A full scale Middle Eastern, Islamic type of war between the Sunnis and Shiites is raging. Officials in Washington are doing their best to label it anything but a war; when asked if it is a war, they seem to react in fear, and ignore the issue by saying, “We must do our best to ensure that such a war does not happen.”
By refusing to label what is going on a war, however, we may well be preventing ourselves from devising policies which would address the problem, and make it evolve in the best interests of the U.S.
Historically, Islamic warfare has not necessarily been one in which large armies have fought each other, at least at the beginning of conflicts. What usually happens is that there are what we in the West call “terrorist raids,” in which opposing sides send small raiding parties into each other’s territory. These raids are ongoing and cause both sides to live in a constant state of tension with one another.
The dispute then festers until one side is strong enough to vanquish the other; from that day on, each side lives in an uneasy relationship with the other. The vanquished look for an opportunity to avenge their loss. Sadly, Middle Easterners culturally are unable bring themselves to “let bygones be bygones” – a concept totally alien to Middle Eastern culture. Disputes therefore fester, then erupt when one side perceives the other as weak.
When Khomeini arrived in Iran in February 1979, one of the first statements he made to the media on the tarmac was that “he had come to rectify a wrong which took place 1400 years ago.” Westerners thought this somewhat quaint and obviously irrelevant. All that interested them was what he had to say about the Shah, America, and Israel. To Westerners, especially Americans, who dismiss things that happened a few days ago, Khomeini mumbling about some event that took place centuries ago seemed irrelevant. Middle Easterners, however, who never forget perceived wrongs, knew exactly what he was talking about. When the Muslim prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E., a fight broke out among the Muslims as to who would inherit the leadership of Islam. Those who supported their prophet’s family eventually became known as the Shi’ites. Those who supported what might be labeled the “establishment” in Mecca became known as the Sunnis.
The Shi’ites were defeated and their leaders were, one by one, murdered by the Sunnis, who proceeded to take over the larger part of Muslim world. Sunnis and Shi’ites – especially in areas where they live together – still refight that battle, which took place almost 1400 years ago. Moreover, thanks to the easy way information travels, Sunnis and Shi’ites know more about each other than in the past, so this battle now also takes place even where Sunnis and Shi’ites never knew each other. What ended up being most important to Khomeini was not the Shah, therefore, but devising a strategy to rectify what he considered the great wrong that took place so long ago: bringing down the Sunni rulers and their version of Islam, and replacing them with the “true,” Shi’ite, version of Islam.
No wonder Saudi rulers, who are members of an extreme Sunni version of Islam called Wahhabism, and their fellow Gulf Cooperation Council Sunni-ruled Gulf States, understood immediately that Khomeini was a mortal threat.
Sadly, our political establishment, who, as Westerners, simply do not live as deeply in history, had an immensely difficult time — and still do — assimilating Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian, and other allied leaders’ concerns.
In addition, on 9/11, Osama bin Laden vented his rage, blaming the West for what it did to Islam 80 years ago. Western experts of the Middle East racked their brains trying to figure out what that meant, but to Sunni Muslims, the answer was obvious: the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk and his colleagues. Many Muslims believe this degradation was imposed on Turkey after its defeat in World War I. For Sunnis, the Ottoman Caliph, the rightful ruler of the entire Muslim world, had been humiliated by people who could not have been Muslims. For Shi’ites, the abolishment of this “usurper” institution was a relief; the Sunni ruler, they believed, wanted nothing more than to destroy Shi’ism, the only “true” Islam.
As for last week’s mini-war between Israel and Hamas, the members of Hamas are Sunni fundamentalists; it therefore seems it would be only natural for the Sunni world to support them. But Iran, from the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979, saw organizations such as Hamas as tools to help them undermine the Sunni rulers, who control most of the Arab world.
Iranians understood that they could not stand up to the Arab world militarily, so Iran looked for Arab causes to support, which would demonstrate to the Arab masses that their rulers were weak and unable to solve problems, such as Israel’s existence in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, and the tyranny under which Arabs live.
First, the Iranians took over the Israel issue. For many years, Arab rulers had talked about defeating Israel but kept failing, thus heaping shame and humiliation on the Muslims — in Middle Eastern culture, a fate worse than death. So Iran took on the Israel issue, which is, at best, peripheral to Shi’ites. For Shi’ites, the supposed holy status of Jerusalem is a Sunni innovation. The “holy status” was invented by hated Sunni rulers about 50 years after Muhammad’s death, and thus to Shi’ites is an illegal innovation. Iran seems to have calculated that if it made this Sunni issue its own, and it stood up to the Israelis, it might gain the support of the Sunni masses against their rulers, and thus help Iran destroy these Sunni rulers and thereby win an important battle in their unending 1,400 year war against the Sunnis.
