The Middle East's Main Battle is Among Muslims, Sunni vs. Shia; Arabs vs. Persians
The Arab-Israeli conflict has been largely replaced by the Sunni Muslim-Shia Muslim conflict as the Middle East’s featured battle. While the Arab-Israeli conflict will remain largely, though not always, one of words, the Sunni-Shia battle involves multiple fronts and serious bloodshed.
Shia Muslims are a majority in Iran and Bahrain; the largest single group in Lebanon; and significant minorities in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. While the ruling Alawite minority in Syria is not Shia—as almost all Sunni Muslims (but not Westerners) know, it has identified with that bloc.
The main conflict in this confrontation is in Syria, where a Sunni rebellion is likely to triumph and produce a strongly anti-Shia regime. A great deal of blood has been shed in Iraq, though there the Shia have triumphed politically.
The tension is already spreading to Lebanon, ruled largely by Shia Hizballah. In Bahrain, where a small Sunni minority rules a restive Shia majority, the government has just outlawed Hizballah as a terrorist, subversive group, even while European states have refused to do so.
By Islamizing politics to a greater degree, the victories of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood group have deepened the Sunni-Shia battle. And, of course, on the other side, Iran, as leader of the Shia bloc, has been doing so, too, though its ambition was to be the leader of all Middle East Muslims.
Yet also, especially when it comes to Iran, the Sunni Muslim bloc is also very much an Arab one as well. Many Sunnis, especially the more militantly Islamist ones, look at Shias—and especially at Iranian Persians—as inferior people as well as heretical in terms of Islam. I don’t want to overstate that point but it is a very real factor.
This picture is clarified by a recent report by the Cordoba Foundation, a research center based in the UK and close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The name, after the Spanish city where Islamic religion and culture flourished before the Christian reconquest in the fifteenth century, may seem chosen to denote multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence. But, of course, it was picked to suggest the Islamic empire at its peak and the continued claim to every country it once ruled, including Spain.
The report is entitled Arab and Muslim National Security: Debating the Iranian Dimension and summarizes discussions among “a group of prominent and influential Islamic figures,” though no names of participants are included. The focus was to define and warn about the Shia and Iranian threat to the Sunnis and Arabs.
In the report, Iran is identified as the aggressor against the Sunni Muslim (Arab) world, pushing “its political influence through religious sectarianism.” Implicitly the discussion rejects the idea that either “the Palestinian issue” or unity as Muslims overrides the Iranian national security threat.
One concern is that of demography. ”Such demographic pockets [that is, non-Sunni Muslims and non-Arabs--BR] in some Arab countries pose a threat to society regardless of how small they are.”
Remarkably, the paper states that Iraq’s population changes “have distanced it from the Arab order.” In other words, because there are more Shia Muslims and non-Arab Kurds in Iraq, it is out of phase with other Arab states and might look toward either Tehran or Washington.
Another demographic concern is Iran’s alleged effort to convert non-Muslim Alevis in Turkey (they say they are Muslim but they aren’t really); Syrian Alawites (same story), and Yemeni Shia Muslims (of a different sect) to Iran-style Shia Islam (Twelver Shiism).
Iran has also succeeded, the paper continues, “in securing strategic victories, such as its gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, and the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia. Actually, though these are pretty limited gains in each case.
Syria, where the pro-Iran regime is likely to be replaced by a Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood one, is a setback for Iran. And by overthrowing Syria’s regime, the sponsor of Hizballah, that will cut Iran’s sponsorship of Lebanese Shia (Hizballah), “almost thirty years of hard work totally wasted.” That’s overstated but contains some basic truth.
The paper also states, accurately, “Although Islamic movements in the Arab world may seem on the surface to be homogenous and inspired by the same intellectual sources, there is lack of coordination and total chaos.” As an example it cites the Sunni Islamist movement in Iraq which faces: “Serious challenges from expanding Turkish economic interests, Iranian cultural and sectarian influence, and Kurdish expansionism.” It then asks whether the Iranian and local Shia or the Iraqi Kurds are the bigger threat.
Usually, the paper explains, the main threats are identified as the United States and Israel. Israel “still lives in the Arab consciousness as the biggest threat to Arab Islamic culture.”
Two points here. On the one hand, a group of leading Sunni Islamists is saying that Israel is not the biggest security threat to Arabs and Muslims today! On the other hand, Israel is identified as a cultural threat. Why? Because it is a socio-economic success story and thus subverts the narrative of Arab ethnic, cultural, and religious superiority or because it is a symbol of modernism?
But here’s the key conclusion:
“Prior to the Syrian revolution, there was no consensus on what constitutes the greatest threat to our national security, but it has since become evident that the Iranian threat is much bigger than American and Israeli threats.”
This is an intellectual-political earthquake in Middle East history. It in no way implies a friendly attitude toward America or Israel--which are still seen as threats--but it is an important factor to consider in Western policymaking.
One reason why Iran is such a huge threat, the paper continues, is that all Arabs and Muslims know about the United States. But Iran operates from the “inside” and in a “hidden” manner because it seems to be Muslim, Third World, anti-American, and anti-Israel. So it can fool Sunni Arab Muslims, stab them in the back, alter their culture, and take over institutions.
Thus, in Iraq, “Iran invested a lot of money and effort destroying Iraq from within through bribery and purchasing loyalties.” Of course, the real problem for the Sunni Arab Islamist movement in Iraq is that the majority of people are either Shia Muslims or Kurds who, while Sunni Muslim, have their own nationalist identity.
The paper is equally tough on Turkey, despite that country’s regime wanting to lead the Arab Sunnis. But while it is an economic threat, it doesn’t have much political or strategic leverage and is at least not trying to alter Sunni religion and culture.
While giving passing mention to the concept that Iran is merely aggressive because it has been fooled by American imperialism, the Sunni Arab Islamists claim that Iran often acts in conjunction with U.S. policy. Although you may find this idea to be strange, remember that Tehran did go along with U.S. operations against Afghanistan and Iraq, attacks which removed two of Iran’s Sunni enemies.
They conclude, “We no longer have any choice but to defend ourselves against Iran,” which holds “a sectarian, ethnic, Persian agenda.”
While the paper claims that “The United States…actually handed over Iraq to Iran and allowed it to expand into Syria,” the fact is that the West has in effect backed Sunni Islamist control over Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. This shows, however, that the Sunni Islamists will never credit—they cannot do so ideologically—any U.S. help they receive, much less reciprocate.
What this means is that a Sunni Islamist bloc now confronts a Shia Islamist bloc. Both accuse, with some basis, the United States of supporting their enemy. The question for Western policymakers should be not to take sides—“good” Islamists against “bad” Islamists—but how to use and enhance this conflict. The worst temptation is to believe that putting one side into power--in other words, Sunni Islamists because they may hate Iran--will counter the other.
Today, aside from the undoubtedly important nuclear weapons' issue, the main strategic threat in the Middle East is Sunni Islamism. Why? Simple. Iran cannot expand its influence successfully into Sunni Muslim majority areas yet the Arab world is overwhelmingly Sunni. Iran cannot win. Only Sunni Islamism can generate new dictatorships, repression, and conventional wars.
If you are interested in reading more about the Arab-Israeli conflict, current regional situation you're welcome to read my book Tragedy of the Middle East online or download it for free.