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Prospects for the Sectarian Terrain (Part I)

[Image from France24] [Image from France24]

On 22 March, Sha‘lan Sharif wrote an article in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in al-Akhbar, the Arab world’s leading leftist newspaper. Sharif compared “the Jewish question” in pre holocaust Europe to the “Shiite question” of today. Jews were accused of conspiring against Europe, and against mankind throughout the ages, like rats carrying the plague, according to the Nazis. Just as Jews could not be trusted so too Shiites were accused of taqiyya, or dissimulation to conceal their “true intentions”.

While Sharif’s analogy might sound extreme, he was correct in observing an increase of hatred of Shiites throughout the Sunni Arab world. While there was never perfect harmony, there is also no history of civil war between Sunnis and Shiites until the American invasion of Iraq, nor anything resembling the international mobilization of sectarianism through media and statements of politicians and clerics. But since the American occupation of Iraq created a bloody civil war, relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the region have deteriorated to the point where if you meet a stranger the first thing you want to find out if he is Sunni or Shiite. Since the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, tensions on this issue have escalated more than ever before. 

Sharif explained that the Jews of Europe in the previous century were not to be trusted. If they showed love they hated, if they showed attachment to the nation they were traitors, for how could they be trusted if they had killed Christ? Europeans asked how they could feel safe when among them lived the Jews who were traitors, conspirators and the murderers of Christ. None of the solutions offered to the Europeans reassured them, not even the Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish homeland outside of Europe, because, as Sharif wrote, “what guaranteed that the Jews would not conspire against us from their new homeland?”

“It needed a radical, final, solution, and God gave Europeans a courageous leader called Adolf Hitler who decided to put an end to the fifth column, Trojan horse, the villain, the eternal Jew. The final solution, the idea is simple: look for all the Jews in Europe: house to house street to street and kill them one by one, burn them en masse in gas chambers. And then there will be no Jewish question.”

“And we the Arabs? Our problem resembles the European problem of the last century. We have a people who resemble the Jews of Europe. They are called Shiites. They practice something called taqiyya, they reveal the opposite of what is in their hearts. Never trust them. Not even if they were martyred for the sake of the nation, and even if they fought against their enemies, they do so for taqiya. These alien people are called Shiites. They appear to be Arab but for some unclear reason they hate Arabs. They are really Persian. They conspire against Arabs. They hate the nations they were born in. Strange people indeed!”

“Look for example what they are doing now in Bahrain: They are demonstrating peacefully! Don’t believe them, this is taqiyya. Did you see them when we sent groups of thugs armed with knives, clubs and hunting rifles? They did not respond with a violent counterattack. Don’t believe them. This is taqiyya. While Sunni mosque sermons threatened doom and destruction, against “the Shiite Safavid conspiracy” and warned against the “sectarian agenda” of the demonstrators. They respond with the slogan of national unity, but this is taqiyya. Did you see how sectarian are these Shiites? And how much they hate Bahrain? While they hated they carried the flags of Bahrain during the demonstrations. They are adept at dissimulation to the degree they deceived all the American ambassadors in Manama, as well as the U.S. envoy who was sent by Washington. We know that these Shiites are puppets moved by Iranian fingers. But all American diplomats were unable to see it. They say that Iran does not play a role in the Shiite protests in Bahrain! Did you see how the taqiyya deceived the Americans?”

“We Arabs will not have peace as long as they live among us, these sectarian Shiites. There must be a final solution. There must be courageous and bold leader like Hitler. Yes, we had a bold and courageous leader, his name is Saddam Hussein. He threw half a million Shiites on the border, and buried half a million others in mass graves. But we Arabs betrayed him, even though betrayal is not our habit but the habit of Shiites!”

“We opened our doors to the American invaders to make his regime fall, they handed him over to the Shiites, who killed him on Eid al-Adha! But we will take revenge on the Shiites of Bahrain for our sins against Saddam Hussein. Those who are demonstrating peacefully. We have run out of patience with them. Our thugs beat their youth, women and children, attack them with clubs in the university and the hospital. Our armed mercenaries roam their residential neighborhoods and break their shops. And they shout unity and national unity. How spiteful are they! We have run out of patience.”

