The Saudi -Iran Crisis and the New Arabists

Anti shi'a propaganda in UK

Shi’a are infidels. graffiti in the UK

This apparent crisis has brought to the surface one of many issues that plague Middle Eastern analysis done by American scholars, being that most scholars consider themselves of the intellectual class.  Enculturated  in a secular society that has never been deeply impressed with the spiritual or metaphysical aspects of religions, Middle Eastern scholars continue to dig through the manure to find that golden nugget of reason and logic that somehow explains the dysfunctionality of Middle Eastern society, one of its symptoms being  rampant Islamist terrorism.


This has been most recently brought to mind by the dust-up between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  A particular article caught my eye.  It was on an online periodical (VOX) entitled “The Real Roots 0f Sunni-Shi’a Conflict beyond the Myth of  ‘Ancient Religious Hatreds'” written by Max Fisher.

This is an article that warms the hearts and stimulates the minds of Western diplomats and policy makers…it’s not those intractable religious  conflicts, rather it is rooted in some  international policy, internal turmoil within the regimes, economic problems, all tangible issues, things that can be solved by astute diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy, conferences, meetings, sessions at the U.N. and at some point a resolution with accolades all-around.  Everything will be solved by reason and an appeal to the cognitive, with a bit of inventive carrot and stick…but the stick consisting of economic threats that everyone know are empty.

The article goes on to quote an earlier article by Marc Lynch, a big guru of Middle Eastern studies, in which he enumerates many real tangible reasons for the Saudi-Iranian conflict, all perfectly valid, even probable, and most tellingly, no mention of religion at all.  Now this is indeed an “insightful and thoughtful” piece of wisdom.  Wallah, as the Arabs would say…this can be solved!

In fact the author of this piece (Fisher) goes on to say,”…no one who seriously studies the Middle East considers sectarianism to be a primarily religious issue.”  So there you have it.  Just need to roll up our sleeves, dust the dandruff off our blue blazer jacket shoulders, and consult a few academics of like mind who will suggest meetings we can attend,  intellectuals we can  flatter, get air time on PBS and NPR, assume the essential face of gravitas but never utter the word “religion.” Mentioning this would quickly identify you as a sort of orientalist reactionary bringing  on a massive eye roll among the other panelists on the PBS show.  It would also ensure you would never be invited back.

I’ve read a few articles by Mr. Lynch.  He is probably a fine fellow and writes reasonably coherently but without flavor or color.  You know he is writing for the Washington incrowd…something for the politicos to digest before their next cocktail party.  Between martinis they can elaborate on the need for the Saudi regime to prove their manhood to their people by chopping off the head of some old Shi’a cleric.  In keeping with the decision of the U. S. administration to kiss up to the Iranian regime, academic scholars,  always alert to the shifting sands of liberal politics,  will heap scorn on the Saudi regime, hoping no one remembers their obsequious former approbation.

Once  the darling of those scholars and Middle Eastern experts acclaiming the new era of Arab media, but more lately the Arab voice of  Arab Sunnism, al Jazeera apparently  made a documentary supporting the author’s contention that this sectarian charade really began in 1979.  It was all “power politics.”   It was the coming of the Khomeini Islamist regime that touched off the Saudi-Iranian  conflict.  According to this narrative both were vying for Islamic world leadership.  No doubt the Islamist revolution energized the Shi’a along the Arab side of the Persian Gulf and indeed throughout the world, but never had lasting impact on the Sunni world.  The reality is that  Khomeini’s bid for Islamic world leadership (if indeed there was one) petered out after a few months amid a flurry of pundit exclamations of Khomeini’s appeal to Muslims worldwide.  Conveniently ignored is the pathological hatred of the Shi’a by the Wahhabi Saudis, noticed as far back as the 1760’s by the Danish  explorer Carsten Niebuhr or the numerous  murderous excursions  into Shi’a Iraq by Wahhabi muwahiduun.   Overt and more subtle discrimination based on the essential belief of the Wahhabi State has continued and has always been based on the Wahhabi belief that Shi’a are apostates.  Because they are not really integrated into the political or social life of Saudi Arabia they are obviously susceptible to Iranian Shi’a identification.

But  this religious discrimination is fully reciprocated by the Shi’a Islamists of Iran.  At the time of Niebuhr’s travels through Iran there was not a single Sunni mosque in Iran.  Today there may be some in the Arab Sunni regions of southwest Iran but none in the city of Tehran, a city of eight million people.

The author then wades in on Arab history derived from Arab History 101 apparently taught by a graduate student. As he writes, “Look at the 60’s and 70’s, it was Arab nationalism then…no sectarian differences.  Of course only storefront Shi’a  ever really bought into the Arab nationalist bit.  It was always a Sunni movement.  Just as “Arab unity” has always been a strictly Sunni concept, just like the “Caliphate” of today.  As Abbas Kelidar, the Iraqi Shi’a scholar stated  some years ago, “Nothing so divides the Arabs as the question of Unity.”  But I’m sure that would not be considered relevant.

