The breakdown of states throughout the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring has led the people in the region to fall back on primordial attachments, enhancing the power of sectarianism, tribalism, and Islamism, experts told The Jerusalem Post.
Various forces are seeking to fill the vacuum amidst the chaos, including a rising Shi’ite Iran and its allies, Sunni jihadist groups and Arab states.
The Iranian-Shi’ite battle being played out in the region has often been characterized by each side accusing the other of extremism or terrorism, but much of the underlying feud appears to be sectarian.
Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, said we are witnessing the failure of the nation-state in the Middle East, and people are reverting back to families and tribes.
Asked if the Sunni-Shi’ite reference is the best way to describe what is occurring in the region, Bar responded that it is part of it, but it is also linked to two other frames of reference: the “retribalization” of the Middle East and the conflict between Iran and the Arabs.
“The former is expressed in the breakdown of the nation-state and the reversion of communities to a primordial frame of reference – the tribe and the sectarian community – to provide the security that the state can no longer provide.”
“The latter is a deeply rooted conflict in the region that was subdued as long as Iran – and its Arab Shi’ite proxies – did not seem to be predominant and victorious,” he said.
Bar added that the success of Iran in spreading its hegemony throughout the Arab world through Shi’ite proxies – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon – is viewed by the Sunni Arabs as an existential threat to Sunni predominance.
“As long as the Shi’ites were a docile, quiet minority and accepted their status, they could be tolerated,” he said, “But once they are seen as tools in the hands of Iranian hegemony, the anti-Shi’ite ideology of the Wahhabi movement morphs into the even more extremist phenomenon of Islamic State.”
The fact that the United States is now seen as having “flipped” from support of the Sunni countries to support of Iranian hegemony exacerbates the sense of existential danger, said Bar, noting that the US toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and brought a pro-Iranian Shi’ite regime to power.
The US could have also worked to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it decided to reconcile with his continuing massacre of Sunni Syrians, he said, and is sending a message of willingness to change its position on Hezbollah. These are all seen as signs of that “flip,” continued Bar.
Bar sees the ideology of Islamic State’s caliphate as an important historical change of course.
“On this background, the ideology of Islamic State and the caliphate are a watershed event,” he said adding, “No previous Islamic regime – no matter how radical,” such as al-Qaida and the Taliban – “dared declare itself a caliphate.”
“The very paradigm of the caliphate implies that there is only one form of Islam and the caliphate must purge the ‘Abode of Islam’ from all others – Shi’ites, Alawites – and subjugate all other religious communities – Christians and Jews – or eliminate them.”
“This chaos is now irreversible; there is no military or economic energy available to bring the disorder back into order,” argued Bar.
“Therefore, Israel and the West must be prepared to live through the age of chaos in the Middle East for at least a decade.”
David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said by going to war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has let the sectarian genie out of the bottle again.
The war has “undoubtedly had a significant sectarian dimension to it, one the Saudis have nurtured over the years and now are forced to confront,” he said.
“Of course, Saudi officials claim that their participation in the operation has nothing to do with sectarianism, but while Saudi forces are busy bombing in the vast majority of Yemeni provinces, they have turned a blind eye as al-Qaida’s most dangerous branch has seized a major port city, perpetrated a mass jail break, captured military facilities, stolen millions in bank assets, and installed a puppet political leadership – exactly the sorts of things the Houthis were doing.”
Weinberg notes that the rhetoric inside Saudi Arabia about the operation also “fits the logic of sectarian hatred.”
Clerics such as Mohammed Arefe, Abdulaziz Fawzan, Omar al-Nasser, Saad al-Ateeq and others, who might not see eye to eye on various issues with the government, have nonetheless received perks and protection.
These clerics “have been inciting against the Houthis and other Shi’ites, calling them Safavids, rejectionists, or even rats.”
“A royally-appointed member of the Saudi Human Rights Commission’s board even warned Saudi employers this past year to avoid hiring Houthi infiltrators and their like – evidently a reference to Yemenis as a whole, who play a major role as migrant workers in the Saudi economy – lest they poison your coffee with filth and enchantments,” he said.
“And it’s not just religious leaders inciting against Shi’ites – for instance, the Sunni governor of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite heavy eastern province referred this month to Shi’ite instigators as descendants of Abdullah Ibn Saba, an apocryphal and derogatory figure used by Sunnis to blame the divergence of Shi’ite and Sunni Islam on the teachings of a Shi’ite convert from Judaism.”
Saudi Arabia has a history of allowing hateful rhetoric to flow whenever there are tensions with Iran. So despite the fact that the Saudis are officially at war with Islamic State in the US-led coalition, Saudi extremists at home are allowed to mouth off against Shi’ites.
This behavior also “encourages the sort of sectarianism that feeds recruitment and mobilization by Sunni terror groups that threaten the royal family,” said Weinberg.