Future Sectarianism in the Middle East…
HELSINKI-In an open lecture series on the Middle East I attended last fall at the University of Helsinki, one professor and expert after another confirmed a subject I’ve touched on in the past.
That Islamic sectarianism may be the future of the Middle East conflict.
I’d like to expand on these ideas a little more on this blog.
“I don’t really like [the Shia],” said a former Jordanian sports journalist said. “If you have a different religion than me that is fine. [The Shia] say they are the same religion, but they act very differently.”
A Sunni Muslim, the former journalist was speaking about Shia Muslims or Shiites, the second of Islam’s two primary sects. While Jordan is a majority Sunni country and he had few dealings with the Shia, the journalist said he does not trust them, preferring Christians, Jews, or even the non-religious.
This view was echoed by an Iraqi refugee living in Amman named Hasan al-Jumale who fled Baghdad in 2005 amid the throes of Sunni-Shia violence.
“There is no way the Sunni and the Shia will get together,” al-Jumale said. “There is no way that the gas will become friends with the fire.”
Sectarian violence in Iraq is down approximately sixty percent, according to the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). However this is only back to the level of violence in 2006 and is still quite high. In telephone conversations, al-Jumale’s family in Baghdad described to him the daily bombings and the city’s neighborhoods being redrawn along sectarian lines.
With the divided nature of the city illustrating the discord between Sunnis and the Shia, further violence cannot be far away, al-Jumale believed. Not wanting his children to live in such conditions, al-Jumale was planning on staying in Jordan, despite currently residing in the country illegally.
Sectarian violence in Iraq is nothing new.
Recently however, experts and academics who monitor the Middle East have begun focusing on the changing nature of the conflict and see the possibility of the sectarianism that is evident in Iraq to grow and redefine the region’s social landscape.
In his 2006 book The Shia Revival, Iranian-American Professor Vali Nasr sketched a future of the Middle East dominated by sectarian tensions and violence. According to Nasr, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq set loose a conflict within the Muslim world that goes back to the very founding of Islam in the 7th century. Similar to the split within Christianity between Protestants and Catholics, Muslims are divided into Sunni and Shia sects. There are also smaller offshoots, such as Sufis, who take their ideology primarily from the Shia.
The split between Sunnis and the Shia goes back to who is the true heir of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunni’s believe this to be his lieutenant Abu Bakr. The Shia believe it to be Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. The two sects also have different interpretations of the Koran. Fundamentalist Sunnis believe that the Koran should be taken literally while the Shia believe that the Koran must be analyzed by imams, the equivalent of Christian priests. Centuries of clashes have embittered the feud and today many Sunnis do not believe the Shia are true Muslims. In fundamentalist Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Shia are seen as heretics.
The Shia see themselves as long being persecuted.
Now with Iran, the world’s largest Shia country, making clear its ambitions to be the Middle East’s most powerful player, Sunni leaders are becoming increasingly nervous that their traditionally marginalized Shia populations could become restive.
“If sectarianism deepens and spreads, its destructive effect will reflect on everyone,” King Abdullah of Jordan said to the Guardian of London in 2007. “It will foster division, polarization and isolationism. Our region will drown in a conflict whose outcome cannot be foreseen.”
The rise of Shia power was described by King Abdullah in a 2006 interview with the Washington Post as a “Shia crescent” arching from Iran through Iraq north to Lebanon. Remembering the once powerful Persian Empire, Sunni Arab leaders such as those in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia fear that Iran’s increasing regional power will inspire unrest among their Shia populations. According a United Nations special envoy to the Middle East peace process, Sunni leaders will never accept a nuclear Iran.
“The patterns of the conflict have changed,” the envoy said. “In the past it was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has almost always been the focus. In the past 5-6 years the center of gravity has changed. There is the perception that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and seeking dominance over the region. This could collapse the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and spark a nuclear race in the region.”
Not everyone believes in such a dire future however.
“It is not that easy to make predictions,” said Daoud Kuttab, a columnist for the Jordan Times and other Middle East publications. “I do not buy the whole-scale attempts to group all into one problem.”
The reason why Kuttab did not believe that Iran provoking sectarianism was an imminent factor was simple.
Iran is weakening.
According to Kuttab, the country is becoming more polarized, its internal weaknesses being shown to the world.
“Even people from the revolution are attacking the establishment,” Kuttab said. “The nuclear issue shows the weakness of Iran. Not the strength. They are domestically focused and using it as an issue to show that they will not back down to the West. It is a Catch-22. The more you attack them over the nuclear issue the more you strengthen the radical’s base.”
Kuttab was not the only one skeptical about the rise of Shia power. Professor Ammon Sella from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also did not believe Islamic sectarianism would necessarily be promoted by Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony. However he said that the threat from Iran towards not just Israel, but also Arab countries was real.
“Former President Bush gave Iran a chance by destroying Iraq,” Sella said. “[Iran] has become bigger and more influential. There is no counter-balance to Iran left. You need checks and balances. With the removal of all enemies a country like Iran will take the opportunity to grow. This has a huge impact on the entire area.”
Sella saw the potential for the rise of Iran to produce new coalitions between countries that usually were on opposite sides of the conflict.
“Moderate Sunni countries might even align with Israel,” Sella said. “The more Iran comes closer to a nuclear capability the closer the time for decisions.”
It was the EU that Sella believed held the key to restraining Iran. Forty percent of Iran’s economy was dependent on EU trade. If the EU put their foot down Iran would be forced to reconsider its current aspirations.
Sella also laid to rest one of the chief concerns governing the Middle East. Despite having destroyed Syria’s nuclear facilities in a surprise attack in Sept. 2007, Israel will not attack Iran.
“Syria’s weapon’s were peanuts,” Sella said. “They cannot be compared. What happened in Syria was in a very isolated place. Nothing short of a nuclear attack on Iran could do the job. That would be the complete annihilation of Iran and could only happen if Israel was attacked by Iran. Otherwise it is not possible. The whole Iran business is a game for politicians in Israel.”
What I came away with was that the discord between Sunnis and Shia was real, although not necessary felt in the day to day relations in most countries. Iran is focused domestically and is not currently strong enough to export its version of Islam abroad. That may change if the regime strengthens. Everything else, if Iran really is controlling Iraq’s current government or if the Palestinians will be marginalized by a Sunni Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran is all up in the air.