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Why Mideast Leaders Continue to Promote Sectarianism

The Shia Crescent Revisited

by RANNIE AMIRI

“If pro-Iran parties or politicians dominate the new Iraqi government, a new ‘crescent’ of dominant Shia movements or governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon could emerge, he [King Abdullah of Jordan] said, alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.”

The Washington Post, 8 December 2004.

Zakaria: “You spoke a couple of years ago about the danger of a Shia crescent, meaning the Shias in Iran, a Shia-dominated government in Iraq, presumably Shias in the Gulf. Do you regret having made that comment?”

King Abdullah: “No, well, that’s not what I said. What I said is I was worried about members – certain members – of the Iranian government using an agenda to create the perception of a Shia crescent, because the last thing that we need in this part of the world is a conflict between Sunnis and Shias. And so when I raise the alarm bell, I saw a political strategy that would as an endgame have the Sunnis and Shias at each other’s throats … the fault line between Shias and Sunnis goes from Beirut all the way to Bombay and it’s a catastrophic subject to play with. In my view, I felt that there was an agenda out there that was going to try and push it in that respect, and also raising the alarm bell that that cannot happen.”

– Excerpt from Fareed Zakaria’s interview with King Abdullah II in Davos, Switzerland, 29 January 2010.

Although Jordan’s reigning monarch had the dubious distinction of being the first to publicly articulate the fears of Arab dictators over the rise of the region’s Shia Muslims – perceived as the emergence of a “Shia crescent” – it had no doubt been in their collective conscience ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It was not just a geographic designation but a warning that King Abdullah had issued after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It spoke of the consequences of a string of countries where the Shia were either the majority and held power (Iraq and Iran), were of a sizable minority in close proximity (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – with the exception of Bahrain, where they constitute an overwhelming majority but are nevertheless not in power), formed a plurality (Lebanon), or maintained close ties with Iran (Syria, although technically run by Alawis). Without a doubt, his comments belied a racism consistent with the Arab Shias’ historical discrimination at the hands of both religious and secular Sunni Arab rulers.  

Three seminal events

Punctuating the apprehensions of King Abdullah II, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and the royal families from the Gulf countries to Morocco were three seminal events:

First was the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It stoked fears that what had led to the toppling of a Western-backed tyrant would soon find its way to their borders. The internal fallout was the ostracization of the Arab world’s Shia Muslims who were now regarded as “fifth columnists” for Iran – a non-Arab Shia country.

Indeed, in a 2006 interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Mubarak deliberately conflated Arab Shias with Iranians and questioned their fidelity: “There are Shias in all these countries (of the region), significant percentages, and Shias are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live.”

Second was the 2004 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the end of Ba’ath party rule, both of which had persecuted and brutally suppressed the country’s Shia population for decades.

Third was the integration of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political structure and the widespread popularity of its leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. After nearly two decades of occupation, Hezbollah forcing the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 and battling them to a draw in the July 2006 war made Nasrallah one of the most admired leaders in the Middle East. The silence of the region’s heads of state while Lebanon came under relentless Israeli bombardment in 2006 was in contrast to the support both he and Hezbollah had found on the Arab street.

Unbalanced power

The “traditional balance of power” which Abdullah so feared was in jeopardy of being “altered” as a result of the above events betrays a history of deep political and socioeconomic marginalization of the Shia. Detailing it is beyond the scope of this article, but readers are referred to The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims by Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke (Pelgrave Macmillin, 2000) for further reference.

So is Abdullah’s concern for maintaining the “traditional balance of power” simply a hope for the continued domination of the Sunni Muslim political elite over the Shia? Is this what he feared would be “altered” by the end of Saddam Hussein’s despotism? Rather than hope for a brighter future for all Iraqis, apparent regret over a more equitable redistribution of power speaks volumes.

The recent explanation and clarification of his original remarks this past January was not only disingenuous, but continues to fuel misconceptions and stereotypes:

“I was worried about members … of the Iranian government using an agenda to create the perception of a Shia crescent.”

