Edition 4 Volume 5 - January 25, 2024

The growing Sunni-Shi'ite divide

Is a Sunni-Shi'ite thirty years war looming? -   Iason Athanasiadis

The new Middle East cold war is being fought in diverse battlefields from Baghdad through Beirut to Gaza between proxies loyal to Tehran and Riyadh.

Attitudes in Jordan -   Mohammed Al-Masri

The Jordanian state has followed a zero-tolerance policy toward the public practice of Shi'ism.

Reverberations in Palestine - an interview with  Ahmed Yusef

The way Saddam Hussein was executed on the first day of the Eid struck at the core of Muslim sensibilities.

Iran: the unwelcome consequences of Saddam Hussein's hanging -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Khamenei told his audience that Hussein was neither a Shi'ite nor a Sunni, but an enemy of Muslims.

Is a Sunni-Shi'ite thirty years war looming?
 Iason Athanasiadis

Sunnis fighting Shi'ites on Beirut's streets, a civil war in Iraq and political infighting in the Palestinian territories that is externally directed from Riyadh and Tehran: a snapshot of the new, sectarian Middle East.

A US-led, Israel-backed, Middle East-wide alliance of conservative Sunni and secular Muslim states is being marshaled against Iran and its allies on a backdrop of escalating confrontation between Tehran and Washington. After several months of faint rumblings, the Sunni axis is starting to take shape to a chorus of increasingly shrill condemnations by the Iranian theocracy of what it believes is an insidious policy aimed at dividing the region, the better for Washington to dominate it.

"The US and Zionist regime have a conspiracy to stir up conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in order to plunder the wealth of the regional nations," said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad this week. His statement followed a similar warning by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who made a rare public appearance on the occasion of Aid-e Ghorban (Eid al-Adha) earlier this month following a spate of rumors that he had succumbed to illness.

The new Middle East cold war is being fought in diverse battlefields from Baghdad through Beirut to Gaza between proxies loyal to Tehran and Riyadh. In Lebanon, the CIA is authorized to covertly prop up the Lebanese government through funding anti-Hizballah groups and paying activists to support beleaguered Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Daily Telegraph reported that this is part of a secret plan by US President George W. Bush to help the Lebanese government prevent the spread of Iranian influence. On Tuesday, Hizballah loyalists took to the streets of Beirut and engaged in fighting with other factions in some of the worst sectarian fighting since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

Even in Sudan, the echoes of the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict reverberate. In December, Sunni groups Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyyah and Majles al-Dawa demanded the closure of three Iranian cultural centers and expressed fears of Iranian-backed plans to spread Shi'ite beliefs in the country. For their part, Iranian diplomats are concerned by what they call US attempts to use an upcoming referendum on South Sudan by its majority Christian inhabitants to create a pro-US Christian secessionist state in the fault-line between Muslim and Christian East Africa.

This week, the anti-Iranian alliance stretched east to embrace Pakistan as General Pervez Musharraf journeyed to the Egyptian beach resort of Sharm al-Sheikh for talks with President Hosni Mubarak. In a previous stop in Riyadh, Musharraf vowed to deepen defense and strategic ties with the Wahhabi kingdom. His trip, according to the Saudi-owned, Arabic-language news-site Elaph, was intended to "expand the Sunni alliance which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to include Pakistan as well in order to face the growing Iranian influence in the region."

How quickly the Middle East landscape has changed, once again.

It all started in the dying hours of 2024, as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was led to the gallows in a grimy Baghdad cell that served as a torture chamber during his reign. To catcalls and taunts, Hussein began reciting the fatiha. On the second repetition, and just as he was uttering the name of the Muslim prophet, he was interrupted by his own death. His execution and its timing--on the day when Sunni Muslims mark the holiest feast in the Muslim calendar--was more toxic for Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Iraq and across the region than even the bombing of Samara's Golden Mosque in February 2024--the previously commonly-accepted tipping point into civil war.