Then perhaps the most ill-informed part of Fisher’s epiphanic article is when the author writes that the bloodiest conflict in the 80’s was between Iran and Iraq, both, as he emphasizes, Shi’a majority countries.   See, it wasn’t about religion at all.  It was not relevant that Iraq had been ruled with an iron hand by Sunnis for hundreds of years and the Shi’a were just part of the scenery…”a fanatical and mysterious people” as Gertrude Bell called them.  The Shi’a  apparently did not realize the tolerant Shangri-la  in which they lived, deserting Saddam’s army by the thousands when the U. S. invaded…couldn’t have been any religious factor I’m sure.

Then the author goes on to Iraq, quoting Fanar Haddad, a very fine writer on Iraqi affairs, as saying, “Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms.”  How could it be?  The Shi’a, nor any other minority, had a voice.  But again, apparently that is not relevant.

I looked up Fanar Haddad and found this quote in a paper he wrote for the Hudson Institute: “One of the most widely peddled fallacies regarding  Iraq and the Arab world is that they were strangers to sectarianism before 2003.”  Certainly the great Gertrude Bell, with her utopian and romanticist view of a united Iraq, found that out much to her chagrin.

Obviously the preceding  was not a useful quote for the  Fisher article because, finally, after many pages of manure, we come to the  long awaited nugget of wisdom.  This sectarianism is…you guessed it…the result  of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  Yes.  So there you have it.  You probably  haven’t heard that before.  This  idyllic oasis of a stable Iraq, ruled by Uncle Saddam, who admittedly had a few rough edges, had Shi’a and Sunni singing kumbaya together.  But this tranquility was shattered by the invasion. “For much of its history, (Baghdad) Sunni and Shi’a lived generally peacefully, side by side in mixed neighborhoods.”  So writes Mr. Fisher.  Unfortunately Saddam did not know that because he  practiced mass expulsions, moving  his co-religionist Iraqi Sunni tribes around Baghdad in an effort to ensure  sectarian loyalty to him, all the while making sure that with the exception of a few window dressing Shi’a  loyalists, the Shi’a had little or no access to power and were excluded from positions of  authority.

In Saddam glory square

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

The author does admit that there has been some communal unpleasantness from time to time but these incidents were simply a result of regime politics.  But of course, once again, the unpalatable clarity of what resonates with the people  draws away the curtain of wistful thinking.  The way people see the other is the key.  The regimes merely use the longstanding and volatile reservoir of communal religious hatreds to promote their agendas.  They do not invent them.

The famous saying of the Saddam regime enshrined in a propaganda booklet published originally in 1940 and adopted by  the Ba’athis had the title, “Three things God should not have created: Jews, Persians, and Flies.”  The Iranians retorted with the well-known Persian saying, “Dogs drink ice water in Tehran while Arabs eat locusts in the desert.”  Generally, Sunnis have referred to Shi’a as rifidis ((rejectionists), magus  (deprecatory word for ancient Persian Zoroastrians), Safawis (from the Persian Safavid regime that basically transformed Persia from a Sunni to a Shi’a country).  The Shi’a are somewhat less  disparaging of the Sunni, using the term Nasibis (people who hate the Prophet’s family).  The grim truth is that these slurs are based on religious differences, not national images because they are all related to religion.

So the truly distasteful question secularist scholarly elitists must face (or simply ignore) is…how does reason surfaced in amicable discussion and logic erase 1400 years of  animosity?  How many meetings, panel discussions on al Arabiya or al Jazeera, or UN resolutions will it take?

Finally, if religion plays so little part in the history of the Middle East, why are there no Jews left in the Arab Muslim world, and why  are Christians leaving in record numbers?  Is this only a recent phenomena as the apologists would claim?  The response to this claim is clearly answered by Bat Ye’or in her book, Islam and Dhimmitude:  Where Civilizations Collide.

A last word from a Shi’a friend below:

Again, the same old cliche.  Blame it on the U. S.
It’s amusing how the author is trying to portray the love affair that was going on between the Shia and Sunnis until the U. S. showed up in Iraq.  He ignored all the historical facts about the ongoing Shia-Sunni conflict/rivalry.  What about the Wahhabi sack of Karbala in 1800’s where 5000 innocent people were slaughtered because they were Shia?  What about Taliban’s killing of Hazara before the U. S. invasion?
What about the Saladin’s massacre of the Fatimids who were Shia?
Saddam’s persecution of Shia before 2003, maybe?  Or that’s not worth mentioning?

What is different now is social media, and Shia and other minorities are able to put their voices and stories forward for the world to read and know about it.
Shia persecution used to be done and go unnoticed and unmentioned…not anymore.

Not surprised that there are still people who try to blame it on the U. S. or Israel thing.  It’s safer to play it that way.

My Comment on this?  Amen.



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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