The impetus to republish this 8 July 2005 piece comes on Sunni and Shi’a Islam comes from this, in the Times:
The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites…
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations who recently visited the Gulf, said it was “entirely logical” for the Israelis to use Saudi airspace.
Bolton, who has talked to several Arab leaders, added: “None of them would say anything about it publicly but they would certainly acquiesce in an overflight if the Israelis didn’t trumpet it as a big success.”
Arab states would condemn a raid when they spoke at the UN but would be privately relieved to see the threat of an Iranian bomb removed, he said.
The cross Gulf divide (partly religious, partly ethnic, to the point that they can’t agree whether the Gulf is Persian or Arabian) is one of those things that our elites just can’t quite get the import of. They can’t take advantage of it either. In the Bush years, only raw American power counted; the thought of leveraging a local conflict was…well, unAmerican and unmanly (to modify a phrase from Anglo-Catholic history.) In the Obama years, the thought goes against the artificial construct of a homogeneous, offended Islam that needed to be mollified in a homogeneous way (the concept behind the Cairo speech.)
I’ve followed this for a long time with pieces like this, this and this, but the following recounts where this issue, for me at least, started. I’m also including my post “They’d Rather Take Riyadh,” published later in 2005.
Sunni and Shi’a: The Deep Divide
One of the most interesting people I have ever known was a fellow graduate student (mid 1990’s) from the Sudan. A warm and open person, we were able to spend a lot of time discussing Christianity, Islam and many other subjects.
One of the first thing I found out about him was that he was a Sunni imam. He had been elected same by some of his fellow students while studying engineering at the University of Khartoum, leading their studies of the Qur’an. This informality of group and leadership formation in Sunni Islam was an eye-opener; it is very relevant to our understanding of al-Qaeda. Our press and government keep looking for a vast organisation when all extremist Muslims need to accomplish what they did in London yesterday is a small group of people with an “imam” at their head and an idea.
While discussing deep matters, I asked a question I always was curious about: “What is the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam?”
He thought for a moment, then calmly replied, “The difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam is as great as between Islam and Christianity.” He also added that he saw positive points in Shi’a Islam, something that most Christians who have seriously studied the subject would probably agree with.
Events in Iraq since its “democratisation” have shown that this division is as deep as my Sudanese friend understood, especially when it is mixed with politics. A hallmark of Ba’athist regimes is minority rule. In Syria, the Alawi al-Assads have ruled a predominantly Sunni country for many years. In Iraq, the Sunni Saddam Hussein had ruled a predominately Shi’ite country, one which he thought nothing of plunging into an extended war with the most important Shi’ite country, Iran.
Now the U.S. presence there and its push for democracy has resulted in majority rule, and that majority is Shi’a, which help from the Kurds. This has not sat well with Sunni Muslims either in Iraq nor their foreign friends, especially those from their neighbour and the heart of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. presence has obscured this; it’s much easier to hate us now and deal with other Muslims later.
However, when the day of U.S. withdrawal comes, a Shi’a dominated Iraq will naturally turn to Iran. That’s why the Iranians are busy supporting terrorists in Iraq; the sooner they induce loss of nerve in the Americans, the sooner they will have the upper hand in Iraq. That event will trigger a serious tilt in the balance of power in the Gulf, one that the Saudis have tried to avoid for years.
There are many reasons given why the first Bush didn’t invade Iraq in 1991. My own personal idea is that the Saudis didn’t want him to; they knew the long term result of that would be Iranian hegemony in the land between the rivers. That’s why they were unenthusiastic about this war as well. The last thing the Saudis want to see is a strengthened, Shi’a Iran at their doorstep.
The Saudis position is, as usual, weak. They are in the middle of a succession problem in the royal family. They have a young population with high unemployment and the discontent to go wth it. They have a sizeable Shi’a population of their own, as do the Gulf states. And, contrary to their own pronouncements, their oil production may be peaking about now. The oil revenue, of course, is what floats their internal money-favouring (which perpetuates the House of Saud) and their external Wahabbi madrasses and mosques, designed to feed Muslim fanaticism and careerism. It is also financing their ongoing acquisition of nuclear weapons from Pakistan, something many people are in the dark about while focusing on Iran’s program.
The U.S. believes that bringing democracy to the Middle East will dull the impetus for terrorism. On paper this is correct, but in societies where autocracy has been the rule making a democracy is easier said than done. (Just look at the example of the French and the Russians to understand this.) We are too enamoured with Napoleon Hill “Think and Get Democracy” type thinking to realise that real, functioning democracy requires some preparation of the people themselves, and that takes time.
In the meanwhile, we are seeing a setup for a major Sunni-Shi’a rivalry across the Gulf. Having the great forces of Islam more worried about each other than us is a potential boon for the West, but until we find the best way to make the transition to that state, any thought of using that to the West’s advantage will remain a dream.
They’d Rather Take Riyadh
Originally posted 27 October 2005.
The recent statement by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that he wants to wipe Israel off of the map will only make Iran’s position vis a vis its budding nuclear arsenal more difficult. It will harden the position of the U.S. and others. It will set off prophetic alarm bells within evangelical Christianity. And it will, surprisingly enough, make things with the more “traditional” power structure in Iran more difficult, as Ahmadinejad is to a great extent an outsider.
But make no mistake about it: statements such as this, although heartfelt, are not Iran’s immediate objective. Wiping Israel off of the map would include the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, which would make them the goat of the Middle East. (In the careerist scheme of things there, the consequent loss of the Palestinians would be incidental for most real fanatics.) Saddam Hussein had to be careful when he lobbed his Scuds during the Gulf War in 1991, and that wasn’t easy with Scuds.
Iran’s real objective in developing nuclear weapons is to rule both sides of the Persian Gulf, and that includes Saudi Arabia. Obtaining that would also accure to them Mecca and Medina, which would make a Shia state the guardian of the Muslim holy sites for the first time in history. It would also give them the bargaining power to do pretty much what they wanted with the West, and that would include their objectives with the State of Israel. Calling for Israel’s destruction whips up the Arab street; getting Saudi Arabia warms the hearts of the rulers.
We should also like to quote the statement Mahmud Ahmadinejad made, as cited in Asia Times. It is a prayer challenge for Christians if there ever was one:
Once, his eminency Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini – leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution], stated that the illegal regime of the Pahlavis must go, and it happened. Then he said the Soviet empire would disappear, and it happened. He also said that this evil man Saddam [Hussein] must be punished, and we see that he is under trial in his country. His eminency also said that the occupation regime of Qods [Jerusalem, or Israel] must be wiped off from the map of the world, and with the help of the Almighty, we shall soon experience a world without America and Zionism, notwithstanding those who doubt.
After posting this, I received a comment from one “tron tron” about my neglect of knowledge of the Fatimids. My response was as follows:
What he may be referring to is the rule of Mecca and Media by the Fatimids, the brilliant dynasty which ruled from Cairo. They were Shi’a, but were Ismailis (“Seveners”) as opposed to the “Twelvers” who are dominant in Iran and Iraq. (The numbers refer to the successor imams from Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, whose succession is crucial to Shi’a Islam.) We also note that this comment did not challenge our main thesis, that Iran’s highest objective is to establish control over both the holy places and the oil fields of the Arabian peninsula.