The one who created and promulgated the “Shia crescent” concept was King Abdullah himself, as his 2004 statement clearly describes (down to the exact geography). Blame should not now be placed on the Iranian government. Doing so indicates that he has yet to forsake sectarianism as a political tool.

“ … the fault line between Shias and Sunnis goes from Beirut all the way to Bombay and it’s a catastrophic subject to play with.”

Abdullah is again keen on underlining the “fault line” between Muslims, this time extending it all the way to India. Even more telling is why he believes it to be such a “catastrophic subject.”

Should the Arab Shia be prohibited from freely airing their grievances and demanding accountability for past injustices? Stopped from speaking out against the crimes perpetrated against them under Saddam (in which many in the Arab world were complicit)? Prevented from attempting to lift the heavy hand of institutionalized discrimination levied against them in Saudi Arabia? Barred from seeking an end to their disenfranchisement in Bahrain – where they make up at least 70 percent of the population yet constitute no part of the government or security services? Forbidden from asking why the language of sectarianism was used to justify and amplify the carnage in north Yemen?

To open this subject and deal with it forthrightly and with justice would indeed be “catastrophic” to the regimes mentioned, and for all those who instigate, support, or benefit from these practices.

“I felt that there was an agenda out there that was going to try and push it in that respect, and also raising the alarm bell that that cannot happen.”

Unfortunately the people who have been pushing a sectarian agenda have been a handful of Middle East dictators and monarchs, specifically King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the Al-Khalifah family in Bahrain, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Each of these countries – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen – are guilty of fanning sectarian flames.

In Aug. 2009, Jordan put six Shia Muslims on trial in a military court “for promoting Shia ideology.” And both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have recently been harshly criticized by Human Rights Watch for overtly discriminatory practices toward, and torture of their Shia citizens.

Even the desperate people of Gaza have suffered as a consequence; it was the Arab regimes who abandoned Gaza’s Palestinians while Israel imposed its inhumane siege on them, and one of the main reasons was Iran’s vocal support for Hamas.

Why Mid-East leaders promote sectarianism

So why do these leaders promote sectarianism?

To answer this, one must have some familiarity with the Shia ethos.

Ingrained in the fifth school of Islam is the notion of resistance against despotic rule and rulers. This dates back to the epic battle fought on the plains of Karbala, Iraq by the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussain, against the tyrannical reign of the caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya in the year 680 A.D. Outnumbered by the tens of thousands, Hussain and his small band of followers fought bravely but were brutally massacred. The “tragedy of Karbala” as it known continues to serve as inspiration to the Shia; endowing them with the belief that standing up to oppression and injustice, no matter how great or at what odds, is an act of faith.

The events of Karbala were recalled by Khomeini in the 1979 Revolution deposing the Shah and even by anti-government protestors after Iran’s June’s elections. Although it would be incorrect to conclude that Shias are in a continuous state of revolt against the established order of the state, their 1991 uprising against Saddam in aftermath of the first Gulf War, Hezbollah’s battles against the militarily superior Israeli Army in the 1990s and 2006, and the recent clashes between Zaidi Shia rebels and the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, are all viewed with a leery eye by the Sunni political class in the Middle East.

The aforementioned regimes therefore believe that if a “Shia crescent” was to take shape and become reality, their authority, power and influence might be swept aside by the people as quickly as was the Shah’s.

They also believe that if Arab Shias were accorded fair and equal rights, given the full benefits of citizenship, not treated as fifth columnists, not conflated with “Persians” and accorded the same dignity and religious liberties as all other citizens, domestic harmony would exist and render ineffective the use of sectarianism to further anti-Iranian sentiment.

If they did forsake it, attention could instead be paid to more pressing issues such as education, economic development, combating corruption, ending poverty and resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

One is left to wonder, though, whether these leaders believe it best to purposely ignore these critical needs in favor of conjuring up fictitious crescents, lest it unmask their own incompetence in real governance.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.