabia it was largely rejected and the Muslims had to flee to Medina. Once Mohammed and the Muslims adopted militarism and conquest as,tenets of the new faith they easily conquered Arab pagans and not so easily conquered Arab Jews and Christians. When Mohammed died his role as religious, political, and military leader had to be fulfilled by a successor or Islam would fall apart. This period immediately following the death of Mohammed is where the concepts of Khilafa (Caliphate, the Islamic empire), Khalifa (Caliph, the ruler of the Islamic empire), jihad (the battle to expand the Khilafa to cover the entire Earth and to hold on to lands and people already conquered), and Sharia (Islamic law, which does not separate religion from state and military affairs) took shape. Understand that the Caliphate was the single largest empire that ever existed in human history and existed for 13 centuries. These Muslim against Muslim conflicts are, in the minds of the jihadists, about fulfilling prophecy, obeying God, restoring the lost empire, restoring religious and also ethnic pride, and above all else preventing unbelievers and those with “the wrong” beliefs from controlling the religious, political, economic, and military affairs of the former Caliphate, preventing formerly conquered religious indigenous minorities from regaining control, and expanding the Khilafa to cover the entire world as they believe their religion commands them to do.
It’s not just the Sunni\Shia conflict that needs to end. Islamic government, Sharia law, and Shura councils need to end. When the church ruled Europe we called that the Dark Ages. This is similar. The solution is to return to the secularization path that the Islamic world was on after Attaturk ended the Caliphate last century. The problem is that the church,in the Dark Ages and Inquisition was actual going against many of the fundamental tenets of early Christianity and the New Testament, whereas the jihadists have a holy book that commands them to kill unbelievers and explicitly forbids separation of religion and state, which is why Islam is the most problematic of religions.
Why do I care enough to know so much? I was always interested in politics since early childhood and grew up in fundamentalist Christianity. I took an interest in terrorism research after the Oklahoma City bombing, which is actually a much more complicated story than most realize. When 9/11 happened I was one of the first to say we knew enough to prevent the attacks and to point at bin Laden and Ramzi Yousef. I read the Koran years ago along with Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Hindu scripture. I read a lot..100% nonfiction….on this subject I recommend Ibn Warraq, Walid Phares, Rashid Ali, Peter Bergen, Richard Miniter, Peter Lance, Lawrence Wright, Terry Mc Dermott, Yosri Fouda, Harvey Kushner, among other authors….but the best thing is to study the Koran and Hadith themselves and listen to what jihadist groups say as well as what they do. Memri is a great resource. Most jihadist groups issue public statements regularly. Also I highly recommend the documentary reader Barry and Judith Rubin put out after 9/11. I thought growing up in a repressive religious family was bad until I released how much worse to grow up in a repressive religious state under threat of prison or execution for criticizing the state religion. I took an interest out of empathy with freethinkers in the Muslim world more than anything else.
Terrorism is usually defined as non-state actors committing violence against other civilians in order to force political change. Definitions vary, but war crimes, insurrection, and terrorism are different things. I don’t consider attacks by governments or against militaries to be terrorism. Only attacks by civilian extremists against civilian targets are terrorism. The drone attacks are against legitimate combatant targets. The problems lie with killing other people incidentally due to indifference to “collateral damage”, faulty intelligence, and faulty visuals from the cameras on the drones (this is a huge problem). The drone strikes, when they kill innocent people may be tragic and they may be war crimes and crimes against humanity, but they don’t fit the definition of terrorism in several ways. One. They are military acts by official governments. Two. The intended targets are armed combatants not unarmed civilians. Three. Civilian deaths, while they occur are not the objective. Four. They are not meant to change government policies but to protect certain governments and civilians from combatant groups by assassinating their leaders. When we take specificity out of the conversation words become meaningless and clear communication becomes impossible.
Israel/Palestine is a complex issue and at the center is religious obsession with Jerusalem by all three Abrahamic faiths. I think most Americans don’t realize that a huge number of Palestinians are Christians and almost 30% of Israelis are Sunni Muslims. It is true that Israel is not a secular state. Like Lebanon it is pluralistic (with Judaism on top of course) with Judaic, Islamic, Christian, and Druze family courts but not secular ones. The Israel\Palestine conflict is more complex than either side presents it. The solution to the tyranny and threat of Sharia law is to support its opposites: secular law and liberal democracy. The secularists, liberals, and feminists of the “Muslim world” are just there waiting for worldwide support. The fear of punishment under Sharia or social ostracism in a Muslim community does not prevent independent thinking. It can only prevent independent thoughts from being openly expressed.
In short the problem of jihadism, Sharia Law, Islamism, and such has many roots in the Quran, in the Hadith, in the history of the various Islamic empires (Caliphates/Khilafa), in modern sectarian conflicts, and in the “holy” books that preceded the Quran and are included among the religious scriptures of the New and Old Testaments of The Bible revered and imitated by Islam; most notably The Books of Joshua, Leviticus, Revelations, et cetera.