Shia Muslims in the Arab world
Islam is historically divided into two major sects, Sunni and Shī‘a Islam, each with its own sub-sects. Large numbers of Shī‘a Arab Muslims live in some Arab countries including Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Qatar. Shī‘a Muslims are a numerical majority in Iraq and Bahrain and make up a plurality in Lebanon. Smaller Shī‘a groups are present in Egypt and Jordan. Despite the heavy presence of Shī‘a Muslims in some Arab countries, particularly among the population of the Persian Gulf Arab countries, they have been treated poorly throughout history. Additionally, in recent times, Shī‘a Muslims along with Kurds have faced genocide by the pan-Arabist regime of Saddam Hussein. For both historical and political reasons, the Shī‘a have fared rather poorly in much of the Arab world, and the topic of Shi‘ism and Shī‘a groups is one of the most sensitive issues for the Sunni elite. This article discusses both the history of Shī‘a Islam in the Arab world from the dawn of Islam and their current situation in the Arabic-speaking world.
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Arab Shiites in Yemen have been traditionally suppressed, often violently. Massacres have taken place by government forces using tanks and airplanes to obliterate the uprising of Shī‘a groups in the country.
Shī‘as live in secluded, remote areas of Saudi Arabia away from the majority Sunni Muslims. The Shī‘as of Saudi Arabia live predominately in Al-Ahsa and Qatif provinces although large numbers are scattered throughout the kingdom.
Saddam Hussein and his 15 former aides, including Ali Hassan al-Majid, were held responsible for their alleged role in the suppression of a Shia uprising and the deaths of 60,000 to 100,000 people. The trial took place in Baghdad in August 2007. Al-Majid had been already sentenced to death in June 2007 for genocide against the Kurds.
Unlike other sects of Islam, the Shī‘as of Iraq have been treated horrifically under the regime of Saddam Hussein, when many Iraqi Shī‘as of Persian descent were expelled from the country in the 1980s, despite being the majority of the country at 75%. Reports indicated that no neighborhood was left intact after the 1991 uprising in Karbala. In the vicinity of the shrines of Husayn ibn Ali and Abbas ibn Ali, most of the buildings surrounding the shrines were completely reduced to rubble. The shrines themselves were scarred from bullet marks and tank fire. They were, however, quickly restored by the Shiite Donations.
According to Brian Whitaker, in Egypt, the small Shī‘a population is harassed by the authorities and treated with suspicion, being arrested - ostensibly for security reasons - and subjected to abuse by state security officers for their religious beliefs. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs estimates the Shī‘a population of Egypt at 800,000.
The most recent demographic study conducted by Statistics Lebanon, a Beirut-based research firm, found that 27% of Lebanon's population is Shī‘a Muslim. Shī‘a are the only sect eligible for the post of Speaker of Parliament. The Shī‘a Muslims are largely concentrated in northern and western Beqaa, Southern Lebanon and in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
- Mass grave unearthed in Iraq city, BBC News, 27 December 2005
- Iraqi Shia uprising trial begins, Al-Jazeera, August 22, 2007
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- Karbala Journal; Who Hit the Mosques? Not Us, Baghdad Says, The New York Times, August 13, 1994
- Comment is free: A green light to oppression
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