Originally published at Rubin Reports.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has been largely replaced by the Sunni Muslim-Shia Muslim conflict as the Middle East’s featured battle. While the Arab-Israeli conflict will remain largely, though not always, one of words, the Sunni-Shia battle involves multiple fronts and serious bloodshed.
Shia Muslims are a majority in Iran and Bahrain; the largest single group in Lebanon; and significant minorities in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. While the ruling Alawite minority in Syria is not Shia, it has identified with that bloc.
The main conflict in this confrontation is in Syria, where a Sunni rebellion is likely to triumph and produce a strongly anti-Shia regime. A great deal of blood has been shed in Iraq, though there the Shia have triumphed politically.
The tension is already spreading to Lebanon, ruled largely by Shia Hizballah. In Bahrain, where a small Sunni minority rules a restive Shia majority, the government has just outlawed Hizballah as a terrorist, subversive group, even while European states have refused to do so.
By Islamizing politics to a greater degree, the victories of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood group have deepened the Sunni-Shia battle. And, of course, on the other side, Iran, as leader of the Shia bloc, has been doing so, too, though its ambition was to be the leader of all Middle East Muslims.
Yet also, especially when it comes to Iran, the Sunni Muslim bloc is also very much an Arab one as well. Many Sunnis, especially the more militantly Islamist ones, look at Shias—and especially at Iranian Persians—as inferior people as well as heretical in terms of Islam. I don’t want to overstate that point but it is a very real factor.
This picture is clarified by a recent report by the Cordoba Foundation, a research center based in the U.K. and close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The name, after the Spanish city where Islamic religion and culture flourished before the Christian reconquest in the fifteenth century, may seem chosen to denote multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence. But, of course, it was picked to suggest the Islamic empire at its peak and the continued claim to every country it once ruled, including Spain.
The report is entitled Arab and Muslim National Security: Debating the Iranian Dimension and summarizes discussions among “a group of prominent and influential Islamic figures,” though no names of participants are included. The focus was to define and warn about the Shia and Iranian threat to the Sunnis and Arabs.
In the report, Iran is identified as the aggressor against the Sunni Muslim (Arab) world, pushing “its political influence through religious sectarianism.” Implicitly the discussion rejects the idea that either “the Palestinian issue” or unity as Muslims overrides the Iranian national security threat.
One concern is that of demography. “Such demographic pockets [that is, non-Sunni Muslims and non-Arabs] in some Arab countries pose a threat to society regardless of how small they are.”
Remarkably, the paper states that Iraq’s population changes “have distanced it from the Arab order.” In other words, because there are more Shia Muslims and non-Arab Kurds in Iraq, it is out of phase with other Arab states and might look toward either Tehran or Washington.
Another demographic concern is Iran’s alleged effort to convert non-Muslim Alevis in Turkey (they say they are Muslim but they aren’t really); Syrian Alawites (same story), and Yemeni Shia Muslims (of a different sect) to Iran-style Shia Islam (Twelver Shiism).
Iran has also succeeded, the paper continues, “in securing strategic victories, such as its gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, and the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia. Actually, though these are pretty limited gains in each case.
Syria, where the pro-Iran regime is likely to be replaced by a Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood one, is a setback for Iran. And by overthrowing Syria’s regime, the sponsor of Hizballah, that will cut Iran’s sponsorship of Lebanese Shia (Hizballah), “almost thirty years of hard work totally wasted.” That’s overstated but it contains some basic truth.
The paper also states, accurately, “Although Islamic movements in the Arab world may seem on the surface to be homogeneous and inspired by the same intellectual sources, there is lack of coordination and total chaos.” As an example it cites the Sunni Islamist movement in Iraq which faces: “Serious challenges from expanding Turkish economic interests, Iranian cultural and sectarian influence, and Kurdish expansionism.” It then asks whether the Iranian and local Shia or the Iraqi Kurds are the bigger threat.