Ireland's Sunni-Shi'ite Divide

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Zachary Goelman for TIME

Tareq Sammaree, a former professor at Baghdad University, sought asylum in Ireland.

Clarification Appended: April 18, 2008

"Sunnis worship God; Shi'ites worship God — and the imams," says Tareq Sammaree, offering a bumper-sticker putdown of the Shi'ite devotion to their pious human heroes, Ali and Hussein. The 58-year-old Sunni is a former professor at Baghdad University and a long-time Ba'ath Party member; he is not particularly fond of his Shi'ite countrymen. He claims he and his son were kidnapped by a Shi'ite militia and tortured for over a year at the Jadiriya prison in Baghdad, and that he does not know the fate of his son. "It's a tragedy," says the teary-eyed Sammaree, accusing the Shi'ites of turning his country into a tool of Iran.

The problem, says Dr. Imam Ali Saleh, a Najaf-born Shi'ite scholar and religious leader, is that not even the most moderate Sunnis can stomach seeing Shi'ites in power. "A Sunni believes that the Shi'ite is inferior," he says.

There may be nothing unusual about such sectarian Muslim disputation in Baghdad, but in Dublin, it's a relative novelty. Refugees from Iraq are a new feature of predominantly Catholic Ireland's growing Muslim community — estimated by its leaders to number around 40,000, making it Ireland's third largest religion — and many have brought their Iraqi rivalries with them into exile. While the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Dublin are Sunnis, the trend is reversed among the Iraqi immigrant population.

Young Fatima Mussam is scornful of the Shi'ites. The 16-year-old left Mosul in 2002 because her family anticipated the war. She refers to her Shi'ite classmates in Dublin as "acquaintances," not friends. "I won't be deliberately rude to them but I don't like them," she says. Mussam blames the sectarian violence in Iraq on the Shi'ites. "They started it."

A 15-minute walk away from the palatial Islamic Cultural Center where hundreds of Sunnis gather each week for Friday prayers, stands the Ahlul-Beyt Islamic Center, the only Shiite house of worship in Ireland. There, Imam Dr. Saleh and Ahmed Ali flip through Arabic satellite channels and drink tea, recounting tales of fleeing from Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein's persecution of Shi'ites. Although Ali, 39, came to Dublin in 1999. At that time, there was peaceful co-existence between Shi'ites and Sunnis. He says one could even crack Shi'ite-Sunni jokes in mixed company. That is no longer true. "They cannot handle it anymore," he says of Sunnis. He saw relations begin to deteriorate in Dublin as Shi'ites gained power in Baghdad, and they grew worse as the sectarian conflict in Iraq became more violent.

Zahra Rahim, the wife of Imam Saleh, says she has no problem with moderate Sunnis, but fears a rise in Wahhabism, a fundamentalist stream of Sunni Islam that rejects Shi'ite practice as heretical. Rahim, who wears a hijab headscarf, associates Wahhabism with the fully-veiled women she sees on the street who often refuse to return the greetings of Shi'ites. Two years ago, she says, her son Jafar came home from the Sunni-run Muslim National School and told her that his classmates had called him kafir, meaning infidel. Jafar, she says, was also taunted whenever a bomb exploded in a Shi'ite neighborhood in Baghdad. "Who teaches them this?" Rahim asks. "It is not the teachers. The children get this understanding from their parents."

Imam Ali Saleh flips through Arabic news channels, looking for the most recent news from Iraq. He says that in every Iraqi refugee household in Dublin, families are tuned into images of Baghdad. "Sectarian feelings are inherent," says Imam Saleh. He points to the Irish conflict between Catholics and Protestants. "We are living between people who have suffered from sectarian violence," he says. "We should learn from them."

The original version of this story contained a quote from Tareq Sammaree that said Shi'ites worshiped people. Sammaree spoke in English, which is not his first language, and garbled his intention, which was to explain that, apart from worshiping God, the Shi'ites also venerate the Imams. The quote has been emended to reflect that.