ISIS and Washington’s Ignorance About the Sunni-Shia Divide

A couple weeks ago Saudi Arabia was warning against U.S. action against ISIL (ISIS, Islamic State) arguing that it would be perceived as a pro-Shiite intervention in a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Saudi Arabia is of course the land where the Prophet Mohammed lived, and the House of Saud sees itself as the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. It is a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy; the Sharia is rigidly enforced. There are punitive stonings and beheadings. Women must wear the abaya and are forbidden to drive. Saudi Arabia was one of the very few countries that recognized and supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In short, it has much in common with ISIL. Much of ISIL’s funding comes from private Saudi sources and “charities.”

But Saudi Arabia also has a longstanding close relationship with U.S. imperialism. It guarantees the supply of cheap oil to world markets in return for generous U.S. military aid. The regime seeks peace with Israel, and has proposed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question endorsed by the Arab League. From 1990 to 2003 it hosted U.S. military forces. (This was the factor that caused Osama bin Laden to break with the regime and call for the overthrow of the monarchy.) ISIL’s “Islamic State” despises the Saudi rulers just as bin Laden did. It wants to ultimately conquer the Arabian Peninsula and raise the black flag of the caliphate in Mecca and Medina.

So Riyadh fears ISIL. It has now succumbed to Washington’s pressure and agreed to take part in some sort of alliance to defeat the Islamic State.  But it also fears Iran, a bastion of Shiite orthodoxy with a population three times its size. It has no rational fear of an Iranian attack; Iran indeed has not invaded another country in several hundred years. Iran’s military budget at around $6 billion annually is just 11% of Saudi Arabia’s.  U.S. intelligence has long since concluded that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. But according to some reports, Riyadh would even look the other way if Israel flew over its airspace to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. What Riyadh dreads is the prospect of a Shiite rebellion within the Saudi kingdom, backed by Iran.

Over 10% of  Saudis (perhaps even 18%)  are Shiites. They are concentrated in the Eastern Province, especially in the cities of Al-Qatif and Al-Ahsa on or near the Persian Gulf. This province is the center of Saudi oil production. It could one day become an independent state. It should be obvious why Riyadh is concerned about the possibility that U.S. actions might advance Shiite interests at its expense.

Some necessary historical background: In the seventh century the still young Islamic movement split into two camps, Sunni and Shia. The proximate cause was a difference of opinion about the selection of a new caliph, the spiritual and political leader of the Muslim community. The Sunni felt he should be elected; those who came to be called Shiites believed that he must be a member of the Prophet’s family. The quarrel came to a head at the Battle of Karbala (in what is now Iraq) in 680 and the defeat of the Shiite faction, which still nurtures historical resentments towards the victors, and a sense of eternal victimhood.

Always a minority within the Islamic world, the Shiites developed their own beliefs and practices that somewhat diverged from those of the Sunnis (although there is enormous variety within both traditions). In particular, their reverence for saints and construction of shrines to their memory strikes many Sunnis as virtual idolatry. Some indeed refuse to concede that Shiites are truly Muslims.

Patrick Cockburn reports that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington (1983-2005), once told  M16 head Sir Richard Dearlove: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will literally be ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunni have simply had enough of them.”

There are thus deep animosities within Islam, as there have been, historically, within Christianity.

There was a time when Protestants viewed Roman Catholics as idolatrous heretics and bloody wars of religion ravaged Europe. ISIL is now fighting such a war against Shiites, Christians, Yezidis, secularists, and others it sees as unbelievers and as stooges of the west. But its primary target is the Shiites.

There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”  Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam.  He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing  ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

This know-nothingism surely prevailed in the State Department after 9-11, as Deputy Secretary of “Defense” Paul Wolfowitz began to plan the war on Iraq, and the campaign of calculated fear mongering lies to persuade the people to support it. The neocons controlling the State Department argued (versus Pentagon testimony) that the occupation would be a “cakewalk” and that the Iraqi people would greet the U.S. forces as liberators. When in the wake of the invasion a bloody Sunni-Shiite civil war broke out, the occupiers were at a loss to understand it. There is little indication that Barak Obama is more aware. In striving to crush ISIL without an alliance with Syria and Iran, and relying on the reluctant Saudis and NATO, he is (1) recruiting thousands more anti-U.S. Sunni jihadis into ISIL ranks and (2) exacerbating a Sunni-Shiite war while marginalizing key Shiite players.

There are today only four Shiite-majority countries, two of them non-Arab. Iran is over 90% Shiite, due to the conversion of the Safavid Persian dynasty in the early sixteenth century. A powerful, populous country, it sees itself as the defender of Shiites globally. Neighboring Azerbaijan, once ruled by the Safavids, is about 75% Shiite. The two Arab countries are tiny Bahrain (60%) and Iraq (65%).

