Sunni versus Shi’a

with young Iraqis in Baghdad late 2003

With young Iraqis in Baghdad late 2003

Ottoman architecture in Basra...the unofficial capitol of the Iraqi Shi;'a

Ottoman architecture in Basra…the unofficial capitol of the Iraqi Shi’a

shiites-mideast-1982There can be little doubt that the political conflict that convulses the Arab and Islamic world is that of the Shi’a -Sunni conflict. It has superseded the near century of the Arab-Israeli  conflict. While many of the  Western academics and  journalists would love to keep that issue as the top priority  it has become impossible to  do so. It was always so much neater and clearer when it was Jews versus Muslims or Palestinians  versus Israelis.

The academic community and political pundits decided on your relative worth as an “expert” depending on which side you were on. If you wrote for the “wrong” periodical or web site you were declared persona non grata. For instance I wrote for a DanielPipes periodical, the Middle East Quarterly ( MEQ) and was forever branded a “zionist.” A supportive and  good friend in the academic community, warned me that  I would never be taken seriously if I wrote for the publications like MEQ. Of course I have and do not regret it at all. After all I  did not need tenure.  The fact that I have lived with Arabs, love their food, a lot of their culture, and many attractive aspects of their society makes no difference to the gurus of political correctness rampant in academia.

But now we have a new phenomena which will also put me on the “wrong” side again since I frequently find myself understanding the Shi’a viewpoint much more than the majority of the “experts” on the NPR and PBS short list of  Arab and Islamic experts.

To understand this issue you have to first understand that academia and the foreign service is dominated by sunni-centric illuminati.  There are very few academics or journalists who actually have had enough empathy for, or knowledge of, the Shi’a to understand their viewpoint. One academic who poses as the great Shi’a expert, Juan Cole, has been ridiculed by the Iraqi blogger,Omar, for his superficial knowledge,  His ultra left polemics  may be all the rage on the campus but does little to inform.  The one good  writer on Shi ism, Fouad Ajami,  has been tainted by his support of  George Bush ( an anathema on Campus) and the Iraqi liberation war.

I have been thinking about this topic for a long time but an incident recently in Egypt prompted me to write about it now. Egypt has very few Shi’a but a few days ago, the Shi’a in a small village were attacked by an enraged mob urged on by Salafi clerics. declaring the Shi’s infidels and  denouncing their “corrupt” religious practices. Several Shi’a were killed and many houses burned down, while the police did nothing. All over the middle east, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, to Lebanon the Shi’a are often the target of Sunni attacks.

The point I am getting to is that the so called “Shi’a arc” and the new vigor of the Shi’a movement is a reactive trend. It is a defensive phenomena to  standoff the Islamic revival, which is and was, a basically a Sunni movement. So was the Arab nationalist movement. Pan-Arabism means Sunni Arabism. It had its” token Shi’a but most Shi’a understood it was not their movement. As the Salafis and groups like al Qaeda became the spearhead of the Sunni Islamic movement, The Shi’a had no choice but to fight back.

standing atop Iranian helmets, captured by Iraqis in Iran-Iraq war

standing atop Iranian helmets, captured by Iraqis in Iran-Iraq war

In Iraq, many observers attribute the military policy of    the US  troop”surge” as the main factor in the Iraqi turn around, others the Sunni awakening movement, but there was another factor rarely mentioned. For years the Sunni nationalists and Islamists blew up Shi’a neighborhoods, and the Iraqi security forces nor the US units were unable to stop the  daily bombings. When the Shi’a finally and belatedly woke up, it was the death squads of Muqtada al Sadr roaming through Sunni neighborhoods, randomly killing everyone in sight, that led the  Sunni to realize there was a price to be paid for harboring and cheering on the Sunni extremists. This had much to do with the more conciliatory attitude of the Sunni leadership.

Everywhere in the Arab world the Shi’a have  begun to fight Sunni traditional dominance. In Yemen, the Zaidis, once thought of as Shi’a but akin to the Sunni have challenged the Yemeni government, . The Hezbollah have challenged the traditional rule of the Maronite-Sunni structure.  In  even Saudi Arabia, the Shi’as of the oil-rich a region of the eastern province have formed resistance to the vehemently anti- Shi’a Wahhabi rule. In iraq, despite the daily violence perpetrated by Sunni extremists, there will not  be a return to Sunni rule. In Turkey the long-suffering Alevis…a Shi’a splinter community, is beginning to challenge the Sunni Imperial pretensions of Erdogan.  The Shi’a of Bahrain have been temporarily subdued but that is unlikely to last.

The view of the Shi’as from the time of the British historians, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark  to the present day has been one of indifference or sometimes denigration as a “fanatic and mysterious ” people. This has carried on to the present day.

One final point. Often observers point to Iran and its shi’sm as the greatest threat to the West. True the Iranian regime uses Shiism to promote its objectives and expansive policies, but the threat from Iran is based not on religion but its historical and traditional imperial views of themselves as the  rulers of the Middle East. It should be remembered that Shiism came to Iran as a result of imperial edit to separate Iran from the Sunni Ottoman Turks.

This is not intended to promote a good guy, bad guy scenario but simply to take a different look at the Shi’a community in the Middle East.

Shat-il Arab

Shat-il Arab

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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