“Oh my God, how much they hate Bahrain. This is their nature, they hate any country where they live. They are an alien people these Shiites. I have run out of patience. We have to begin the final solution! The Forces of “Peninsula Shield” will pursue them house to house, street to street, Glory to the Arab Hitler!”


Important as the popular revolutions sweeping the region are, they may come to be overshadowed by sectarian violence, and this may suit the aging Saudi royals, who carry what amounts to the Sunni flag. The reactionary Saudi monarchy won its cold war against Arab nationalists such as Egypt’s Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser from the 50s to the 70s. The result was an increase in Saudi dominance over the production of culture and media in the Arab world. Arab progressives and leftists suffered while fundamentalists flourished. This helps explain the weakness of Arab secular leftists to this day. With the death of Nasserist nationalism the only regional competition for influence was Iran. Post revolutionary Iran challenged the Saudi and American order. While Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdallah of Jordan and the Saudis collaborated with Israeli and American regional hegemony, Shiite Hizballah challenged this accommodation, exploding the myth of Israeli might and winning the love of millions of Arabs for its resistance to Israeli and American imperialism. Its leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah became the most popular leader in the Arab world for his charismatic and candid speeches. Iran also supported Hamas and resistance to Israel’s occupation and slow ethnic cleansing of the remaining Palestinians.

While so called moderate Sunni dictators had sold out on all the causes Arabs cared about, Iran seemed to be stealing the flag of Arab nationalism. Sunni dictators had to undermine Hizballah after its 2006 victory in Israel’s war on Lebanon. They played the sectarian card, warning about a Shiite crescent, calling Arab Shiites a fifth column and warning about the threat of Shiitification. Assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri was recreated into a Sunni symbol for sectarian agitation, as was Saddam Hussein, conveniently executed by Shiites. The American occupation of Iraq pitted Shiites against Sunnis, creating a brutal civil war which brought in hundreds of Arab suicide bombers who wanted to kill Shiites. Iraq was now controlled by sectarian Shiites. In 2006 the Saudis warned that they might intervene to protect Iraq’s Sunnis. In 2007 a senior Egyptian foreign ministry official told me the reason his country didn’t want to accept more Iraqi refugees was because they did not want to change Iraq’s “character” (i.e. by depleting it of its Sunnis). Hizballah was ascendant. Iran was confident, knowing Saddam was gone and the Americans were embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time the Bush administration contributed to regional sectarianism, seeking to bolster the so-called “moderate Sunni regimes” (dictatorships like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia viewed as moderate because they collaborated with Israel and the United States) against Iran or Hizballah.

While Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and other countries each had their own nationalism and interests, the myth of a Shiite revival and crescent became easy to spread. In Lebanon, clashes erupted as the American- and Saudi-backed Sunni Future movement provoked the Iranian-backed Hizballah, leading to the 2008 humiliation of Sunni militiamen. Israel’s war on Gaza later that year and the obvious farce of a peace process also made a return to resistance an appealing option, as the American- and Saudi-backed Palestinian Authority was shown to be little more than collaborators with Israel and had failed to produce anything in return for their betrayal of the national liberation cause.

In January 2010 after a Hizballah coalition with other Sunnis, Shiites and Christians outmaneuvered the Saudi backed Sunni Future movement, Sunni extremists rioted in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. When the humiliated caretaker Prime Minister Sa‘d Hariri spoke at a 14 March rally, a massive poster of Saudi king Abdallah was erected on the walls of the church behind him. It was ironic given Hariri’s movement stated opposition to foreign intervention. But it showed that Hariri had the Saudi king’s blessings. It reminded me of a Shiite cleric in Ba‘albek, Lebanon, who told me once that Hariri and the Future party were “Wahhabis wearing neckties.” In Lebanon, sectarian tensions can hardly increase any further, both sides hate each other so much and political stances are already extreme. Increasing scrutiny is given to which sect is buying land in which neighborhood. There are rumors that if a Sunni cannot sell his property then Hariri will purchase it so it will not end up in Shiite hands. Thugs on both sides clash regularly. But Shiites are militarily dominant. The Sunni weakness encouraged some Sunnis to look to al-Qaeda for protection. Shiites have historically been the subaltern, and in places like Lebanon, their rise to the middle class has alarmed some Sunnis who prefer to see them return to the south or to cleaning streets. They view Shiites as “uppity,” and forgetting their “place,” as did some Iraqi Sunnis I met in 2003. Shiites are increasingly treated as if they were a separate ethnic group. Pre-existing social disparities and religious antipathies have now crystallized and define everything. This has also led to a Shiite response, which sometimes resembles the justified resentment some African Americans direct at white people. The Shiite sense of being hated has resulted both in increased pride and increased contempt. In Iraq and Lebanon I have encountered a rise in Shiite sectarianism directed at Sunnis, because “they hate us.”

