Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, announced recently on Iranian TV that the West was trying to exploit the divisions between Shi’ites and Sunnis. He was 100 percent right.
For decades, western leaders muddled their way through Middle Eastern politics, with little to no understanding of the Muslim world. For them, Muslims and Arabs were the same. They had no idea that Iranians were Persians – Muslims, but definitely not Arabs. They had no idea that not all Arabs spoke the same language, and that Farsi, the language spoken in modern day Persia, was not Arabic.
Now, primarily as a result of the rise of Islamic State and the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, western leaders have a simplistic, but relatively clear understanding of the tremendous split in the Arab/Muslim world. They now know that there are Shiites and there are Sunnis, and they are not the same. The Shi’ite-Sunni split is more intense than the split between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity and the Orthodox and Reform in Judaism.
With this knowledge, western leaders came to realize that they could use the Shi’ite-Sunni rift to their benefit. They maneuvered to drive a wedge between these arch enemies. Taking advantage of the chasm was their strategy, and since 9/11, they have spent trillions of dollars doing just that.
Shi’ite Islam emanates from Iran, and Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim sects are so small that they hardly fit into the equation. Shi’ites comprise only about 15 percent of the world’s Muslims, but with Iran at the helm, it is a very formidable 15%. Most of the other 85% are Sunnis, and Saudi Arabia has claimed the leadership role for that swath of the Muslim world.
The battle has been going on for centuries, dating back to the death of Mohammed and the struggle over the prophet’s true legacy. Both sides claim to be the rightful heirs. Each views the other as heretics, as deniers of the fundamental principles of Islam.
Today, there are five places where this proxy conflict for regional hegemony is being waged: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. But no matter where the battles are waged, the true war between Shi’ites and Sunnis is between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani’s thesis, that the West is trying to exploit the divisions, is his attempt to unite these warring and desperate sects. His thinking, which is, again, 100% correct, is that once united, they will be able to repel the West.
Islam comprises about 22% of the 7 billion people on earth; this puts them at approximately 1.6b. people.
Statistically, Israel is a mere blip of a nation. It is those numbers that empower Rouhani and could give life to his objective. Ultimately, of course, he wants the entire Muslim world to be under the leadership of Shi’ite Iran.
Rouhani says: “The global arrogance [the United States and its allies] wants to create discord among Muslims... Unity is the only way to restore stability in the region.”
He continues: “The Zionist regime [Israel] is a regional base for America and the global arrogance....
Disunity and discord among Muslim and terrorist groups in the region... have diverted us from the important issue of Palestine.”
Several years ago Iran sponsored protests to oust Sunni leadership in Bahrain. In response, the Saudis drove brigades of its soldiers across a causeway they built to Bahrain, and with that military support, they secured the rule of the Bahraini royal family and saved it from being toppled by an Iranian-sponsored movement.
While watching the protests, Shi’ites held up signs critical of Bahrain’s Sunni leadership. One poignant placard read: “You treat the Jews better than you treat the Shi’ites.”
There still is a very small Jewish community in Bahrain, complete with synagogue and cemetery.
The community boasts a member of parliament and once had an ambassador, Houda Nonoo, the country’s top envoy to the United States from 2008 until 2013. Not only Jewish, Nonoo was a woman. So yes, the Sunnis of Bahrain probably treat their Jews better than they treat their Shi’ites.
Rouhani’s dream to unite Muslims under the banner of Iran is a pipe dream. It will never happen. The centuries of hatred between the two sects of Islam is far more palpable and far more powerful than their hatred of Israel and the West.
Shi’ites murder Sunnis, and Sunnis murder Shi’ites regularly. They kill one another even in the midst of prayer, and even while on religious pilgrimage.
Shi’ites blow up Sunni mosques with Sunnis inside, and Sunnis blow up Shi’ites mosques, killing Shiites.
They kill each other with impunity.
Not long ago, I asked a Sunni Egyptian driver who picked me up at JFK Airport in New York who he hated more – Jew or a Shi’ite? He answered without missing a beat. “That’s a no brainer,” he said. “Of course I hate a Shi’ite more than a Jew. Of course I do.”The writer is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud. Follow him on Twitter @ MicahHalpern.