Today's date:
Fall 2006

The Shia vs. Sunni Split? Not on the Arab Street

Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chair of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His most recent book is The Future of Political Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Washington — Strikingly, leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt abandoned their usual “Arab solidarity” rhetoric and initially blamed Shiite Hezbollah for “adventures” that provoked this latest war in Lebanon.

Washington welcomes the views of these Arab leaders and urges them to go further in turning the ultimate blame back upon Syria and Iran. It would appear that the Sunni mainstream has seen the light and now agrees with Washington’s view of the region.

But has it?

If we look at what’s really driving the Sunni leaders of these three states—all United States allies—the picture is a bit different. That the autocratic rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are deeply worried, there can be no doubt. But worried about what? About Shiites? Or that their thrones are at risk?

In fact, the real split here is between the Sunni autocrats and their very own citizens. These Sunni regimes are terrified that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and even Sunni Hamas are all creating inspirational models of independent mass resistance against reigning US and Israeli power in the region. And the primal motivating force in the Muslim world today is not Islam, but anger at external intervention and the domination and humiliation of Muslims that stem from US and Israeli policies.

The will to resistance drives most public thinking, while Islam and local nationalism help symbolize the struggle against the non-Muslim invader. Sadly, Muslims today have been driven into a state of mind whereby they crave heroes of resistance who can stand up and redress the humiliation of defeat and occupation. Regrettably, those heroes may even be a Saddam Hussein, an Ayatollah Khomeini, a Hafiz al-Assad, an Osama bin Laden, Hamas or Hezbollah.

Here, resistance rises above sectarianism. Sunni masses by and large are not concerned whether Iran, Syria’s rulers or Hezbollah are Shiites; they applaud them for their steadfastness and willingness to fight and even die. Indeed, Shiite Hezbollah rates very high among most average Sunnis, including the mainstream Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Most Sunni Islamists, except the most fanatic Wahabi-type jihadis, do not condemn these Shiites. Those whom they condemn are their illegitimate Sunni rulers who, in the eyes of the masses, are craven creatures abandoning their peoples and rushing to take refuge in Washington’s embrace.

When bombs fly and blood flows and public rhetoric soars, these rulers grow deeply apprehensive. They know the resultant public anger will often spill into denunciation of them, as they stand helpless before events.

Hence we see these three Sunni rulers of late driven to disparage the images of popular non-state resistance. Saudi Arabia has recently reiterated a top cleric’s fatwa that there should be no support or prayers offered for Hezbollah. (This kind of dial-a-fatwa demand from the regime to the state clerics only serves to further discredit the legitimacy of the “state-owned” clerics and to strengthen the Islamists.) The lines between ruler and ruled grow more frayed every day, and the Islamists are almost invariably the primary beneficiaries.

This is not to deny that some kinds of anti-Shiite impulses among Sunnis do exist. Most prominently, Sunnis are nervous in countries where Shiites constitute a majority, such as in Iraq and Bahrain, or a plurality in Lebanon. Jihadis now butcher Shiites in Iraq to deliberately provoke a civil war that never existed before. Wahabis are particularly socialized to despise Shiites.

Yet most of this is not about religion per se, but represents old-fashioned local community social prejudices against Shiites, who, having long lived on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, now bid for greater political voice and power. And in Lebanon itself, quite justifiably, many non-Shiites do blame Hezbollah for bringing down destruction and death from Israeli warplanes. But many blame Israel as much or more.

In the end, this does not all add up to a grand Muslim world divide. Sunni-Shiite tensions are much exaggerated by the outside world—a kind of lazy man’s political touchstone for handy policy manipulation. The Bush administration and the neoconservatives have most recently latched on to the issue, now explaining that the source of regional problems in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria or Iraq can be traced back to Iran and its Shiite clients. God forbid that the harsh Israeli occupation of the Palestinians just might have anything to do with all this; such an observation has now become simply impermissible in mainstream US media.

It’s not helpful to embrace any simple Manichean Sunni-Shiite divide here. If we bother to look at modern history, the Shiites carry some quite impeccable “pan-Arab,” “pan-Muslim” or “anti-imperialist” credentials; this is quite clear from the regular statements of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, the language and ideology of Islamic Iran, the Shiite Alawis running Syria and Hezbollah itself. They all speak of Palestine, US imperialism, the US invasion of Iraq, the unity of the Muslim ummah and other classical “Sunni” issues. The Arab masses—and al-Jazeera—grasp this reality instinctively. Indeed, Hezbollah’s resistance today may yet create a new Arab hero in its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

So spasms of fear on the part of US-friendly Arab tyrants in their denunciations of Hezbollah and Hamas resistance should not mislead us as representative of broader Muslim world opinion. Whatever the long chain of causality in Israeli-Palestinian and Lebanese violence is, the Muslim world now sits exposed to yet another tragedy befalling another Muslim people on prime-time television in living color.

And, unseen to our eyes, the radical jihadis are making silent recruits every night via the flickering television images of yet new regional horrors. Sadly, we will see those recruits only as they turn their anger and frustration into action in the coming months or even years. Only through elimination of the causes and grievances that legitimize such popular resistance can we begin to turn the tide. Right now events are running the other way.