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 overlooked. 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 ‘otherness’. 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 agency. 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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