Are we in the Arab world currently living through the era of the Second Fitna (tribulation), or a new phase of post-Arab Spring democracy?
The First Fitna, of course, was the period of major unrest in the early days of Islam over the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman, with major Islamic figures, including some Sahaba (companions) of the Prophet, taking opposing sides. This fitna plunged the entire Islamic world—from the Hijaz to Iraq, to Egypt, the Levant and Yemen—into a state of unrest and turmoil whose repercussions continue to be felt by Muslims today.
In a recent television interview, Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt, analyzing the post-Arab Spring situation in the Middle East, described it as the Arab equivalent of the “fall of the Berlin Wall,” adding that chaos and intolerance had swept from behind the wall to engulf the entire region.
He said: “We have not succeeded in resolving our differences since the era of the First Fitna, and we are now paying the price for this.” Such talk may be captive to old frustrations, but when looking at the fighting taking place in Syria—between different factions as well as against the regime—we can hear the echoes of the battles of Siffin, Nahrawan, and Dayr Al-Jamajim which raged during the First Fitna.
Shi’ite fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran are fighting under the slogan, “Revenge for Al-Husayn,” in reference to the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Al-Husayn Ibn Ali, at Karbala in Iraq in 680 CE. This was a pivotal moment that split the nascent Islamic community. Also today, Sunni mujahideen from the Gulf and North Africa—in fact from across the world, including even Europe—are rushing to defend the “honorable” Levant, which is to say the Levant of Sunni Islam. These jihadists are fighting against what they deem Rawafid, a derogatory term meaning those who reject “true” Islam, and Majus, another derogatory term most often used by Sunnis to refer to Iranian Shi’ite Muslims. However, in Syria today, these are names that each faction, including those of the same sect, is calling the other.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri issued a statement this week calling on his “brothers” in Syria, specifically the Al-Nusra Front and its emir, Mohammed Al-Golani, to immediately stop fighting their “brother” jihadists in the Levant and turn their attention to the “enemies of Islam.” Zawahiri explicitly cited the Ba’athists, Alawites, and their allies, the rawafid, in his statement. The Al-Qaeda leader also addressed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria emir Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad—to follow the path of his “grandfather,” Al-Hasan Ibn Ali, “who forfeited his role as Caliph to save the blood of Muslims.”
In an earlier recording, Zawahiri sought to incite terrorism in Egypt. Claiming that his predecessor Osama Bin Laden had been the spark for the Arab Spring, he said: “The events [of the Arab Spring] proved the foresight of the sheikh [Bin Laden], and he was calling for the completion of the revolutions that were lost in the quagmire of democracy.”
Let us compare the Al-Qaeda leader’s words with those of former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, who currently serves as military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He famously said that Iran’s borders, specifically its southern border, end at the shores of the Mediterranean, namely encompassing all of Lebanon. He proudly stated that, “this is the third time that Iran’s influence has expanded to the shores of the Mediterranean,” referring to the march of the Persian Empire before Islam’s arrival in the Levant.
Bearing all this in mind, one comes to a dangerous conclusion, which is close to that put forward by Walid Jumblatt—namely that we are facing the resumption of the devastating civil wars that engulfed the first Islamic community. This is a state where every side is ready to mobilize and fight at the slightest pretext, regardless of the cost.
We are now truly in the era of the Second Fitna.