Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Arabs: do not allow the Sunni-Shia divide to widen

This is an excellent article (thanks Z!). Notice that it was published on, a Saudi web site - obviously at least some Saudis are good peeps. I have a feeling that the majority of Saudis are good peeps!

Autocrats’ talk of “Sunni-Shia” divide is dangerous pretence which risks Arab “cold war”

By Fawaz Turki

So let me get this straight.

Arabs have just found it necessary to revisit an old dispute - old, as in 1,400 years old - that has the potential to tear our societies apart.

The dispute, transposed into the public debate, posits the notion that Iran is a threat to us and that Shiites - all Shiites, be they our Arab brothers or Persian neighbors - are the enemy. Suddenly, terms like "the Persian menace" and "the Eastern tide", known in Arabic as Zahf, have begun to appear in the op-ed pages of prominent Arab journals.

There is talk of forming an American-backed alliance of Sunni-dominated regimes, a kind of anti-Shiite front, similar to the Baghdad Pact that the British wanted to introduce Arabs to in the mid-1950s to combat ‘Communist encroachment'. The target, in the words of the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah, will be the "Shiite crescent", namely Iran, Hizbollah and the Alawite regime in Syria - and wherever else behind every lamp post and under every bed Shiites may be found.

In April last year, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, told Al-Arabiyya that "Iran definitely has influence on Shiites" - a not altogether remarkable observation - and that "most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in."

And Saddam Hussein, that buffoon and semi-literate oaf who paid at the end of a noose not long ago, was mindful of the same idea when he sent a recorded message to "the Iraqi people and the Arab nation", on the occasion of his birthday, April 28, 2003 while he was still on the run, telling them that the fall of Baghdad a few weeks earlier to American forces was similar to its fall to the Mongols in 1258: Baghdad was betrayed by its last caliph, Ibn Alqami, a Shiite, who allegedly stabbed his people in the back by helping the Mongols sack their city.

"Just as Holagu entered Baghdad," he ranted in his famously reedy voice, "so did the criminal Bush enter Baghdad, with the help of Alqami."

Where has all this venemous rhetoric come from? Where has all this egregious stereotyping of our Shiite brothers, whether in Iran or the Arab world, come from?

Propounded by irresponsible commentators with ready access to the media, and by political leaders whose voices are amplified a million times over because of who they are, these views threaten, in time, to became the prevailing fantasy in our part of the world, dutifully embraced by the mass of our people.

I say, in time.

To be sure, the Arab street loves crackpot tales and conspiracy theories (the Sept.11 attacks were the work of Israeli agents, the death of Princess Diana was the result of some diabolical plot by British intelligence to end her life rather than see her married to an Arab Muslim, Monica Lewinsky was an agent-in-place put there in the White House by the Jewish lobby), but the notion that Iran is rebuilding itself as an evil empire poised to dominate the Arab world and that all Shiites are a fifth column in the heartland of our society, is something that few Arabs are buying - for now.

The average Arab does not, very simply, view Iran as a threat and Shiites as an enemy. A recent poll by the respected Zogby International of people in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, found that close to 80 percent of respondents considered the US and Israel to be the primary threat to the Arab world. Only 6 percent picked Iran. In fact, the poll indicated, Iran's opposition to the US, and its consistent support for the Palestinians, is widely popular among ordinary Arabs.

The article of faith in the Arab street (and trust me on this one, I understand the Arab street, where I grew up and which remains part of my archetypal roots) is this: the US is fueling sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites (Iraq remains contextually a different case altogether) in order to weaken and dismember the Middle East, armed as it is with the old imperial strategy of Divide and Rule. And as Washington continues to harp on the threat posed by the Iranian government, the Hizbollah movement and the Alawite regime in Syria, Arabs are not having it. Rather, the Americans' endgame, they believe, as they draw on the teleological spirit that animates their street, is to weaken Islam from within and foster regional tensions - all of which is good news for US arms companies, companies that over the last two years, for example, have sold Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia a staggering $138 billion worth of weapons.

Tending toward the conspiratorial? Perhaps.

But why the devil, I ask, should we allow this new, dangerous trend - a potential Sunni-Shiite cold war - to imbue the mass sentiment in our part of the world?

Theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites are small, decidedly smaller than those that, say, divide Protestants and Catholics. For centuries we have lived together, shared common struggles, formed friendships and intermarried. In 1920, as a case in point, Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites fought in the same battle, for the same cause, against the same enemy - British colonial overlords - and more recently, in the same manner, against Israel.

The divide between our two sects - where and when it existed - is not over matters of theological principle but of competing claims to political power, over the role each plays in running a government, and over control of state resources.

That Shiites in Lebanon, for example, are demonstrably vocal has more to do with the fact that they had traditionally been under-represented, marginalized and impoverished, than with a conspiratorial plan by Iran to see its nefarious designs implemented there.

Take Iraq.

Iraq today - and no one need be reminded - is a basket case, a country torn asunder by a communal-based system and unspeakable blood-letting.

Shiite leaders, who have exacerbated Iraq's fatal contradictions through their brand of identity politics, have treated the country as their domain and its resources as their piggy-bank.

These leaders - many former exiles with little legitimacy among their people - have carved out private fiefdoms in government ministries and social institutions, preying on state coffers to finance their militias (not to mention lining their own pockets), putting personal concerns ahead of the national interest, and filling their fetid prisons with political opponents. In short, they are complicit in the degradation and destruction of the Iraqi nation.

All true. But these folks are not engaged in all this because they are Shiites - rather because they are Iraqis who have, for generations, been socialized on an ethic of authoritarianism that promotes the idea of rule through coercion, violence and terror, and fosters corruption as a norm in social relations.

When Sunnis ruled Iraq, lest we forget, they too ruled as Iraqis imbued with the same penchant for brutality. Surely, the dreariness of life under Iraqi Baathists was not a function of their Sunni faith, but of their will-to-power.

There were many Iraqis then, as I'm convinced there are many Iraqis today - both Sunnis and Shiites - who sought to reshape the tenor of their time, to enforce on the development of their country's national sensibility much of their own progressive thought, adamantly refusing to give echo to the bellowing of those who propagated sectarian jargon. And they paid a price for that: they were hunted down and dragged off to die.

The end result of that is the spectacle today of ordinary Iraqis tearing at each other's throats, and where they are doing so, are running off like crazed lemmings in their hundreds of thousands, to seek refuge in surrounding countries, taking with them their perceived woes, and giving credence to the flat and shoddy idea that Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs are forever antagonists, and that Iranians, a people we have shared a glorious history with, are somehow our enemies.

I don't subscribe to that notion one bit. And I'll tell you why by indulging a recollection or two.

When I was growing up in the mean streets of Beirut, in the late 1950s, your identity politics was defined by, well, your political identity. You were a Nasserist, a Baathist, a Greater Syria Nationalist, a Marxist, a Socialist, and the rest of it. Anyone in our midst, in our fiercely political milieu, as it were, who even hinted at creating a plus-minus dichotomy between Muslims and Christians, let alone between Sunnis and Shiites, was ostracized as a ta'ifi (parochialist), the worst appellation you could level against a person in those days - with the next worst appellation being iqlimi (regionalist): one who sought to tell you that some Arabs are superior, or inferior, to others.

Religious identity? Ya, sure. Shiites, for example, commemorated Ashura every year on the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram, a day of collective atonement expressed through self-flagellation, much in the celebratory manner that Irish Catholics commemorate St. Patrick's Day on March 17, another occasion for self-flagellation, when they slosh down copious pints of Guinness till they drop.

That was about it.

Shiites at the time were seen as being as much of an "urgent threat" as a late notice from your public library.

But today something sinister looms on the horizon.

If we allow the divide to widen between Sunnis and Shiites in Arab society, or between the Arab countries and Iran, purely because of our confessional differences or some fantasy about "Persian imperial ambitions", as one worthy wrote in this very publication recently, then we will all suffer disastrous consequences. Our relations as Sunnis and Shiites will play a large role, in years to come, in defining our social, political and cultural transformation, and in determining how we see, and are seen by, the outside world.

In history - and consider Muslim Spain as an example - it was political pluralism and religious tolerance that proved themselves to be the vessels of human grace and the prime carrier of civilization.

Let us not cut our sensibility off from nearly all that is alive and radical in the universal message of Islam ("you have your religion and I have mine") and Arab culture by resorting to a sordid brand of sectarianism in our part of the world.

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