By Conn Hallinan
28 April, 2007
Foreign Policy In
1609, a terrible thing happened: not terrible in the manner that great
wars are terrible but in the way that opening Pandora’s Box was
terrible. King James I of England discovered that dividing people on
the basis of religion worked like a charm, thus sentencing the Irish
to almost four centuries of blood and pain.
If the Bush administration
is successful in its current efforts to divide Islam by pitting Shi’ites
against Sunnis it will revitalize the old colonial tactic of divide
and conquer, and maintain the domination of the Middle East by authoritarian
elites allied with the U.S. and the international energy industry.
Its vehicle, according to
York Times, is an “American backed alliance”
of several Sunni-dominated regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan,
Lebanon, and Egypt, “along with a Fatah-led Palestine and Israel.”
The anti-Shiite front will also likely include Turkey and Pakistan.
Iran and Beyond
The target is not simply
Iran, but the “Shi’a Crescent,” a term first coined
by King Abdullah of Jordan. This “Crescent” includes Iran,
Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad
in Syria. The Alawites are of Shi’a origin. The Shi’ite-dominated
government in Iraq is generally excluded because of its alliance with
the current occupation forces led by the United States and Britain.
Suddenly, rhetoric like the
“eastern tide” and the “Persian menace” have
begun appearing in official newspapers in the region, although the average
Arab does not view Iran as a threat. A recent
Zogby International poll of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi
Arabia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) found that roughly
80% of those polled considered the United States and Israel the biggest
threats to their security, while only 11% listed Iran. Further, fewer
than 25% believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear program,
while 61% think Iran has the right to a nuclear program even if it results
in nuclear weapons.
In fact, Iran’s opposition
to the United States and support for the Palestinians is widely popular
in the region.
Omayma Abdel-Latif, project
coordinator for the Carnegie Middle East Center, writes in Al-Ahram
Weekly that “the consensus in both Sunni and Shi’a
circles appears to be that attempts to emphasize Sunni-Shi’a rivalries
are intended to deflect attention from both the U.S. occupation of Iraq
and continued Israeli aggression. That the U.S. is working to fuel such
tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In
its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the U.S. is resorting
to a strategy which aims to raise the specter of sectarianism across
the Muslim world.”
The real U.S. target may
be a good deal bigger than simply the Shi’a Crescent. “Could
it be that the U.S. endgame is to weaken Islam from within,” asks
Lebanese writer Jihad Azine in An-Nahar,
“and divert attention from targeting U.S. interests to targeting
One major concern for the
United States is oil. While oil production in the United States, Mexico,
and the North Sea is declining, U.S. consumption is predicted to increase
by one-third over the next 20 years. By 2020, two-thirds of all U.S.
oil will be imported, and since 65% of the world’s remaining oil
reserves are in the Middle East, one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy
theorist to conclude a strategy of divide and conquer is aimed at keeping
strategic control of those resources.
Keeping up tensions in the
Middle East is also enormously lucrative for U.S. arms companies. Since
2006, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman have spent—or will
spend over the next year— more than $60
billion on arms purchases.
In its campaign to divide
and conquer, according
to journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration has
ended up bolstering “Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant
vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
Hersh quotes Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as saying,
“The Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite cold war.
The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq; it’s doubling
the bet across the region. This could get very complicated.”
already happened. As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations wrote
in The New York Times, “Who cannot remember that to contain the
so-called ‘Shiite Crescent’ after the 1979 revolution, the
extremism of the fundamentalist Salafi movement was nourished by the
West—only to transform into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Why should
the same policy in the same region procure any different results now?”
While the Shi’a are
often represented as a single entity, there are in fact enormous differences
among Shi’a communities. They are a majority in Iran, but Persians
are ethnically different than Arabs. The Shi’a constitute the
bulk of the Muslim population in Lebanon, but Hezbollah leader Hassan
Nasrallah has been sharply critical of Iraq’s Shi’a government
for working hand in glove with the U.S. occupation.
In any case, Shi’a
make up only 12-15% of the Muslim world and, outside Iran and Iraq,
constitute a majority only in Yemen. Traditionally they “are under
represented,” according to Jon
Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies. “Socially and economically, Shi’a communities are
more marginalized, less educated, and poorer.”
The fact that Shi’a
communities—particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, but also in Saudi
Arabia—are suddenly on the radar screen has less to with any kind
of Iran-driven conspiracy than with growing resistance to the sect’s
traditionally second-class status in the Middle East. The “divisions”
are political and economic, not sectarian, says Abdel-Latif.
Although the division between
Sunnis and Shi’a dates from shortly after the Prophet Mohammed
died in 632, the great gulf between them is often exaggerated. As London
School of Economics Middle East expert Fred Halliday points
out, the distinctions “are small, far less than those
between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity,” and conflict
between the two is “essentially a recent development, a product
of the Middle East political crisis in recent decades.” For instance,
Shi’ites and Sunnis have intermarried and shared holy sites for
Halliday argues that the
wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan encouraged the division because militant
Sunni groups were the heart of the resistance. The real divisions may
be small, but religious conflict has always been a surrogate for something
else. In Ireland it divided native Irish from Protestant settlers and
kept the two at one another’s throats. In Egypt, the British manipulated
Copts against Muslims, Christian Greeks against Muslim Turks in Cyprus.
As the Irish found out to
their woe, small differences, if linked to a wider policy, can turn
esoteric matters of theology into a life and death matter. “These
fires, once lit, can destroy forms of co-existence that have existed
for centuries,” points out Halliday.
And no one can be certain
where those fires will spread and who they will burn.
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist.
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