As Arab news channels began grainy replays of the unauthorized camera footage that revealed the execution to have been not so much dignified as gleefully revengeful, a news-blackout held in Tehran. Iranians were left uninformed by their national broadcaster that Hussein's dying curse had condemned America and--in place of Israel--Iran. They were clueless that they were being described in the Middle East by epithets such as the "Eastern tide", "Safavids" (the 16th century Persian empire that adopted Shi'ite Islam as the state dogma) and the "Persian menace".

Meanwhile, Arab commentators raged at the perceived insult of executing an Arab nationalist leader on the holiest of Muslim feasts. Al-Jazeera provided coverage of pro-Saddam Hussein wakes in Fallujah and Cairo and screened a report from a village in the Nile Delta whose inhabitants--many of whom had made fortunes as migrant workers in Hussein's Iraq--had renamed it Saddamiyyah out of sympathy with the departed Iraqi leader. In Detroit, a wave of revenge vandalism hit businesses owned by Shi'ite Iraqis.

"Do the obnoxious sectarian slogans that we heard the moment that Saddam collapsed on the noose and which we all have in our pockets via Bluetooth require us to reconsider our neutrality vis-a-vis the Safavid sectarian futility?" wrote Ali Saad al-Mussa, a professor at Saudi Arabia's King Khalid University and a regular writer for al-Watan, a pro-government daily. "They hastened the sacrifice for many reasons, the simplest of which is to celebrate the victory that came 1,000 years late."

Saudi Arabia is a staunchly Sunni country whose Shi'ite minority is mistreated and referred to as 'ar-Rafidin' (the rejectionists). Despite an opening made by King Abdullah in 1998, when he went to Tehran in a landmark visit that marked a new beginning in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, ties have unraveled since the election of Ahmadinezhad in July 2024. The perception that he is an Iranian nationalist with ambitions to take over Iraq and dominate the region has led Riyadh to seek ways of weakening Iran through launching an oil war against its eastern neighbor. The price of oil has tumbled from $70 to under $50 in the past few months and much of this has to do, oil traders say, with a political decision by Sunni Arab oil producers and the US to hurt Iran economically and create a domestic crisis inside the country.

With Iraq's sectarian militants being given the surge treatment and a worried Arab world wanting to administer a purge upon Iran's theocrats, the US is unwittingly or consciously engaging in social engineering on a region-wide scale. In the mid-decades of the 20th century, imperial power Britain wielded a policy of "divide and conquer" to keep its dominions under control. In Egypt, the Christian minority Copts were encouraged to enlist in the police, earning the hostility of their Sunni Muslim fellow citizens. In Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were encouraged into an antagonistic relationship by Britain's occupation bureaucracy. In 21st century Iraq, ordinary people are outraged at the manner in which the US has insisted on viewing society through the filter of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish sections, delineating divisions that were dormant.

"One might well be forgiven for surmising that the current thrust of US policy in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world is to exacerbate and instrumentalize Sunni-Shi'ite divisions," says Fred Reed, a specialist on Middle East politics.

With Arab anti-Iranian rhetoric having reached a pitch unprecedented since the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, evidence is mounting that a new Arab-Persian confrontation is unfolding across the region. From Lebanon to Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to far-flung conflicts such as Somalia and Sudan, a desperate struggle for influence is under way.

With emotions dangerously sharpened and Washington flailing for a strategy that will shift attention away from its role even while maintaining its influence in the region, violence will inexorably spread. Some Iranian academics and former officials are already describing this conflict as another thirty years war that will eventually lead the region to a Muslim version of the Treaty of Westphalia and the modern era. It was the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that finally buried the hatchet between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and brought into being sovereign nation states and the modern international system.

The Westphalian system allowed each state to define its religion. In the process, it created a segregated, sectarianly-cleansed Europe. Such an apocalyptic scenario might eventually make lasting Middle Eastern peace possible but it would also imply that, in a region that gifted the world its three major monotheistic religions, its Muslims have found untenable even the uneasy coexistence that characterized the first 14 centuries of Islam.- Published 25/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer who lived in Iran from 2024 to 2024.

Attitudes in Jordan
 Mohammed Al-Masri

The timing of the execution of Saddam Hussein on the first morning of Eid al-Adha, the video clips officially released by the Iraqi government and those from the cell phones documenting the execution triggered a wave of anger and provoked anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iranian sentiment among the Jordanian public. Jordanians interpreted the event as an act of Iranian/Shi'ite revenge against Sunnis in Iraq and throughout the Arab world.

Jordanians expressed their outrage and protest in different ways, ranging from declining to offer sweets during the Eid to restraining wedding celebrations and hanging posters praising Saddam Hussein as a martyr. Some dedicated their Eid rituals to him and opened houses of mourning. Demonstrations organized in some Jordanian cities generated calls for revenge.

However, in spite of the obvious anger, there were no reported incidents of reprisals against the 200,000 or so Iraqi Shi'ite refugees in Jordan--thanks both to measures taken by the security services and precautions taken by some Iraqis to avoid certain areas of Amman for a few days following the execution. Columnists and op-ed writers in newspapers of different political and cultural leanings, including the Islamic Action Front, expressed anger and dismay and concluded that the execution itself demonstrated the sectarian, militant nature of the Iraqi government and revealed its servitude to American, Iranian and Israeli interests in the region.

Not surprisingly, the execution led to an upsurge in feelings against Iraqi Shi'ites in particular, Shi'ites at-large and Iran as a Shi'ite and Persian state determined to undermine both Sunni and Arab beliefs and aspirations. Twenty-two Jordanian MPs called for a severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.

The Shi'ite question does not assume the same level of importance in Jordan as in some Arab countries where there are significant Shi'ite communities. The overwhelming majority of Jordanian Muslims are Sunni; Jordanian Shi'ites number fewer than 4,000 according to the most generous estimate. The Jordanian public's lack of awareness of this small minority that has been part of Jordanian society for around 100 years signifies its assimilation. It has never been a focus of public debate.

The Shi'ite question becomes relevant to the Jordanian public and Jordanian elites only as a consequence of the American occupation of Iraq. It is political developments in Iraq and the region and the impact of Iraqi refugees in Jordan that have heavily influenced the formation of attitudes toward Shi'ites in recent times.

Those attitudes, at least during the first 18 months after the war, were only one facet of Jordanians' overall approach to Iraqis. The general Jordanian attitude was shaped by two widely held perceptions. The first claimed that Iraqis at large and Shi'ites in particular determined the outcome of the war by facilitating and welcoming the American occupation. Secondly, the Iraqi refugees entering Jordan in the wake of the war, in contrast to the first wave of 1991, were chiefly from the affluent middle class along with skilled laborers who contributed to an overall price surge, especially in the real estate sector. The Iraqis therefore became the focus of Jordanian grievances and complaints about increased traffic, prices and fuel costs. Friction between the Jordanian and Palestinian communities receded as mutual resentment of the newcomers emerged.

The new refugees from the 2024 Iraq war were not a homogenous community, but rather a transparent reflection of the complex ethnic, religious and sectarian composition of cotemporary Iraqi society. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and subsequent political developments encouraged Iraqis to be open about their sectarian background. Books about Shi'ism, its history and its martyrs found a place in downtown Amman book stalls. Jordanians became familiar with Shi'ite symbols, with the result that differences between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam were both underlined and exacerbated. Religious lessons given at mosques and Friday sermon messages emphasized differences between the Sunni and Shi'ite schools of thought, thereby alerting the Jordanian public to the "correctness" of Sunni interpretations of Islam.

Jordanians closely observed the new political developments within Iraq that signaled the rise of Shi'ite political power at the expense of the Sunnis. The formation of the new Iraqi government, the elections and the drafting of the constitution all generated heated debate and uneasy feelings toward Iraqi Shi'ites in Jordan. These anxieties deepened as a result of the intensified mutual attacks between the two communities in Iraq.

Iraqi Shi'ites were thought by Jordanians to have established political hegemony through their collaboration with the American occupying forces, and to have marginalized the political role of the Sunnis. Southern and central Iraq came to be viewed as Iranian outposts, and the perception evolved that many Shi'ite militias and politicians constituted an anti-Sunni camp that served an anti-Arab agenda--be it Iranian, American or both.

King Abdullah's well known warning of the emergence of a Shi'ite crescent two years ago deepened Jordanian society's concerns about a possible Iranian threat, creating a corresponding unease over Shi'ite politics in Iraq. The Jordanian establishment warned frequently of the conversion of some Jordanians to Shi'ism. While the number of such converts is extremely limited and does not exceed hundreds by even the most generous estimate, the Jordanian state has followed a zero-tolerance policy toward the public practice of Shi'ism. Since the main concern of the Iraqi Shi'ites in Jordan right now is to keep their residency rights valid and intact, they practice their religious rituals in private.

In fact, the threat to the Jordanian state is not conversion to Shi'ism as such, but what may be termed political Shi'ism: support for Shi'ite political organizations and acceptance of their political paradigms. For example, the sweeping support for Hizballah during the war in Lebanon last summer was a clear manifestation of political Shi'ism. As much as events in Iraq and interaction with Iraqi communities within Jordan lead to Jordanian antipathy toward Iraqi Shi'ites and Iran, the Israeli factor and potential conflict between Israel and Hizballah still encourage support for Hizballah-style Shi'ite organizations. Therefore it might be misleading to assume that new anti-Iranian feelings in Jordan are sustainable, when the Israel factor in regional developments could dramatically undermine them.- Published 25/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Mohammed Al-Masri is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan.

Reverberations in Palestine
an interview with Ahmed Yusef

BI: Saddam Hussein's execution was widely mourned by Palestinians. Why was this?

Yusef: Palestinians mourned Saddam Hussein first because in the Palestinian memory Iraq has played a positive and honorable role in defending Palestinian rights throughout its history, and the Iraqi army fought in all the wars to defend Palestine.

During this intifada, Hussein was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people. He offered financial assistance to the families of those killed by Israel and provided funds to rebuild houses destroyed by the Israeli army.

To Palestinians, Saddam Hussein stands as the only Arab leader who challenged America and fired rockets at Israel, thus seeking to maintain the dignity and honor of the Arab nation.

In addition, the way Hussein was executed on the first day of the Eid struck at the core of Muslim sensibilities. For all these reasons, Palestinians had reason to mourn.

BI: Many commentators also speculated that the execution would further divide Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in the region in general. Do you agree with this assessment?

Yusef: Yes. The way Hussein was executed and the taunts of those who executed him showed that the problem was Sunni-Shi'ite and that Hussein was executed not for crimes but because he was Sunni. They executed him for quelling the Shi'ite rebellion in 1991. It was revenge. And this has increased the gap between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

BI: At certain Fateh rallies in recent weeks, people have been heard calling Hamas members "Shi'ites", using the word as an insult. Is this a worrying development? Is there a strange sectarian division brewing in Palestine?

Yusef: These calls were part of a strategy that tried to portray Hamas as an extremist party and accuse us of moving away from our traditional moderation. These accusations are nonsense and they don't deserve much response. Hamas has, throughout its history, been a moderate movement, and it continues to be the most moderate of political Islamic movements.

In any case, the Palestinian street never accepted these calls and never believed them.

BI: Hamas is seen as increasingly close to Iran. How would you classify Hamas-Iran relations? Is there concern within Hamas that for whatever reason, Iran may play a larger than necessary role in the movement's politics?

Yusef: Relations between Hamas and all Islamic and Arab nations are equidistant. In the past, Hamas received support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. But after our election victory and the siege that was imposed by the international community, some of these countries gave in to international threats and stopped sending aid.

The only country that didn't was Iran. And it is the nature of a human being that if someone gives you something you show gratitude. Iran deserves gratitude. But this does not mean Hamas is following any Iranian agenda.

The relationship we have established with Iran naturally followed from their support. We appreciate their attempts at lifting the siege. It is logical that we are getting closer. But we still maintain strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, and we don't keep relations with one country at the expense of another.

BI: Some commentators have accused Hamas of putting its eggs in the Iranian basket.

Yusef: We have never put any Palestinian eggs in any foreign basket. Our eggs are in our basket. But it's logical that if someone reaches out to you, you reach back to him or her. We are a people under siege, looking to receive help from the Arab and Muslim world. If someone helps us, we must be grateful.

When the whole world boycotted the Palestinian people, Iran offered its support. It is logical that we should be grateful.

BI: How does the sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shi'ites affect the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region?

Yusef: There is no doubt that the fighting between Shi'ites and Sunnis has a negative impact on the Muslim Brotherhood's position toward Iran and Hizballah. Of course the Brotherhood is aware that Hizballah is against this sectarian strife in Iraq and has repeatedly appealed to Shi'ites in Iraq to target only American occupation troops and protect their Sunni brother. But it has an impact, and maybe the historic hatred between Sunnis and Shi'ites will re-emerge.

Still, the Muslim Brotherhood supported Hizballah when it fought Israel in Lebanon last year. Hizballah was defending the Arab and Muslim dignity. The policies of the Brotherhood are decided by the context. The movement has always tried to be balanced and unbiased in its positions, even if it is affected by the general atmosphere.- Published 25/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Ahmed Yousef is political adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza.

Iran: the unwelcome consequences of Saddam Hussein's hanging
 Sadegh Zibakalam

The Iranians were slow in reacting to Saddam Hussein's hanging. The main reason for that was the old accepted belief in Iran that Saddam was an American puppet. This was the view broadly propagated by the Iranian leadership during the eight year war with Iraq. The Iraqi leader had attacked Iran on behalf of the enemies of Islam and the Islamic regime, headed by the "Great Satan", the United States.

The Baath regime under Saddam Hussein was officially referred to in Iran during that war as "the Zionist regime". All Iranian leaders, the media and ordinary people invariably stated that "the Iraqi Zionists" did this or that. The view in Iran for almost a decade was that Islamic Iran was not attacked by the Iraqi people but by the US. Even when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1989, the official view in Tehran was that the attack had been at the behest of the US. Given that Saddam Husseinwas an American lackey, "how could he have invaded Kuwait without the full knowledge and, more importantly, the full consent of Washington?"

It was against this backdrop that Iranians watched the US invade Iraq, overthrow Hussein and subsequently turn the other way and acquiesce in his hanging. The hanging shattered many perceptions of the former Iraqi leader that Iranians had held for more than two decades. Subsequently, two distinct reactions emerged in Tehran.

The first implied that Saddam Hussein was hanged hurriedly by the Americans in order not to reveal his secret relations and murky dealings with them. A leading Iranian reformist newspaper wrote that "Saddam took his secrets to the grave". The view that the Americans "got rid of Saddam in order to prevent exposure of their collaboration with him" was shared by all Iranian political factions. The second reaction was more in line with the late Islamic leader Imam Khomeini's prediction that Hussein would be punished one day for his crimes against Islam--in effect, fulfilling the Iranian Islamic leader's words regarding his fate.

Yet whatever feelings of triumph and justice Iranian leaders might have experienced after the hanging did not last very long, as reactions gathered pace. The first unwelcome responses from the Iranian viewpoint were those displayed by much of the Arab world. The sorrow, condemnation and commiserations that characterized the reaction of many Arabs surprised the Iranians. Three days of official mourning declared by Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and the sorrow shown by many Iraqi Sunnis were one thing. But the condemnation by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and mourning by other Palestinians were particularly shocking to the Islamic regime in Tehran. Just one week before the hanging, Haniyeh had been the official guest of the Islamic leaders in Tehran and had departed with promises of full support for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government.

The manner of the hanging and Saddam Hussein's portrayal as a hero rather than a criminal who had received justice simply added insult to Iranian injuries. The Iranian media tried to remind both critics of the hanging and, more importantly, those Arabs who were celebrating Saddam's heroics, of the crimes he had committed against not only Iranians but Iraqis as well. Tehran also retorted angrily against western critics of Hussein's hanging. "Where were they and why didn't they condemn Saddam when he was killing thousands of Iranian citizens as well as Iraqi Kurds by using chemical weapons against them," asked Ayatollah Janati, the Friday prayer imam of Tehran and a leading hardliner. The Iranian leadership had never anticipated that a day might come when Hussein's hanging needed to be justified and defended. Finally, Iranian leaders began to sense to their horror that the hanging was deepening the Shi'ite-Sunni division in Iraq and, for that matter, in additional parts of the Arab world as well.

The Islamic leaders responded quickly. They blamed the Americans for fanning sectarian violence in Iraq. A leading hard-line daily close to the Iranian president warned Sunni brethren "to be aware of the sinister and extremely serious plot that the enemies of the two Islamic nations (Iran and Iraq) had designed against us". In other words, the Americans are against Islam and Muslims in general, whether Shi'ite or Sunni.

Another paper wrote that the US government's grand strategy in Iraq was to weaken the country's national integrity, thereby insuring a long term American presence in the region. It is in the US interest to keep the three main Iraqi groups (Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunnis) weak and ineffective. To achieve this, the Americans are trying to pit the three groups against one another.

As Sunni-Shi'ite strife increased following Saddam Hussein's hanging, the Islamic regime had to respond even more seriously. In an unprecedented move, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a personal letter to the Saudi leadership. While its content was not revealed in Tehran or in Riyadh, many analysts in Tehran speculated that the Iranian leader had tried to reassure the Saudis that Iran was neither seeking to support the Iraqi Shi'ites at the expense of their Sunni compatriots nor pursuing an anti-Sunni policy in Iraq. They further assessed that Khamenei had reassured Riyadh that Iran respected and supported the national unity of Iraq. The letter apparently also cautioned the Saudis not to fall into the sectarian plot laid by the enemies of Islam.

A few days later, all Iranian TV channels showed a high-level meeting between Ayatollah Khamenei and dozens of Sunni religious leaders. Some were from Iranian Sunni communities; others were apparently from various Islamic states, particularly in the Arab world. The Iranian leader spoke at length about the necessity of unity among Muslims in the face of a rising tide of sectarianism and violence instigated by the enemies of Islam. In an apparent response to sectarian feelings that had intensified following Saddam Hussein's hanging and to Sunni leaders who had blamed Iran for the hanging and had defended Hussein as a hero, Khamenei told his audience that Saddam Hussein was neither a Shi'ite nor a Sunni. Rather, he was a brutal dictator and an enemy of Muslims, Shi'ite and Sunni alike. In a clear response to the Iraqi Sunni leaders the ayatollah asked, "where, when and how did Saddam ever support Sunni religious institutions in Iraq or elsewhere for that matter?"

Politics sometimes makes for strange developments in the Middle East. Saddam's hanging was, to be sure, one of those bizarre cases. Neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government ever expected that it would make a hero of him among the Arab masses. Nor for that matter did Iranians ever imagine that a day might come when they would have to explain to the Arabs that Saddam Hussein was not a good and proper Muslim. It is a disturbing thought, but somehow one cannot escape the feeling that somewhere beyond the grave, Hussein is looking upon both the Americans and the Iranians with a grim smile.- Published 25/1/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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