In Lebanon, moreover, Iran created Hizbullah, a Shi’ite military organization – actually an arm of the Iranian military — which eventually fought Israel to a standstill in 2006. This was a huge public relations boost for Iran: no Sunni leaders had ever before managed to best Israel. Almost no Arab rulers complained about Israel going into Lebanon, while at the same time the head of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, instantly became a folk hero in many parts of the Arab world.
For Iran, Gaza was an opportunity too good to pass up. Iran developed ways of supplying Hamas with weapons to use against Israel, making use of Egypt’s marginal control of the Sinai Peninsula that abuts Gaza. Over the past few years, Iran has supplied Gaza with missiles and rockets that could hit Tel Aviv, and has brought Hamas operatives to Iran for training.
After the so-called ceasefire, Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’s senior political leaders, went out of his way to thank Iran for its help. Thereafter, Iran dispatched a ship with missiles to resupply Hamas with missiles.
Egypt, by contrast, appeared not to want trouble on its border with Israel, and worked with Israel to rein Hamas in. Egypt’s fundamentalist Sunni ruler from the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Morsi, did not, as one might have expected, side with Hamas — a sub-branch of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood — against Israel. Morsi seems to have many reasons for avoiding a conflict:
- Egypt’s economy is collapsing; Morsi needs American economic support or he will not be able to feed his people.
- If Egypt attacked Israel, Israel might destroy Egypt’s military, which currently is no match for Israel’s; so it is in the Egyptian military’s interest to keep the peace.
- Even though, upon assuming power, Morsi replaced its leaders, if Morsi fights Israel, his military — which is still in place from the days of Hosni Mubarak, which benefits from American military largesse and which controls vast parts of the economy — might overthrow him.
- Morsi wants to consolidate his power at home, and then, after becoming a modern pharaoh, push the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda not only to re-Islamize Egypt, but also the rest of the Muslim world. This plan may be tall and clearly long-term, but ever since the Muslim Brotherhood’s founding in 1928, that has been its main goal. Morsi is himself a senior member of the Brotherhood.
- The timing of Hamas’s attack on Israel put Morsi in a bind: even though he had not yet consolidated his power, if the situation had gotten truly out of hand, Morsi might have been forced into confronting Israel.
Combining all of these reasons, Morsi won the day: he mediated between Hamas and Israel, stopped the conflict from zooming out of control, and pacified the Americans who would now feel required to continue the economic, military and even political support Morsi so desperately needs to keep his sweeping new authoritarian powers beyond the reach of any check or balance. By not getting into a war with Israel, Morsi kept the Egyptian military at bay.
It is therefore not surprising that Morsi felt he could strike now in Egypt and grant himself these full dictatorial powers – far greater than Mubarak ever had – and there would be nothing that America, now feeling indebted to him, would do about it.
The Sunni fundamentalist Morsi is still engaged in an existential battle with the Iranian Shi’ites for the hearts and minds of Islam. Each side loathes the other. If one side triumphs in this 1,400 year old conflict, the other side loses. From Morsi’s point of view, however, it seems that this fight must wait for another time.
Iran seems to be losing everywhere. In Syria, where its Alawite rulers are an offshoot of Shi’ism and recognized by many Shi’ite authorities as Shi’ites, Iran is losing this war to the more numerous local Sunnis.
Lebanon is also unstable; Hizbullah members there appear unsure how they can survive without the support of the Syrian Alawites. Iran is also a long way off, and it is not easy to resupply Hizbullah from there.
In Sudan, Iran’s weapons plants have been destroyed. It was weapons from these factories which made their way to Gaza.
Could Israel’s massive destruction of Hamas’s rocket and missile capability be one more step on the road to eliminating Iran’s nuclear program? Iran’s allies are being destroyed or weakened, one by one. Sudan and Gaza are gone, at least for the time being. The Syrian regime does not appear to be winning its ruthless war against its insurgents. Will Hizbullah be able to remain strong without weapons coming in from Syria? Clearly, Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, cannot, whatever he says, feel so secure: he has spent most of the past few years hiding underground from the Israelis. Shi’ite-ruled Iraq is preoccupied with its internal problems. Iran is gradually being left to stand alone. If Israel attacks Iran, Iran no longer has any useful Muslim allies to help it against the Israelis. Iran would therefore have greater difficulty confronting Israel.
In the end, Hamas was a pawn for Iran in the Sunni-Shiite war. Its leaders may be wondering where to turn, now that Egypt is ruled by fellow Sunni fundamentalists. For the moment, at least, Egypt does not seem to want to provoke Israel. Both Hamas and Iran, therefore, stand to gain from continuing their close relationship. Morsi understands that the Iranians want nothing more than to have the Sunnis confront Israel and lose — a defeat which would help Iran in its war against the Sunnis.
Hamas has become a tool for both the Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalists to use in their battle not only against the non-Muslim world, but against each other. If, in the Middle East, bygones cannot be bygones, this battle will continue until Allah decides which side is the most worthy and makes sure that side wins.
Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.
About the Author: Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman History and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the US Department of Defense. He is now a Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.
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