The Functional Usage of Sectarian Imagery and Slogans: From the Iran-Iraq War to the Syrian Conflict


Why is Hezbullah using the heavy duty Shia-specific sectarian charged slogans?

Why these slogans, one wonders?

What happened to the Pan Islamic slogans? 

It is for the same reason that Ayatollah Khomeini used the sectarian charged slogans during the Iran –Iraq war.

The pan- Islamic slogans are not as effective in mobilizing and exciting the base when its an intra- Muslim fight.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution at its initial stage was thought of as a pan- Islamic revolution and not as a Shia revolution. I once met one of the Sunni Islamists who traveled to Tehran after the revolution to congratulate the Ayatollah on his revolution. Those were the heady days of Islamic unity. That Sunni Islamist says today that "they" meaning Sunni Islamists should have known better.

 The irrational exuberance did not last long. And one key reason is the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988.

With the war not going in Iran’s favor, and with the death toll mounting and  the demoralization of the Iranian forces who thought that Iraq would be a cake walk, the Ayatollah resorted to unleashing Shia- specific slogans and using imagery that naturally aggravate the Sunni-Shia relations. The natural result of the deployment of the emotionally charged imagery and slogans was the resurrection of historical animosities and mutual suspicion between the two major groups of Islam.

The era of the Iran-Iraq war was the era of sectarian grievances on steroids.

The same logic applies today.

The thinking seems to be that the anti- Israel and pan- Islamic slogans are not going to excite and mobilize the Shia to fight for the “secular/ Arab nationalist/ Baathist”  Syrian regime- the decision is that a raw nerve needs to be hit and hit hard.

This is why, to the shock and awe/ dismay of many Sunni supporters of Hezbullah and Iran, the current leadership of Hezbollah chose to resurrect the highly charged slogans and images of the past and deploy them against the Sunnis of Syria fighting the "secular baath" regime.


Just as the usage of this tactic by the Ayatollah Khomeini aggravated Sunni-Shia relations for years, the current usage is worsening the relations and the salience of the grievances- real and imagined. The aggravation caused by the 1980-1988 war was later ameliorated with the Hizbullah fighting the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon.
The damage happening now will be forever with us thanks/ no thanks to the digitial record that includes Facebook, Youtube, twitter, etc.

The coming years will be the worst in Sunni-Shia relations in the Arab and Islamic world since the Iran-Iraq war. And this time the damage will be with us much longer and harder to erase from memory.

As the founder of Hezbullah Shaykh Sobhi Tofaili never tires from stating, and he is correct,  this strategy is playing with the sectarian fire and many lives will be lost because of it.

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