The popular Arab revolutions that spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and elsewhere shifted the discourse. The rise of Arab nationalism and of secular and leftist opposition movements meant that Arab governments might now also support causes championed by Iran and Hizballah but supported by Arab people, weakening the appeal of Iran and Hizballah. A more independent Turkey, which was Sunni and hostile to Israel also meant there was an alternative to Iran. Now it was the people against their American- and Saudi-backed regimes. The prospect of Arab democracy means that Arab foreign policy will be more independent and less accommodating to Israel, America and Saudi Arabia. The return of Arab nationalism and the prospect of Arab democracy terrifies the Saudi monarchy. This is what it worked to suppress for decades. Moreover, the Saudi religious establishment views Shiites as less than human while politically, Shiites are distrusted.

Rather than Arab Shiites being loyal to Iran, Iran has proven to be a handicap. Iraqi Shiites were crushed in 1991 because Gulf countries and the United States feared they would be loyal to Iran, and today the oppression of the Bahraini opposition is being ignored or supported for the same reason.

Bahraini demonstrators have for years been calling for democracy. Ten years ago they were promised reforms that would transition Bahrain from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. But this never happened. Instead discrimination against the majority Shiite population was further entrenched. Over the last ten years demonstrators were met with brutality and the regime hired outside mercenaries from other Arab countries or Pakistan, always Sunni, so they could be relied upon to crush demonstrators mercilessly. In addition to brutally killing and beating opposition demonstrators, the ruling family organized its own demonstration in which tens of thousands of people rallied by a Sunni mosque.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was created in 1981 in response to the Iranian revolution and fears its anti-monarchical winds would blow across the gulf. The GCC’s Peninsula Shield was mostly symbolic and basically disbanded but it was a convenient title for what most recently was effectively the Saudi National Guard invading Bahrain with some police from the UAE to suppress a growing domestic popular uprising. It was clear the Bahrain regime was unable to crush the demonstrators so the Saudis felt compelled to invade. The conflict in Bahrain helped obstruct the revolutionary wave, creating rifts. Sectarianism returned as the dominant theme in the Levant and Gulf, while in North Africa the American-led war on Qadhafi distracted from the people’s revolutions. The Bahrain protestors were met with brutal violence. Because Bahrain is majority Shiite the specter of democracy would mean both the end of a Gulf monarchy, something the Saudis could not tolerate, and even worse, a potential government by Bahraini Shiites. An intense media campaign was launched to delegitimize the demonstrators as working for Iran. Although the protest movements in Bahrain (whose hated Prime Minister has been ruling for forty years) predate the Iranian revolution, the media has succeeded in associating it with Shiites and the regime’s brutal response has succeeded in turning Shiites against it.

And then on March 17 Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq demonstrated in support for their brethren in Bahrain. Suddenly Sunnis could actually point to a “Shiite crescent.” Iraqi Shiites protesting in support of Bahrainis received police protection and support, unlike protestors condemning corruption and lack of services who were met with violence by the Iraqi Security Forces. In Iraq the state is closely identified with the Shiite sect. This is not merely because sectarian Shiite parties dominate it. Government buildings are decorated with Shiite flags, banners and posters and these can be seen even on Iraqi Army and Police vehicles and checkpoints. Not only is there no separation of church and state there is no separation of state and sect. While this is both a symbol of pride and confidence in Iraqi Shiite identity, it must surely make secular Iraqis or non Shiite Iraqis uncomfortable to enter a ministry with Shiite flags on it and Shiite religious channels playing on the television and talk to an official whose mobile phone ring tone is a religious Shiite sermon or song.

For the ruling parties in the Iraqi state backing demonstrations in support of Shiites in Bahrain is a good way to divert the anger of their supporters who might otherwise demonstrate against the human rights abuses, lack of services and corruption in Iraq. Similarly, the ruling Kurdish party backed demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Irbil in solidarity with Kurds in Syria as a way to divert attention from anti-government demonstrations elsewhere in Kurdistan.

