Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Playing the Sectarian Card to Contain Iran

"After Iran and Iraq went to war in 1980, Saudi Arabia threw its weight behind Saddam, financing his war effort to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. This was an Arab-Iranian war but also a Sunni-Shia war. If in Iraq it was Saudi-supported military might that would stop Khomeini, elsewhere Saudi Arabia had other resources to limit the spread of Khomeini's message.

Saudi propaganda underscored Khomeini's Shia identity on the one hand and the divide between Shiism and Sunnism on the other. It was clear to Riyadh and other capitals in the region that the surest and perhaps the only way to contain Khomeini was to play the sectarian card. This not only made it less likely that individual Sunnis would accept Khomeini as an Islamic leader but also enabled various governments to crack down on Islamic activism more easily, and after Khomeini's threat was gone to resist political reform. Any movement that got out of hand could be characterized as Iranian-generated or -inspired and hence a form of Shia rebellion against the proper order of things.

Governments from Nigeria to Bahrain, Indonesia, and Malaysia sought to drive wedges between Sunnism and Shiism, casting the former as "true" Islam - and the incumbent government as its defender - while branding the latter as obscurantist extremism. In 1998 the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha accused the Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Ibrahim al Zak Zaki of being a Shia just before he went on trial for antigovernment activism. In the 1990s the government of Bahrain repeatedly dismissed calls for political reform by labeling them as Shia plots. In Malaysia in the 1980s, the government routinely arrested Islamic activists on the pretext that they were Shias, thus avoiding the appearance of clamping down on Islamic activism while projecting an image as Sunnism's champion against subversive activities.

In India and Pakistan, Sunni ulama confronted the Khomeini challenge head-on, branding his vitriol against the House of Saud as a species of fitna (sedition) wielded against the Muslim community. The Saudi rulers, conversely, were routinely painted as Sunnism's greatest defenders and the symbols of its resistance to Shia attempts at "usurpation" in a historical context stretching all the way back to the early Shia rebellions against the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The Shia-Sunni struggles for the soul of Islam that had punctuated Islamic history were thus reenacted in the late twentieth century, with the Saudi princes in the caliph's role.

Saudi Arabia continued to pursue its strategy of containing Shiism by working closely with Wahhabi ulama to build a network of seminaries, mosques, educational institutions, preachers, activists, writers, journalists, and academics that would articulate and emphasize Sunni identity, push it in the direction of militant Wahhabism, drive all possible wedges between Sunnism and Shiism, and eliminate Iran's ideological influence. As one observer remarked concerning the geographical distribution of the Saudi-funded Sunni extremist madrasahs, or seminaries, that opened in Pakistan in the 1980s, "They form a wall blocking Iran off from Pakistan." It was in this context that one of Faysal's sons, the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki, laid the basis for a Saudi-Pakistani strategic relationship that would underwrite the Taliban's conquest of Afghanistan and its renting out of that country as a training ground for various "holy warrior" outfits. The Pakistani-trained Taliban reflected traditional Pashtun biases against Shias, including the Afghan Hazara, whose plight is depicted so vividly in Khalid Husseini's 2003 novel, The Kite Runner. Taliban fanatics declared Afghan Shias to be infidels and massacred at least two thousand of them in Mazar-i Sharif and Bamiyan in 1997 and 1998, and many more in pogroms across Afghanistan up until the U.S. invasion. Others were told to convert to Sunnism or face death; many fled to Iran or Pakistan.

One of Saudi Arabia's aims was to stretch that Sunni wall from Pakistan north through Afghanistan and into Central Asia. The brand of radical Islam that began spreading across Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1990s did not come from Iran but was a Sunni radicalism born of the deliberate Saudi policy of containing Iran.

Riyadh's strategy of turning militant Sunnism into a growth stock raised few Western eyebrows right through the 1990s, when Iran and its brand of Shia extremism still seemed to be the most dangerous face of Islam and the main threats to Western interests. It was the Shia who popped first into Western minds when Westerners thought about anti-Americanism, revolution, terrorism, hostage-taking, and suicide bomb attacks. The political fervor that emanated from Tehran and the kind of violence that it perpetrated were seen as flowing naturally from Shias' apocalyptic bent and cult of martyrdom. Even hotheaded Sunnis seemed less dangerous by comparison. They may have been hard-shell reactionaries who despised modern and Western ways, the thinking went, but they entertained no religious doctrines bloodthirsty enough to match those of the Shia, with their fixation on killing and dying for the cause. This inclined the West toward complacency when it came to Sunni extremism and its spread, first to Pakistan, then to Taliban-era Afghanistan, and then across Central Asia. Also largely unnoticed was Sunni sectarianism's role in the horrors visited upon Iraq's Shias after the first Gulf War and the failed uprising of 1991."

-Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival

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