The Shia-Sunni divide: myths and reality
Omayma Abdel-Latif examines the causes, and effects, of the growth of sectarian rhetoric across the region
Al-Ahram, March 1-7, 2007
As the US-led occupation of Iraq enters its fifth year, conflicts and political rivalries in the region appear to be assuming a sectarian edge unseen since the 1982-1989 war between Iraq and Iran.
The debate over why this should be so is increasingly dominated by two approaches. Proponents of the first argue that concepts corruption, autocracy, occupation, nationalism, etc..., can no longer explain the range of conflicts and alliances within the region. "It is, rather, old feuds between Shia and Sunnis which will forge attitudes and define prejudices," writes Vali Nasr in his book, The Shia Revival.
As a consequence, argues Nasr and his fellow travellers, sectarian identity will play an increasingly significant role in drawing political lines and determining regional alliances, shaping not just how states and sub-state actors behave but the political attitudes of ordinary people as well. Sectarian-inspired conflicts, along the lines of those seen in Iraq, will come to constitute a major fault line in Middle East politics. Seen from this perspective, the political conduct of Iran or Hizbullah can be explained as a reawakening of Shia identity. By the same token Saudi Arabia's condemnation of Hizbullah as provoking Israel's attack on Lebanon last summer can be reduced to Riyadh's concern over growing Shia influence in Lebanon. Supporters of such a view would also argue that the Saudi Arabian mediation that resulted in the Mecca agreement between the two main Palestinian factions was also a product of Riyadh's desire to reassert Sunni influence. "Saudi Arabia fought to get Hamas back," said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, in a recent New York Times interview. Concerned over Tehran's growing influence in Palestine, the Saudis were determined to reassert themselves. Hamas, argued Indyk, may well be viewed as extremists by Riyadh, but at least they are Sunni extremists.
Proponents of the second approach, while acknowledging the role played by sectarian identity in shaping the attitudes of some political actors, argue that other factors, including the foreign policy goals of the countries involved, state structures and chronic regional problems such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, political reform and Washington's Middle East policies, all play a part. While Saudi Arabia views Iran's influence over Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian issue with increasing alarm, they argue, Riyadh acts less out of sectarian motives than concern over the regional balance of power. Tehran's foreign policy, they say, with the exception of Iraq, has transcended communal loyalties to embrace causes that were once the exclusive domain of Arab nationalist forces.
SO IS THERE A SHIA REVIVAL? The discourse on sectarianism is hardly new. The region fell prey to a similar bout of sectarian fever during the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran. In an attempt to rally Arab public opinion former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein resorted to anti-Shia rhetoric which was disseminated through the legions of Arab commentators and intellectuals on the Baathist payroll.
This time round, though, a new element is in play. It has to do with what is perceived as the growing role being played by Arab Shia who many see is making a radical break with a long tradition of political inactivity. Different terms have been coined to describe this phenomenon. Two years ago King Abdullah of Jordan spoke of the emergence of a "Shia Crescent"; more recently commentators have referred to "the rise of the Shia, the Shia wave, Shia awakening and Shia revival".
For those who seek to read the prevailing conditions in the Middle Easy along exclusively sectarian lines the developing Shia identity has been manifested in several ways. For the first time in their history the Shia have been handed power in an Arab country and inspired by the Shia assumption of power in Iraq, argues one of the lead theorists of the Shia revival, Hizbullah is now seeking to replace the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Al-Siniora. Hizbullah opposition is consequently reduced to an attempt to redraw the power-sharing model established by the Saudi- brokered Taif Agreement in 1989. Hizbullah's ambition would not, it is argued, be sustainable without the emergence of Iran as a key regional power with nuclear ambitions. Iran maintains ties with Shia groups across the Arab world, providing them not only with material support but a model state and sense of empowerment.
A number of Lebanese Shia thinkers and academics refute such arguments. The most important fault lines, they insist, are, and will remain, political, not sectarian: the tendency to frame conflict and politics in the Middle East within an exclusively sectarian frame is no more than a rehash of the colonial attempt to reduce the region to a serious of tribes, sects and communal groups rather than viable states.
One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.
In one of his Ashoura speeches last month, Nasrallah fell just short denouncing Iraq's current rulers as a liability. He was nonetheless keen on emphasising the need to understand political developments in Iraq within an Iraqi context. Such a discourse, coming from the leader of one of the biggest socio-political Shia movements in the Arab and Muslim world, exposes the fallacy of supposing the Shia's rise to power in Iraq as part of some grand Shia design.
It was military success against Israel in Lebanon and not the rise to power of a corrupt ruling elite in Iraq, says one Shia thinker close to Hizbullah, that has empowered the Shia, just as has the Sunnis. What is happening in Iraq, he continues, is not something from which strength can be drawn; rather, the opposite is true, and the Iraqi situation weakens political Shiism.
This seems to be the general consensus among Hizbullah's leaders about the Iraqi situation, complicated as it is by Iranian involvement, the operation of death squads and the ambivalent relationship between occupiers and occupied.
Hizbullah prefers to focus on issues that unite rather than divide. This is not to say that the party has avoided taking a clear-cut stand on sectarian strife in Iraq, Iraqi Shia parties' close ties with the US or even the lack of a fatwa from Shia religious authorities to fight the Americans. Nasrallah's speeches are replete with condemnations of atrocities committed in Iraq regardless of the sectarian identity of the perpetrators. But Hizbullah's leaders believe their focus should be on causes and not effects. The cause, in the case of Iraq and Palestine, is occupation. And it is Iran's support for the Palestinian cause and for resistance movements, according to one Lebanese academic, that has created a favourable Arab public opinion towards Iran despite continuous efforts by pro-US regimes to turn the tide of public opinion in an opposite direction.
