Even though Shiism is roughly as old as Islam itself, its role in Muslim history has been, for most of the past 1,400 years, confined to its periphery. The fact that Shias comprise a small minority living amidst a vast sea of Sunnis, coupled with a historically-old proclivity to conceal their faith to protect themselves from threats posed by tyrants and from accusations of heresy, gave the Shias a low-profile in Muslim society and politics. That most Shias belong to the lower strata of society eclipsed their social and political presence further.
It is against this backdrop that Shiism – as a social and political force – seems to have been suddenly rediscovered in the last few years by the Arab world’s politicians, intellectuals and media-makers.
King Abdullah of Jordan cautioned against the potential formation of a “Shia crescent that would dominate the Arab world, extending from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon. President Mubarak questioned the loyalty of Shias to their homelands, suggesting that their religious affiliation with Iran outweighed the national bond they have had for decades with their states. Moreover, the newspapers of Gulf states, day after day, focus on the deviation of Shiism from the true path of Islam and the disruptive role played by its politicians in regional politics.
Nevertheless, the Shia threat is more myth than reality, for the fundamental pillars of realpolitik are still dominating the political behavior of all actors, despite all the smokescreens, political manipulations and media indoctrinations.
The hysterical focus on intra-Muslim sectarian cleavages commenced with the ascent of Iranian influence in the region – in Lebanon, Palestine and post-Saddam Iraq. The US administration and its Arab allies were troubled by the repercussions this resurgence might have on America’s hegemony, Israel’s security and the internal stability of ‘moderate’ Arab regimes.
To curb Iran’s mounting power and force her to relinquish its inflated ambitions, they contemplated using the ‘Shia card’ in order to mobilize the region’s populace, predominantly Sunnis, against the political heavyweight of Shiism, that is, Iran. Much of the present discourse on Shias and Shiism, therefore, is merely a mask used to conceal the real strategic and political objectives pursued in the current bone-crushing US-Iranian conflict over the future of the Middle East.
More importantly, drawing on the sectarian card to ‘protect American interests in the region’ has probably been elevated in US strategic planning from being a temporary tactic to a permanent policy. The fierce fighting that erupted last month in the Palestinian camps Northern Lebanon provides useful insights. It was reported that the hard-line Sunni Jihadist faction that clashed with the Lebanese army and killed scores of its cadres has, for months, been covertly supported and funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in an effort to offset the supremacy of Hezbollah in the ever-precarious Lebanese politics.
In the eyes of many Lebanese and Arabs, Hezbollah had emerged victorious from the 33-day battle against Israel last summer. The stupendous military performance against the Arabs’ chief foe was, naturally, a ticket to stardom and reverence. It enabled the Shia-dominated group to become a potent force in Lebanese politics and jeopardize the stability of pro-US Seniora government. In response, Americans calculated that to emasculate Hezbollah, Lebanese Shias have to be counterbalanced by Sunni groups, even if they were, politically and ideologically, affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
To America and its Arab partners, Iran and Hezbollah’s real problem rests not in the sect of the men, but rather in the misconduct of the political entity. This attitude made them flout American demands, inducements and ultimatums, bring forth a political agenda that is inimical to US interests, and exhibit readiness to incur high costs and even go to war, if necessary, to advance this agenda.
Had both parties been Sunnis, the plan of driving wedges between Sunnis and Shias would have, definitely, never been embraced. In the 1950s/60s and 1990s, the defiant policies of two indigenous Sunni leaders (Nasser and Saddam Hussein respectively) triggered a similar coalition of the United States and its Arab allies. Yet no reference was made to the Sunni-Shia schism, nor a word uttered about the dangers of Sunnism. Obviously, such a discourse would not have bore fruit then, and was excluded, thus.
In its part, Iran has been taking advantage of its spiritual affiliation with Shias to expand its regional sway and bolster its negotiating posture vis-à-vis the United States. But religion took the backseat when state interests were at stake. In 1991, Iran deserted Iraqi Shias whose uprising was brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein’s republican guards. Also, in the 1990s, Iran backed Armenia against Azerbaijan (whose population is predominantly Shia) in the protracted dispute over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh. To Iranians, no different from Americans, political motivations have been cloaked in religious and ideological gowns.
The notorious imperial ‘divide and rule’ strategy thrived on creating feuds and fostering distrust among conquered populations. In the Muslim world, the policies of the United States, today’s imperialist power par excellence, are preserving the tarnished tradition from extinction. But as history lessons have vividly demonstrated, this weapon is usually short-lived and very much prone to backfire. Unfortunately, George W. Bush’s administration is long on military invasions and political adventures, but so short on knowledge, intelligence and wisdom.
Nael M. Shama is a PhD Candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews, UK.