The sectarian inferno

Today, in most of the Arab east, the sectarian narrative is the most dominant one

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The sectarian fires that are burning in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and the flames that threaten to engulf the Gulf region and Pakistan will continue to consume more Sunni and Shiite victims and will not be extinguished any time soon.

Their ambers have been intensifying and spreading for years and even decades and it will take legions of new experienced fire fighters who have been scorched and horrified by them and learned how to contain them.

True, sectarian identification, grievances and mythology have existed practically since the dawn of Islam, but the modern Middle East, under the Ottoman Empire or Western Colonialism and through the first decades of the independence era never experienced such strong sectarian identification or demonization and definitely not the ferocious violence we see now on a long front stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf.

In the last two centuries the region was marred by occasional sectarian tension and religious strife emanating from political and economic causes, such as the bloody clashes between the Christian Maronites and the Druzes in Mount Lebanon and the Sunnis and Christians in Damascus in 1860 resulting in the killings of thousands of Christian civilians; nonetheless these were the ugly exceptions that were prevented from igniting a wider conflict, and were contained relatively quickly by local and international players.

Today, in most of the Arab east, the sectarian narrative is the most dominant one

Hisham Melhem

Although Islamist political movements have been active during the struggle for political independence (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, established in 1928) most Arabs in the early 20th century and particularly during the period between the two World Wars were animated by secular political discourse and movements. The struggle was over how to build modern nation-states, establish political parties and elect parliaments and write modern constitutions inspired by Western models and ideas of political and civil rights, all within a political not a religious discourse.

Political conflicts not theological disputations

Political movements, states and empires always invoke ideologies, myths, and religions to justify and explain conflicts and war over tangible material interests and empowerment. Even when people appear to be fighting over religious dogma, theological disputations and doctrinal differences, they are in fact engaged in a political conflict or struggle for power. In this sense, religious and sectarian conflicts such as the one we are witnessing now are the symptoms of political conflicts and struggles for empowerment rather than the causes.

Thus, the bloody sectarian clashes between the Sunnis and Shiites from Pakistan to Lebanon, with their corollary wanton violence by mostly Sunni extremists against defenseless Christian communities, are not taking place to settle outstanding metaphysical issues or over which jurisprudence the Muslim Ummah should follow, this is a struggle over political empowerment, economic interests and to affirm their identity and protect their community since the sectarian discourse frames the conflict, usually in absolutist terms as an existential one.

Causes and new dynamics

The abject failure of the independent “secular” Arab states, particularly those swept by the forces of Arab Nationalism and or controlled by the military, in delivering on their promises of economic development, their pursuits of exclusivist and autocratic practices, and their failure even in protecting the homeland from external threats drove many of their citizens to look for political “alternatives” rooted in their history and culture.

The Faustian bargain entered into by some leftist political movements and intellectuals and the ruling Nationalists in Cairo and Damascus that as long the “battle” against the real and imagined machinations of the Imperial West and Israel is going on these movements and intellectuals will not agitate too much for more political/civil rights- that bargain has been disastrous.

The “battle” against the West and Israel was lost and with is the pursuit of political rights and human dignity.

The 1967 ‘setback’

The 1967 disastrous defeat of Egypt and Syria at the hand of Israel provided the first political and intellectual opportunity for the Islamists in the Arab world to say –correctly- that the defeat signaled the demise of Arab Nationalism as a political movement in both of its Nasserite and Baathi manifestations.

The two competing intellectual currents that tried to explain this historic “setback” were the Islamist and the Marxian.

I lived in Beirut during the five years that followed the defeat and witnessed firsthand as a young man the intense intellectual and political ferment that took place in that vibrant city then, where intellectuals, artists, political activists and politicians from many Arab states took part in debates on the pages of newspapers and literary journals such as Mawaqif, edited by the hugely talented poet Adonis, asking what went wrong?

And where do we go from here? From that moment on, the Islamists (primarily Sunnis) who were sidelined and harshly repressed in Egypt and Syria began to reassert themselves with a more relevant political discourse.

The Iranian revolution

The 1979 Iranian revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was a historic milestone for the reassertion of Iran’s Shiite identity and for the mobilization of Shiite minorities to demand greater rights in the Arab world and Pakistan.

The political alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria under President Hafez Assad (a regime with Baathi veneer and a Alawite core) struck immediately after the fall of the Shah, and became extremely important for the survival of the revolution in its infancy following the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, was another milestone in Shia solidarity, on a regional scale since the Alawites are an off shoot of Shiite Islam.

In subsequent years when Iran became the senior partner to Syria it used its influence with the Shia Community in Lebanon and played a major role in establishing Hezbollah as a political or military Shiite organization to mobilize the Shiites of Lebanon and to resist Israeli occupation.

