Original Articles

An Israeli perspective on differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims – by John Myhill

John Myhill is a professor at the University of Haifa, Israel.
John Myhill is a professor at the University of Haifa, Israel.
John Myhill is a professor at the University of Haifa, Israel.

The great majority of Israelis simply don’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shias and they can’t be bothered to learn them. A related problem is that, believe it or not, there is also a pro-Sunni anti-Shia bias in some respects among Israelis. A lot of this is inherited from Americans and the British–the Americans are totally pro-Sunni (or pro-Salafi) because the Sunnis and Salafis have controlled the great majority of the oil, and Israelis think that they have to have the same position as the Americans.

Part is a fear of Sunnis, in particular fear of Salafi Wahhabis and Deobandis, who are global leaders and experts of violence and terrorism, knwon for lust for massacres of not only Shias but also of Christians and fellow Sunnis (Sufis, for example), sucide bombings and destruction of ancient heritage–the Shias seem to be much more patient and consider the consequences from what they’re going whereas the Sunni radicals go completely nuts and do destructive things at a moment’s notice, even if the people who are most hurt are themselves, they don’t even care. The result is that a lot of our actions are taken because we’re afraid of the Sunnis doing something crazy. For example, when I suggest to Israelis that we make a peace offer to Iraq, just to see what happens–I mean after all we want peace treaties will all the countries around here, it can’t hurt to ask, right?–their typical response is ‘We shouldn’t get involved in wars between Sunni and Shia Muslims’, and I say ‘This isn’t a war, we aren’t sending soldiers or weapons, just offering peace’, but they still act like this is somehow a military action.

Of course nobody objected to our offering peace to Egypt and Jordan for this reason, but with Iraq they do. Logically it makes absolutely no sense, but this is how many of them feel. The reason (at least the only reason that I can think of) is that even though they don’t really understand the difference between Sunnis and Shias, they know that offering peace to Iraq would make Sunni extremist, Salafis in particular, angry at us–and they’re right! The Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE, would be furious with us, they would see it as a betrayal. So we don’t do it.

A related point which I would like to mention is that since the 1970s/1980s, the conditions which the Sunnis have set upon the Shias and Alawis is that they can be accepted in some way in the Arab world–and be free from terrorist attacks– IF AND ONLY IF they not only support attacks against Israel with weapons but also publicly take credit for these attacks so as to become pariah states like Israel. This is why Iran and Syria have taken the role of ‘axis of evil’ in the eyes of the Western world and many Israelis–Sunnis can secretly support terrorism as much as they want and everyone will look the other way, but Shias and Alawites have to take all of the blame for it, and in exchange for this, Shias and Alawites won’t be the object of terrorist attacks (although this agreement has broken down recently). We are in an absurd situation in which EVEN IF SUNNIS ARE THE ONES WHO ARE ARMING HAMAS, SUNNIS AND SHIAS WILL AGREE THAN IRAN SHOULD BE BLAMED FOR IT. Since most Israelis, like most people in general, don’t think too deeply about things, they believe this.

So both Iran and Qatar support international terrorism, but Iran is hit with enormous international sanctions, while Qatar is awarded the World Cup.


America’s inane and incoherent foreign policy of trying to simultaneously be allies with both Jews and Sunnis (in order to please both the evangelical Christian lobby and the Saudi-Salafi oil lobby respectively), even though we have irreconcilable differences, has resulted in an absurd situation in which our most powerful enemies who are actually fighting–Hamas and the Islamic Caliphate (ISIS)–are being materially supported by our ostensible pro-Western allies on the Arabian Peninsula, while our de facto ally in fighting them, Hezbullah, is in principle our sworn enemy.

Who is Israel’s biggest enemy today? Well, Hamas has been shooting at us, but who’s supporting Hamas to do this? Well, in yesterday’s Times of Israel, ‘President Shimon Peres accused Qatar on Wednesday of becoming “the world’s largest funder of terror” due to its financial support for Hamas in Gaza.’ Okay, Qatar is a small country of less than 300,000 people with no armed forces to speak of, they have no strong allies in the region, we should be able to just bomb them until they stop supporting Hamas, right? But wait a minute, it says in the Wikipedia article on Qatar that ‘Qatar is home to USA’s biggest military base in the Middle East. Qatar is the world’s richest country per capita.’ So we can’t force Qatar to stop supporting terror against us because they’re protected by the United States. So it looks like the United States is our biggest enemy today. Am I missing something here?

This issue is not related to who’s the American president, they’re all beholden to oil for campaign contributions and on the CIA for foreign policy. Right-wingers will blame it on Obama, left-wingers will blame it on people like Cheney, but it’s really American thinking and policy in general. And the CIA, which has been pro-Sunni oil from the beginning, in fact that was the main reason that it was set up in 1947. The only President who was willing to stand up to the CIA was John Kennedy, who famously said “Something very bad is going on within the CIA and I want to know what it is. I want to shred the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the four winds.” And he was assassinated in very mysterious circumstances.

I only realized this after starting to talk to Shias a lot a few weeks ago. Why don’t we ask the US to stop funding terrorism against us with oil money? Because Israelis have accepted the American discourse. Americans have huge oil connections with Sunni sheikhs, oil has determined CIA policy from the beginning, so the US has to maintain friendly relations with Sunni and Salafi Arab countries, so in order to maintain this position but also support Israel, terrorism against Israel has to be blamed on someone else, so the Shias serve this role. I don’t know to what extent Israeli leaders actually believe the Americans’ nonsense and to what extent they don’t want to challenge their policy, but that’s the situation.

From an objective and short-term point of view, ISIS has an explicit program of conquering the world; Hezbollah doesn’t. ISIS chops off people’s heads with saws and puts it on youtube; Hezbullah doesn’t. ISIS forces women to wear the Niqab; Hezbullah doesn’t. ISIS collects jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and generally treats minorities under their control inhumanly; Hezbullah doesn’t. But beyond that there is an subjective difference–Hezbullah represents a community, the Shias, who are not ideologically and religiously opposed to Israel’s existence, and who have NO TERRITORIAL CONFLICT with Israel; the anti-Israel positions which Hezbullah has taken have been done in order to ingratiate themselves to the Sunnis. There is therefore the possibility at some stage that they can work together with us. On the other hand, ISIS represents a community, the Sunnis, which IS ideologically, religiously, and territorially opposed to Israel, so there is no possibility that they will ever be anything but our enemy. (And I know that ISIS (a Salafi-led group) has ideologically distorted Sunni Islam to the point that it isn’t clear if it should even be called the same thing, but POLITICALLY ISIS is clearly Sunni–they are fighting specifically against non-Sunni regimes in Iraq and Syria).

About the author


Ali Abbas Taj is the Editor of Let Us Build Pakistan.
@aliabbastaj on Twitter


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  • This is one of the most informative and thought provoking articles that I’ve read on this subject. Thank you, Prof Myhill. Also thanks to LUBP for publishing this bold article.

  • It is important to develop understanding between persecuted communities. Jews, Shias and Sunni Sufis have faced genocide and perseuction at the hands of Christians and Salafis Deobandis repsectively over many centuries. Unity is the answer.