On 17 March Iraqi MP Haidar al-Mulla proposed that parliament discuss the situation of “our people in Bahrain.” Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujeifi said that peaceful protests were a legitimate right to guarantee the demands of the Bahraini people but the use of violence could “potentially tear apart the social fabric of the country and the region.” He was cautious and did not take a stand on “the sisterly state of Bahrain” specifically. He called for no negative interference in Bahrain’s affairs that could destabilize it unless that interference was beneficial or positive and he called on leaving the people of Bahrain to decide things for themselves.

MP and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja‘fari started slowly and quietly but soon thundered angrily. He described the Saudi invasion as a “flagrant violation.” Arab states were silent during the Sha‘ban intifada of 1991 when the Shiites rose up against Saddam, just as they are in Bahrain’s revolution. But Arab countries condemned violence against the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. “Sectarian hatred” explained the silence of Arab countries about the uprising of in Bahrain. Other revolutions were called people’s revolutions but the revolution in Bahrain was called a Shiite uprising and was called sectarian. Al-Ja‘fari asked what was wrong with being Shiite. He was not shy about being Shiite, he said, it was not a danger to anybody. He angrily condemned those who doubted the “Arabness of Shiites.” Shiites were the Shiites, or partisans, of Ali, he said. Where was Ali from, he asked, from Isfahan (in Iran)? No, Ali was from Kufa (Iraq). Shiite Lawmakers immediately applauded his statements. He condemned the Arab world’s cowardly position. He called Pearl square, where Bahrain protestors had gathered, “the pearl of the revolution.” Now was not the time for silence and being shy, he said. He called the Arab world’s position “cowardly.” He compared the dictator of Bahrain to the dictators Mubarak and Qadhafi. “We stood for south Sudan,” he said, and for the Church of Our Lady of Salvation which al-Qaeda attacked in Baghdad, and they could not be quiet for Bahrain. He spoke of the intifada of the martyr Muhammad al-Madhlum, a Sunni air force General from the Duleimi tribe in the ‘Anbar province who was executed in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup, leading to disturbances among his supporters. Al-Ja‘fari also spoke of Saddam’s crimes in Halabja. He angrily condemned America for its silence on Bahrain. The West had opposed occupations when they were on its territories, why was occupation not allowed in the West but it was allowed in the Arab world?

It was a powerful and eloquent speech, but ironic given that when al-Ja‘fari was Prime Minister the sectarian violence in Iraq intensified and the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Health were controlled by Shiite death squads and Sunnis were killed in hospitals, just as he complained that Shiites in Bahraini hospitals were now being attacked. Other parliament members spoke about the silence of the Arab world during the Kurdish intifada of 1991 and the Sha‘ban intifada in southern Iraq that same year. One speaker also mentioned the Sadrist uprising in 1999 following the assassination of Muhamad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada al-Sadr, by alleged Baathist agents. The Arab position was shameful, they said. What was happening in Bahrain was part of the popular intifadas. One speaker compared Arab dictators to dinosaurs. Ahmad Chalabi also condemned what was happening in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. Female parliamentarians said that the government in Bahrain had lost its legitimacy. Parliament member and former leader of the ministry of interior when it was associated with brutal death squads Bayan Jabr spoke about “our people” being killed in the streets of Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. He spoke about “foreign forces entering Bahrain to kill our people in hospitals … we want Arab league to get out of its silence.” One parliament member spoke of the “intifada of our Arab Muslim people in sisterly Bahrain … We stood with people in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and now with the people of Bahrain.” He also spoke of liberating Palestine, Jerusalem, and Gaza. He condemned governments that did not respect their people and called on severing diplomatic ties with Bahrain.

A Shiite lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi federal police asked me a few days later, “Why are you protecting the demonstrators in Libya but not the demonstrators in Bahrain? Shiites are the majority in Bahrain. What’s wrong with a Shiite government in Bahrain?” While one Shiite taxi driver in Baghdad, while listening to news about Shiites in Bahrain said wistfully, “If Sayyid Muqtada [al-Sadr] gave a fatwa to send two companies of the Mahdi Army to Bahrain, they would liberate them."

[Read Part II here.




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