Thanks to Iranian largess, training and political sponsorship, Hezbollah today is simply the most powerful non-state actor in the world. Thus Iranian leaders during the war in Syria could boast that Iran’s borders have been extended to the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say that Iran and Hezbollah have been trying to turn Beirut into a Tehran on the Med.

The Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional military conflict in the 20th century, exacerbated tension between the Sunni Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia who supported Sunni ruled Iraq, and Shiite Iran, although the conflict was political and territorial at its core. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, played a pivotal role in transforming what began as a local Sunni Jihadi movement into a regional one, when Arab volunteers and other Sunnis - supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan -joined the Jihad against the Soviet Union.

The American invasion of Iraq

However, the first tectonic shift that transformed Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension into an ugly bloody conflict was the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which unleashed new unintended dynamics and consequences that went beyond the borders of Iraq and widened the sectarian chasm in the region.

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime with its Baath Party veneer and Sunni Arab core turned Iraq’s already harsh political and social landscapes into embittered sectarian killing fields. For the first time in the modern era, the old familiar political, social, ethnic and sectarian order in Iraq, a major country bordering Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey was radically altered and empowered two major groups that were previously marginalized; the Shiite majority and the Kurds.

The fact that many of the new Shiite leaders had longstanding relations with Iran and either lived there in exile or trained, equipped and financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp, deepened the suspicions of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq.

More importantly, for the new Shiite leadership sectarian identification, as a previously oppressed Shiite community in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime was an integral part of their political DNA. In power, this leadership, particularly under the current premiership of Nouri al-Maliki failed to make the transition from Shiite opposition groups to Iraqi political leaders, and ended up ruling as an embittered Shiite coalition bent on keeping the Sunnis in their new diminished place.

Shying away

Maliki does not shy away from the use of overt, even crass sectarian narrative in public, as he did recently when he painted the struggle in Iraq as a continuation of the struggle of the revered Imam Hussein (the Prophet Mohammad’s second grandson, and an important figure in Shia Islam) against his enemies 14 centuries ago, or his extremely controversial call for making Karbala, the Iraqi city where the martyred Imam Hussein is buried as the new Qibla (the direction to which ALL Muslims pray) instead of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca.

Iran’s influence, through its complex networks and contacts with various Shiite groups and politicians, was growing exponentially, and further contributing to the alienation of the Sunnis. Ironically, Syria which wanted to bleed the U.S. forces in Iraq became the gateway for radical Sunni Arabs and non-Arabs who wanted to go to the new theater of Jihad against the Americans and their new Shia partners.

Iraq’s descent to civil war coincided with the proliferation of Arab satellite television networks, which broadcasted live to millions of people the war and its most ugly manifestations. Equally important was the explosion of new media, such as YouTube, Facebook and later twitter which demolished old forms of censorship and was used effectively to mobilize support and demonize the “other.”

Syria’s sectarian hell

The sectarian nature of the Syrian regime, with its entrenched Alawite leadership of the elite units in the army, the intelligence agencies and security forces, and its manipulation of the minorities concerns with regards to the majority Sunni Arabs, particularly the justified fears of the considerably important Christian population after their co-religionists in Iraq were subjected to widespread terror and violence that forced half the community to flee the country, meant that Assad will quickly turn the initially peaceful uprising into a sectarian conflict.

From the beginning of the conflict the Assad regime used disproportionate violence against the civilians in Sunni areas held by the rebels. Alawite paramilitary groups committed massacres against Sunni civilians in a number of strategically important villages to cleanse their population. In 2012 and particularly 2013 Syria has become a magnet for Sunni Jihadists from all over the world.

Sunni coalition

It is true that there is a Sunni regional “coalition” (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and others) fighting by proxy a Shiite “coalition” (Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah) in Syria, but it is very telling that Iran is the only country that is fighting directly on the ground through its Revolutionary Guards units. Iran, bears direct moral and political responsibility for exacerbating and widening the sectarian horrors in Syria and causing it to spill over to Lebanon, when it deployed Hezbollah forces last summer in Syria where they played a decisive role in defeating the rebel forces defending the key city of al-Qusayr.

By using Hezbollah forces, and encouraging Iraqi Shiite militias and volunteers to fight in Syria, Iran obliterated Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and its willingness to use force to maintain that influence, reinforced in the minds of Sunni leadership in the region their fear of an Iran dominated “Shiite Crescent” stretching from the Gulf to the Med.

Last year, the full blown Syrian civil war and the low intensity civil strife in Iraq have morphed into one frightening sectarian conflagration. Today, in most of the Arab east, the sectarian narrative is the most dominant one. It is difficult to see how these sectarian fires can be contained, let alone extinguished without a radical change in the nature of the Syrian regime by creating a truly representative governing structure, and a serious political reform in Iraq towards a more inclusive politics. The bitter reality remains, that just as it took decades to drive the region into the current sectarian inferno; it will take the region additional decades to reach a post sectarian future.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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