Of course, there is nothing new about the conflict between Sunni and Shia
Muslims, but it is indeed new as a feature on the regional level in modern
times. After all, as long as there were secular-style regimes preaching an
all-inclusive Arab nationalist identities, differences between religious
communities were subordinated. Once there are Islamist regimes, theology
becomes central again, as it was centuries ago.
However, no one should
misunderstand the situation. This is fundamentally a struggle for
political power and wealth. When Sunni and Shia states or movements battle they
are acting as political entities with strategies, tactics and goals.
growing power and influence of Iran’s Islamist regime posed a tremendous problem
for Arab Sunni Islamists. They generally did not like Iran because it was
Persian and Shia, yet it was the only Islamist game in town. Thus, Arab Sunni
Islamist Hamas became an Iranian client. The Iran-Iraq war reflected these
antagonisms, as best seen in Iraqi propaganda. Yet Iraq’s regime was also able
to keep the Shia majority there under control.
Saddam Hussein’s removal
by a US-led international force opened up the question of communal relations in
Iraq. Iraqi Shias are a three-to-one majority over their Sunni neighbors, so
they will automatically win any election, especially with Iraqi Kurds opting out
for what is, de facto if not de jure, their own state in the north. Despite the
anti-American and al-Qaida elements of the Sunni insurgency, it was essentially
a last-ditch attempt by the Sunnis to reclaim power. It failed and while
violence continues, now the main Sunni emphasis will be on negotiating the best
possible division of power.
In Lebanon, too, the Shia triumphed, led by
Hezbollah and aided by Syria and Iran. But all of this was prelude to the year
2011. The “Arab Spring” was an overwhelmingly Sunni affair, their own equivalent
in some ways of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Only in Bahrain, where they were
repressed, did the Shia take the offensive.
Egypt, Tunisia and Libya all
had Sunni insurgencies against Sunni Arab governments. The situation in Syria is
far more complex with an Alawite non-Muslim regime that pretends to be Shia
Muslim and is allied with Iran, opposed by a variety of groups. Nevertheless, in
this context, the upheaval is a Sunni-led (though far from just Islamist) revolt
against a “Shia” regime.
HERE’S THE bottom line: Sunni Arab Islamists no
longer need Iran or even Turkey because they now have their own power. What is
likely to emerge is at least a loose Sunni Arab and largely Islamist-flavored
bloc consisting of Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Libya and Tunisia along with the
Muslim Brotherhood elements in Jordan and Syria.
The key element here is
the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that doesn’t like Shia Muslims in
general and Iran in particular. Little events, like Brotherhood guru Yusuf
al-Qaradawi’s support for the Sunni regime in Bahrain against the Shia
opposition, show the direction of their thinking.
The even more radical
Salafists – a term now used for the small revolutionary Islamist groups, are
even more anti-Shia. One factor here is the continued unwillingness of the
majority of Arab states to welcome Shia-ruled Iraq into their ranks. Iraq is not
going to become a satellite of Iran. It certainly feels more comfortable in a
Shia bloc but will probably continue to be relatively uninvolved in regional
Note, too, that to a large extent this situation leaves the
Palestinian Authority an orphan. While the PA can depend on general Arab,
Iranian and Turkish support, it has no regional patron, and Hamas is currently
the group enjoying the Sunni Islamists’ warm support. This, of course,
encourages the Palestinian Authority’s (Fatah’s) alliance with Hamas while also
weakening its leverage toward that Islamist partner. (And that means a continued
disinterest in negotiating with Israel, much less reaching a negotiated solution
Thus, despite appearances, 2011 was a defeat for Iran and Turkey
because Sunni Arab Islamists are far less receptive to Tehran’s influence and
view it as a rival, while Arab Islamists don’t want leadership from Turks
Can these blocs unite effectively against the United States, the
West or Israel? In a word: No.
Their struggles for regional power and for
control of individual states (Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and to a far lesser
extent Iraq) will keep them in conflict. Even on the anti-Israel consensus they
will each seek to exploit it for their own interests.
By the same token,
however, the hope for moderation is minimal. In a region where regimes and
movements are competing to prove their militancy and loyalty to a radical
interpretation of Islam, nobody is going to want to make peace with Israel. And
regimes will only work with the United States if they feel believe America can
and will protect them, a rather forlorn hope with an Obama administration eager
to make friends with Islamists.
There is also another aspect to this
Sunni-Shia rivalry, the formation of blocs, the competition in militancy and the
battle for control of individual states. The region will continue to waste
lives, time and resources in political strife as the lure of ideology and power
rather than pragmatism and economic productivity still rule even if the old
regimes have fallen.
The writer is director of the Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at Pajamas Media.
His new book,
Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University
Press in January.