Bahrain was also once ruled by the Safavids. Bordering Saudi Arabia, it is ruled by a Sunni king who suppressed the 2011 “Arab Spring” demonstrations of Shiites against religious discrimination by calling in Saudi forces. (The U.S., which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, made no protest when Saudi forces invaded in March 2011 to crush the peaceful protests.) In Iraq the Shiite population is concentrated in southern Mesopotamia, nestled against Iran’s Khuzestan province with its large ethnic Arab population. There are large Shiite minorities in Yemen (especially in the north, bordering Saudi Arabia), Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and some other Arab countries, and millions in India and Pakistan. The Syrian leadership around the vilified Bashar al-Assad is mostly Alawites, members of a sect considered a Shiite spin-off.

In the early 1920s following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, victorious British and French imperialists divided Ottoman territory among themselves, creating new countries. They paid no attention to the question of historical religious divides, or if they did, they used them to divide and conquer. The French colonialists established for a time a separate Alawite state in Syria, and considering the Alawites and Druze the only “warlike races” the region, recruited them into their army for use against rebellious Sunnis. This is the origin of the current Alawite hegemony in Syrian politics.

Meanwhile the colonialists created modern Iraq out of an Arab Sunni-dominated west and Arab Sunni-majority south-east, and a Kurdish region to the north. They split off Kuwait to serve as a compliant oil supplier. Iraq made no real sense as a country, any more that Nigeria or Sudan did. The people themselves were not consulted. Had they been, there would perhaps have been a very different regional configuration, including a Kurdish state straddling what is now Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

The British having cultivated the Wahhabi Sunni leadership of Arabia installed Sunni kings in Jordan and Iraq. In the latter country, this occasioned a rare joint Sunni-Shiite uprising that with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s fervent approval was crushed with bombs and mustard gas. Iraq’s last king was overthrown in a republican revolution in 1958. Then the Iraqi branch of the Arab Baathist Party took over.

This party had been formed in the 1940s in Syria by Syrian Christians and Muslims. Zaki al-Arsuzi, an Alawite, was co-founder. The Baathists were committed to secularism, pan-Arabism, and  “Arab socialism” (meaning the development of independent national economies). The Alawites of Syria have never been interested in establishing a religious state but rather have used the Baathist party to establish religious inclusiveness and prevent the emergence of a Sunni-dominated religious state. Bashar al-Assad’s father even attempted to change the constitution to remove the stipulation that the Syrian president be a Muslim. (This occasioned a massive Sunni uprising in Homs which he brutally crushed in 1982.)

During the 1950s the U.S. embraced the Baath party as the only alternative to communism (the Iraqi Communist Party was the largest in the Middle East) and Islamism. Its view changed after the 1967 war, when Washington came to see the Middle East through Israel’s eyes and bought the Israeli line that Baghdad was a “sponsor of terrorism.” The U.S. might still occasionally differ with Israel (as when the Reagan administration condemned the Israeli bombing of the Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1982). It might even align itself with Iraq, as it did from 1980 to 1988 when Iraq was fighting a war of aggression against Iran. But (especially as the neocons gained ascendency in the regime) Washington sought “regime change.” President George W. H. Bush did not obtain this during the 1991 assault on Iraq, thinking (quite accurately) that the fall of  Saddam’s Baathist government would produce regional disorder. But his son used the 9/11 attacks to one-up his dad and accomplish a long-held ambition.

George “Dubya” Bush gleefully destroyed the Iraqi state. He smashed a state in which Christians served in high posts, women attended college and felt free to leave their heads uncovered, rock n’ roll blared from radios, liquor stores operated legally, and there was even a gay scene. He replaced it with an occupation run by clueless cowboys literally marching around Baghdad in cowboy boots, issuing orders—most notably the orders of dissolution of the Baathist Party and the Iraqi Army.

But these were the main vehicles of power for the Sunnis, currently about 20% of the Iraqi population. (Again, they’d been chosen by the Brits as the appropriate leaders of Iraq, quite unfairly in the 1920s.) These were secular institutions, not tools for the propagation of any theology. Their dissolution was an attack, not on a religious belief system (about which the Occupation could have cared less), but on the Sunni community that had provided Saddam Hussein’s support base and dominated his regime.

The Sunnis violently resisted the Occupation. The Shiites, sensing opportunity, stood by looking sullen, then in response to Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call, mounted peaceful protests, demanding elections. After the Abu Ghraib torture photos scandalized the world, the U.S. was forced to allow elections for an Iraqi advisory body, dominated by Shiites, and to return sovereignty to a now-Shiite led regime in 2009. Meanwhile a Sunni-Shiite civil war broke out. The U.S. had opened a Pandora’s Box of ethnic strife, which continues. It is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian free-lance terrorist, decided to establish an Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq. He found ample support among the Sunnis of Anbar Province. His group was largely chased out during the U.S. “surge” of 2007, but found a home in Syria. In 2011, during the ill-fated “Arab Spring,” a pro-democracy, anti-corruption protest movement erupted in Syria. Obama announced that President Bashar Assad must resign. (Why? Here was another secularist, another Baathist, presiding over another country where women dress in Western fashions, go to college, drink beer and listen to rock n’ roll—a country striving for a normalized relationship with the U.S. but spurned by the State Department due to its opposition to Israel, which illegally occupies its Golan Heights, and due to its alliance with Iran).

