Professor Vali Nasr recently published an important article on Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism in the Middle East as the “dominant dynamic in the region today.” Although it is an important issue in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, I disagree that it is something that is innate to the region, which is what Nasr implies. He mentions Lebanon, its civil war, and its current tensions as one case in point. To look at the past (the civil war) through the eyes of the present is to suggest that Sunni and Shi’ite sectarianism was the cause of the civil war in Lebanon, which is simply not true. The civil war was sparked not through Shi-ite-Sunni tensions but Sunni-Christian ones. Sectarianism is endemic to Lebanon because of the way the political system was set up there and today’s Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Lebanon are but one cleavage of a wider national problem.
Nasr gives Bahrain as another case in point analyzing the uprising there as a sectarian one. This is simply not the whole picture. The uprising in Bahrain was not driven by Shi’ite ideology and the movement was not exclusive to Shi’ites. The state, however, spun the uprising as a Khomeinist-Shi’ite uprising that was part of foreign (read Iran) conspiracy. This simply was not the case. The only thing sectarian about the uprising in Bahrain was the state’s attempts to spin the rebellion as a sectarian one.
The wider cold war between Iran and Saudi is also analyzed by Nasr as a sectarian one; that Iran is a Shi’ite majority state and Saudi Arabia a Sunni one and therefore, they are at odds with each other simply by virtue of their sectarian difference. This again is a shortsighted analysis. Iran and Saudi Arabia were very close prior to the Iranian Revolution. Both were monarchies, both were firmly in the US camp during the Cold War, and both had common enemies in republican and radical nationalist movements in the region — specifically pan-Arabism. The two regimes coordinated their foreign policies to put down Marxist rebellions in Dhoffar or in Yemen.
The issues that exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia are political but are spun, primarily by the Saudis, as sectarian. The Iranian Revolution gave cause to this shift. Khomeini called upon all Muslims in the Muslim world in general, but especially in the Persian Gulf, to rise up against what Khomeini considered corrupt, puppet, and godless regimes. Uprisings occurred in Kuwait and Iraq, and a coup was attempted in Bahrain. A four-month long uprising took place in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region, which is predominantly Shi’ite. But Iran’s appeal went beyond its Shi’ite identity as Muslims in far away places such as north Africa and Indonesia saw Iran’s revolution as an exemplar for action. The Saudi response, much like the Bahraini response today, spun Iran’s revolution as a sectarian one in an attempt to convince Muslims to not look to Shi’ite Iran as a source for inspiration. They obsessively continue that same strategy to this very moment through their region-wide media network. Thus, the Saudis in pre-revolutionary Iran saw the Shi’ite majority country as an indispensable political ally. Revolutionary Iran, however, posed a existential threat to the Saudi regime who responded to Iran’s pan-Islamic appeal with sectarianism.
Nasr’s analysis of sectarianism in Iraq is a bit more complex to critique, though it too can be challenged. Iraq today is also ripe with sectarianism, but that is not necessarily an issue natural to Iraqis who before the ’03 war were living in mixed neighborhoods and inter-married. It is more a byproduct of decades of Saddamist rule that blocked the Shi’ite majority from any real political participation, as well as more than a decade of sanctions that caused the Iraqi economy to collapse prompting Iraq’s different Muslim communities to rely on their respective religious institutions for badly needed support, which, of course, helped facilitate communal identities. But even then, the post-war sectarian conflict that raged in Iraq was also, to a certain extent, a result of the Iran-Saudi cold war.
Thus, to say that the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites is the central issue in the Middle East is to simplifl very complex histories and trajectories that “complicate” that narrative. Indeed, only the other day Ismail Haniyyeh, the prime minister of Hamas, a radical Sunni Islamist and nationalist Palestinian movement, was in Iran where he told Iranians at a rally that they “are partners in Arab victories.”
Nasr’s compartmentalization of the Middle East leaves little room for such critical nuances.