What to really watch out for in the Mideast
The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future
One wonders whether the policy-makers in the Bush administration were aware of the argument contained in this indispensable book. If so, it would be hard to imagine that the war in Iraq would have been so ill-conceived and administered.
Nasr, who is a professor of Middle East politics at the Naval Post-Graduate School, argues that the real threat facing the United States in Iraq is not from the “terrorists” or the insurgents loyal to Saddam, but is fueled by the hatred of the Sunnis for the Shia majority. The author reminds us that the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Sunnis, and that Shiites number from 130 million to 195 million people or 10 to 15 percent of the total. Historically, Sunnis have looked down upon the Shiites as heretics. Since the creation of Iraq by the British in 1920, the Sunni minority has ruled Iraq, but the deposing of Saddam by the United States empowered the Shia majority, thus creating the first Arab country to adopt a political system based on majority rule via free elections.
The Bush administration argues that the elections held in the past two years in Iraq are evidence that the country is moving in the direction of democracy. Nasr contends otherwise, pointing out that the millions of Iraqis who voted were motivated less by a desire for democratic government than by their sectarian interests. Sunnis voted for Sunnis, Shiites for their own candidates. The result was that “one man, one vote” empowered the Shia at the expense of the Sunnis. The democratic elections that the Bush administration foisted on Iraq, states Nasr, far from becoming the first step in the creation of a more stable democratic Middle East, actually spurred a Sunni insurgency that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The Shiite ascendancy in Iraq, however, has also alarmed neighboring Sunni countries because of Iran and its movement toward the development of a nuclear bomb. Nasr argues that Shiite Iran threatens not only to assert its influence in Iraq but throughout the Sunni Middle East, which includes Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. He notes that most of the foreign fighters in Iraq are Sunnis, and a majority are from Saudi Arabia. These insurgents fight not as agents of al Qaida , but as Sunnis fighting the despised Shiites and their American supporters. Although ostensibly allies of the United States, countries like Saudi Arabia, Nasr contends, cannot help but be sympathetic to the insurgency, if only to counter the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
Hizbullah, in the recent war against Israel, adopted tactics similar to those of Ayatollah Khomeini, following the Iranian revolution that established the first Islamic republic in 1979. According to Nasr, Khomeini sought to unite the Muslim world by confronting the “Great Satan,” the United States, and leading the struggle against Israel. Khomeini, like the present Iranian leaders, embraced the cliche “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” By championing the cause of the Palestinians and rejecting any possibility of peace with Israel, Khomeini believed he could win the support of all Muslims in the Middle East. The fear that Iranian influence would expand throughout the region was one reason for Saddam Hussein’s eight year war against Iran, in which the United States supported the Iraqi dictator.
Should Iran become influential in Iraqi politics, that, together with its ties to Syria and support for Hizbullah, it would result in the forging of a Shiite arc in the Middle East that will inevitably lead to conflict with its Sunni neighbors, Saudi Arabia among them a certain recipe for disaster in the region. It is in this context that we can best understand the implications of the recent conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. Borrowing from the Iranian model, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah Shiite leader, sought to bring together all of Lebanon’s many sectarian factions by provoking the war against Israel. He was able to do this because he had support both from Iran and its ally Syria. News reports informed us that Nasrallah emerged as a great hero in the Muslim world because of his “victory” over Israel. And now, Hizbullah is threatening to use force in Lebanon if it is not given a greater role in the Lebanese government. Should this become a reality, Iran, the most anti-Israel country in the Middle East, will have its Hizbullah surrogate on the border of Israel, bringing the Shiite presence into direct confrontation with Lebanon’s Sunni neighbors.
As Nasr reminds us, the stakes in Iraq are enormous for the entire Middle East. While the Bush administration continues to focus on the “terrorist” insurgency, Nasr makes a convincing argument that the threat of a civil war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites would destabilize the Middle East and make the American presence in the region untenable.
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