A recent Zogby International poll found that close to 80 per cent of Arabs consider Israel and the United States to be the biggest external threats to their security whereas only six per cent cited Iran. The survey of a total of 3,850 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco and Lebanon was carried out in November and early December. According to the poll less than one in four Arabs believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear programme while 61 per cent, including majorities in all six countries, said Tehran had the right to pursue a nuclear programme even if, as most believe, its ultimate aim is to develop nuclear weapons.
The popular view is a result, says Ali Fayad, head of the Consultative Centre for Strategic and Documentation Studies, a Hizbullah think tank, of Iran's pursuit of Sunni foreign policy goals.
"At the heart of Iran's foreign policy are two key issues; the Palestinian cause and confronting Washington's hegemonic schemes in the region," says Fayad. "There is nothing particularly Shia about the two issues. Indeed both have been presented as the causes for the majority Sunni Arabs. In this sense Iran's foreign policy is Sunni. One can say that the Islamic Republic has transcended the sectarian issue in its foreign policy."
Western hostility towards Iran's nuclear ambitions, says Fayad, is fuelled by Tehran's support of the Palestinians. By the same token Hizbullah's strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict transcends its communal identity since it serves national and pan-Islamic goals, not sectarian ones.
Iranian policy in Iraq remains for many the weak link in its foreign strategy. Arab commentators from across the board have been scathing of the Iranian regime's failure to hold its Iraqi allies back from falling into the sectarian trap. While Fayad acknowledges that Iraq represents a huge problem he still holds the Americans responsible for working to foment Shia-Sunni strife in Iraq. "We cannot describe the present order in Iraq as a Shia state just as we cannot describe other regimes in the region as Sunni regimes," he says.
So what should be made of the Shia revivalists' claims about Hizbullah's attempts to increase its powers?
Party members, including its leader, have repeatedly said Hizbullah has no ambitions to expand the quotas the Shia have already been allotted within the Lebanese system.
"We are not interested in any redistribution of power," announced one Hizbullah official. The current conflict in Lebanon is over foreign policy, Lebanon's position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and the question of Hizbullah's arms. The group has always respected the political mechanisms established by the Taif Agreement and any change, its leaders stress, must target political sectarianism not the system itself.
While many argue that talk of a Shia revival is exaggerated, there are clear signs of growing Shia political activism. The model that is being adopted, though, is the one furnished by Hizbullah and not that of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution. Its arch enemies are the Israeli occupation and US hegemony rather than co-religionists.
SUNNI-SHIA CONFLICT: While there appears to be a consensus that sectarian violence is no longer limited to Iraq but has expanded to influence developments from the Gulf to Lebanon, public debate in the Arab world offers interesting insights about how both sides view the possible repercussions of deepening sectarian divisions.
The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.
Even before Seymour Hersh blew the whistle in The New Yorker on Washington's role in fuelling Sunni-Shia tensions, leading Shia and Sunni figures had warned that the US was behind much of the sectarian violence in Iraq and Lebanon.
When, in an Al-Jazeera interview two weeks ago, prominent Shia leader Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah was asked who it was that is threatened by the Shia he answered, simply, "Israel".
Fadlullah has been a staunch critic of US policy in the region and Sunni-Shia strife has been the subject of the majority of his Friday sermons for months now. In his most recent sermon, Fadlullah accused Washington of replacing its plans to spread democracy with schemes to incite Shia- Sunni sedition. Continuing rhetoric about a Shia revival and false stories about Shiisation of Sunnis were, he said, all part of a scheme to divide the two communities.
Echoing similar views, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, has criticised the increasingly vociferous rhetoric about the rise of Shia influence. He sees it as part of the ongoing efforts to set Shias and Sunnis against one another. Akef blamed the "enemies of Islam and the foreign occupiers for the division and the spirit of hatred which has recently spread".
For these leaders, Hersh's revelations about the US propagation of sectarian divisions in an attempt to make the case against Iran came as no surprise. The fact that the CIA is financing -- through Al-Siniora's government -- Salafi groups in Palestinian camps in Lebanon lends credence to the views put forward by Lebanese writer Jihad Azine. In an article published in the daily An- Nahar two weeks ago Azine questioned US motives in fuelling sectarian strife. "Could it be that the US endgame is to weaken Islam from within," he wrote, "and divert attention from targeting US interests to targeting the Shia?"
What is not clear is whether leaks made to Hersh by CIA officials are meant to increase sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
For months the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar has been publishing reports about Sunni groups receiving military training in Tripoli and in Palestinian camps. In one story published on 10 January Al-Akhbar reported that the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had agreed on a strategy of fostering increased cooperation between Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal and Fatah in an attempt to offset the influence of Hizbullah and Hamas. Although most of the reports are unsourced, the parties mentioned have not issued denials. The newspaper has also reported that Ahmed Al-Khatib, a former leader of the Arab Army, a Lebanese Sunni militia with Nasserist leanings, and Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal were coordinating their activities. Al-Khatib is said to have to have set up recruiting and training centres in the Beqaa Valley. During Lebanon's civil war Al-Khatib fought alongside the Palestinians.
While it would be interesting to explore the type of training and the ideologies that are on offer in such camps a more significant issue when it comes to the Salafi groups and the former Nasserist militia, is just who it is that is being defined as the enemy.
"Sectarian animosity between Sunnis and Shia is a temporary and false construct in Lebanon," insists one Lebanese sociologist. "It might offer a basis for outbreaks of friction here and there but it is not a reason to take a whole sect to war and it's too weak, as yet, to sustain an all out war."