The peaceful movement vanished, supplanted by a multi-headed armed insurrection dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates and spin-offs that capitalized on Assad’s religious identity. While Syria obviously has a very different government system than Iran,  it receives support from Tehran in part due to religious solidarity. Both Damascus and Tehran fear the sort of militant Sunni Islamism represented by al-Qaeda and ISIL, and both support the powerful Lebanese Shiite party Hizbollah.

ISIL—having been spurned by al-Qaeda Central as too murderously violent—came to dominate the anti-Assad movement in Syria, challenging the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, and the negligible U.S.-backed “moderates.” Then, suddenly, to the great consternation of the U.S. State Department, it advanced into Iraq, taking Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah and approaching Baghdad, beheading Shiites all the way.

The chickens have indeed come home to roost. The neocons ignorant of Islamic divisions, eager to remake the Middle East as they pleased, have let the genie of sectarian strife out of the bottle. But they will never acknowledge it. “Let’s not dwell on the past,” they say, when asked about events in 2003. “We need to focus on this new threat to the Homeland.” When asked why Iraq is such a mess, they reply: “They squandered the opportunity [for ‘democracy’ etc.] that we gave them.” In other words, in their weird little age-old religious disputes over arcane issues worthy of Trivial Pursuit, the Iraqis brought this chaos on themselves, and now we, as the responsible adults, have to go in and straighten things out. (This despite the fact that Iraq has a 270,000-strong army trained by the U.S. at the cost of $ 17 billion. It buckled when confronted with ISIL and Baghdad has only been saved by Shiite militias that once fought occupation troops.)

Meanwhile all significant anti-Assad Syrian factions, hitherto at war with one another, have just signed a non-aggression pact. It will remain in effect until the regime led by “Nussayri” (a disparaging term for Alawites) is overthrown. Obama’s announcement that he will bomb Syria has driven these factions to unite—not that there weren’t earlier ties. The (small) U.S.-backed so-called Free Syrian Army has been intermittently allied with the (al-Qaeda) al-Nusra Front. The family of Steven Scotloff states that the journalist was sold by “moderate” Syrian rebels to ISIS for $25,000. You’d think the U.S. would learn that it can’t just snap its fingers and produce a Syrian opposition that stands for religious tolerance and democracy, regards the U.S. as a true friend, and won’t in its determination to drive out Assad align itself with the worst of the fundamentalist brutes. Such suppositions are the height of neocon arrogance.

While the Syrian Foreign Ministry has actually welcomed U.S. strikes against ISIL in the country, the president (and the Russians) have said they would be viewed as attacks on the Syrian state if not coordinated with Damascus. John Kerry rules such cooperation out, declaring Assad’s regime (despite the recent multiparty election, in which Assad received 88% of the votes) “illegitimate.” He further spurns a French suggestion that Iran be invited to a conference in Paris on Sept. 15 to discuss an international response to ISIL. Kerry, in his wooden way, responds: “The United States does not cooperate, militarily or otherwise, nor does it have any intention in this process of doing so, with Iran.”

(The Iranian deputy foreign minister retorted that the Paris meeting “has a selective guest list and is just for show.”)

Thus the U.S., waging war on regional secularists like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, thereby provoking sectarian war, declares it can defeat anti-Shiite Sunni extremism relying on Sunni allies (including the Shia-phobic, Sharia-implementing, adulteress-stoning Saudis) and European crusaders, plus (maybe) some Sunni Turks—alongside the mostly Sunni Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi Shiite militias, and the so far embarrassing Iraqi Army. And at the same time it plans to build some reliable puppet force to topple Assad and (largely in response to Israeli demands) maintain pressure on Iran to end a non-existent nuclear weapons program or face bombing. The plan is patently unworkable and doomed.

“We will not be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” declares Obama (as though some external force had once hauled a reluctant U.S.—kicking and screaming—into the last war). But he has indeed announced a campaign of indefinite bombing of Iraq and Syria, and now his spokesman Josh Earnest declares,“In the same way that we are at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL.”

Obama, wanting to show some balls last August when he nearly attacked Syria—but thwarted in that effort by public opinion and deft Russian diplomacy—has now opted to play the reluctant warrior by vowing to eliminate ISIL. He enjoys the near full support of the political class and the captive media. Public opinion polls even show a third of the people favoring boots on the ground.

How malleable people are! How soon they forget.

The air (and probably, coming ground) campaign against ISIL will inevitably be viewed by millions as a war of  Washington, its Iraqi Shiite allies (and just possibly in time, a new-found shadow ally, Iran) and corrupt pro-U.S.—hence apostate–Sunni kings against the Sunni world. It‘s a recipe for disaster.

If the U.S. were not controlled by the 1% wedded to the military-industrial establishment, and if common sense were the operative principle, it would make sense to refrain from any military action, leaving it to the Iraqi and Syrian people to deal with these new oppressors, perhaps with local powers’ support. The record shows that U.S. military actions in the Middle East produce no good but rather lots of harm. Rooted in the quest for imperial expansion, shaped by deep ignorance of history and profound disrespect for the peoples affected, they produce mounting hatred for this country, and intensified prospects for blowback.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: