The Shia-Sunni Cold War Reading the Shia-Sunni posturing as by etssetcf


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									The Shia-Sunni ‘Cold War’

Reading the Shia-Sunni posturing as a form of ‘Cold War’ mis-reads both history and
politics. Ahistorically rendered, the Shia-Sunni tension misses lessons from the
Muslim past. It is not convincing to shrink history into the few volatile years since the
sacking of Baghdad by the US and its allies in 2003. Similarly, it is ahistorical to
narrate history from the rhetoric of sheikhs, emirs, hyper-presidents, and foreign-
policy officials.

History is not made and un-made or ‘manufactured’ by superficial rhetoric. There is
no questioning of the Shia-Sunni neo-fitnah (schism), labelled as ‘Cold War’.
Wouldn’t the term ‘fitnah’ not ‘Cold War’ capture more in terms of precision and
historicity than the term ‘Cold War’? I shall return to this misnomer when I consider
the political dimension.

If we are to ‘historicise’ the Shia-Sunni divide, investigating ‘Shu’ubiyyah’ of the 9th
and 10th centuries or at least contextualising the ‘neo-fitnah’ in that movement is a
must. By ‘Shu’ubiyyah’ is meant to the protest movement, which took many forms,
including literary, against the ‘Arabisation’ of Islam and governance of the expanding
Muslim Empire. Specifically, the Persians’ protest exceeded that of other non-Arab
communities making up the global ummah (Islamic community). The early Muslim
polity knew how to tap into the Persian repository of know-how to improve
institution-building and administration, etc. The Persians grew aggrieved at such an
‘Arabisation’, as for them it marginalised Persian culture and identity.

Treating this tension or division as a ‘Cold War’ skips so many centuries, centuries of
Persian historical romanticism and the perennial search for long-lost Arian glory,
noted in Iran’s reform movements and literary greats from Hakeem Ferdowsi Tousi
(d. 1020) to Sadiq Hidayat. Ferdowsi is a great poet and his genius shines through his
verse. But so does his racism. His Book of Kings or Shahanemah nationalistic and
racist mythology is laced with images of the barefooted Arabs and anti-Arab stories
that continue to be recounted in Iranian households till this dayHedayat’s writings in
the first half of the 20th century have similar messages of denegration against Islam,
Arabs and even the Qajaris. For these writers, including others like Kermani and
Behrooz, there is a sense of shame at the loss of pre-Islamic Persian glory and a sense
of injury against Islam and Arabs. Iranian nationalism has never recovered from the
encounter with the Arab side.

There is more to the ‘cold War’ thesis than meets the eye. One line of investigation
would be the extent to which Iranian nationalism, more even than Shiite particularism,
can potentially unlock answers to the current Shia-Sunni rivalry. Similarly, how do
feelings of ‘Arabhood’ fuel the standoff with Shiite Iran? The standoff is not over the
fundamentals of Islam. Nationalisms of all kinds are enmeshed in the putatively
unfolding tension between the Shia and Sunnis. Maybe ‘Shu’ubiyyah’ has never
faded. It is triggered by political events that bring to the fore the Arab-Persian
reciprocal hubris. I have no answers. I am simply suggesting that this must not be
Not all tension is ‘Cold War’, not all ‘Cold War’ has an ‘America’ behind it. Framing
such a tension as a ‘Cold War’ is a reading of international politics through a ‘realist’
lens. It is treated here as a given. The term’s career and provenance have nothing to
do with the modern Middle East. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia epitomise the rivalry
of the former superpowers or the balance of power apparatus put in place to safeguard
state-centric notions of national security and interest. This Hobbesianism is not suited
to the current tension between Iran and its Arab neighbours. Instead, by framing the
conflict in terms that are evocative of the ‘Cold War’ scholars perennially obsessed
with security threats end up fulfilling their own prophecies.

In fairness to the Iranian side, as an Arab I cannot but admit that the Arab side were
aggressors by proxy when they bankrolled the Saddam war machine. That machine
eventually grew so enamoured with its own sense of historical mission that it turned
against the very Arabs who stood by it – e.g. Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. Now, the same
Arabs, especially the likes of ‘honorary’ neo-cons like [former Saudi Ambassador to
the US] Bandar, are jumping in the bandwagon of opposing Iran’s nuclear
programme. I doubt whether the Arab world knows what it is doing: Egypt and Jordan
administered Gaza and the West Bank but never created a Palestinian state on it. Now
that the Israelis occupy both areas, Egypt and Jordan are leading the peace talks so
that it is Israel who grants the Palestinians statehood in Gaza and the West Bank.

It is also fair to contend that the Arab side lacks Iranian sophistication. When the
Iranians were busy training scientists and nuclear physicists for the past 25 years, the
Arabs were not thinking about future sources of energy. They had too much
petroleum to think beyond oil. Now, in the past two years, countries from Egypt to
impoverished Yemen wish to build their own nuclear programmes.

Yet one should also note that the ‘super-confidence’ that the Baker-Hamilton [Iraq
Study Group] report ascribes to Iran is never extended in that text to the Arab states. It
could be argued that on 20 March 2003, when Baghdad was bombed by American
forces, it was Khomeini’s Islamic revolution that triumphed. Shiite particularism
armoured with Iranian nationalism combined to ‘Iranianise’ Iraq they way Arabs
sought when they conquered old Persia to Arabise the Furs (or Persians). This victory
was aided because neither the Americans nor their Arab allies had a clear ‘road-map’
of what comes after the invasion. Having attacked, the US found that mapping a
democratic order or a functional state on a multi-ethnic multi-sectarian state is a
different matter.

Still, even in the midst of this chaos, which today Arabs who blame it on America,
call it ‘fawdha khallaqah’ (structured chaos), there is no apparent Shia-Sunni ‘Cold
War’. Neither the Shiite or Sunni sides are monolithic or cohesive. Al-Hakim [the
leader of the Supreme NAME] is pro-Iran and works well with America; [the cleric
Moqtada] Sadr is also pro-Iran but not pro-American. Sadr condemned the 2006
summer war on Lebanon and Hizbullah; Hakim’s rhetoric never matched Sadr’s
condemnation. The Mahdi Army [of Sadr] and Badr forces [of spy on one another,
and threaten one another force. On the Sunni side, there is no coherence either.
Palestinian Jihad and Hamas and other Sunni Muslim Brotherhoods, just to name one
example, opposed the war against Lebanon and the 34-day campaign of relentless
bombing of mostly Shiite quarters and towns. (Note that the Sunnis and the Christians
were not targeted by that war – with the exception of national infrastructure such as
bridges, especially closer to the Syrian border.) Syria and the Sudan stood against the
War. Sunni Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia blamed it on Hizbullah’s ‘adventurism’.
Inside Lebanon itself, Sunni groups allied with Fethi Yakun, a former MP, supported
Hizbullah. Sa’ad al-Hariri and his allies were against Hizbullah. The same on the
Christian side: Michel Aoun, probably the Maronite leader with the largest following
in Lebanon stood by Hizbullah and against the bombing. On the other side, Samir
Ja’jaa was against.

Does the tension still really look like a ‘Shia-Sunni Cold War’? I have my doubts. The
Saudis are the emerging power of the Arab world. They still see the world through
‘realist’ eyeglasses. But so does Iran. Indeed, America must be factored into the
equation. It has invaded a sovereign Arab state on false pretences. History will
harshly and mercilessly judge the Bush Administration.

But in the first place, even in the appearance of a ‘Cold War’ instigated by the
‘khawaga’ (foreigners), one has to address the utter chaos, despotism, racism, mutual
distrust, poverty, and corruption in the Muslim World. What the Bandars and
Ahmadijends of this world do and say does not make history. They are footnotes that
will soon be forgotten. Muslim agency ought to be promoted when addressing
international affairs lest we keep falling in the same conspiratorial diatribes against

When ‘Arabs’, ‘Sunnis’, and ‘Shiites’ practise mutual hatred and exclusion, what can
America do or not do to halt that conflict? If there is a ‘Cold War’. it won’t subside
until there is a thaw in Shia-Shia and Sunni-Sunni relations, a prelude to a Shia-Sunni
dialogue. In the Arab Gulf, Oman for instance which has never cut off ties with Iran.
Bahrainis are equally happy doing business with Tehran. The ‘khawagas’ have not
stopped coming for centuries and they are not now going to disappear in a globalising
world. They bring along all kinds of ‘goods’ but also calamities no doubt. But the
calamities they unleash, such as conquest or oppression, happens through local

The Arab side is not innocent. Not is the Iranian side. America cannot be
deconstructed though a ‘realist’ reading of international affairs. That would be
reductionistic. A constructivist reading, in a nutshell, would reveal multiple
‘Americas’, at once foe and friend of some Sunnis and Shiites. The fault-line is not as
clear-cut as suggested in the article. The problem is not as neat when execution of
ideas is ahistorical.

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