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The Muslim Civil War

Is the split between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East now deeper than the animosity between Israel and the Arabs?


[Middle East] It may look like this, considering some of the Arab governments' reaction to Hezbollah's attacks on Israel. Even as Israeli bombs fell on Beirut and Tire, Saudi Arabia – perhaps the most conservative of all Muslim Arab states – condemned Hezbollah for exacerbating the conflict with

Israel. Never before has a state that considers itself the leader of the Arab Muslims supported Israel so openly. Egypt and Jordan have also condemned Hezbollah.

Are we witnessing a fundamental shift in relations between Arab nationalism and Islamic sectarianism? Is Saudi Arabia's Sunni government more frightened by Shia Islam than it is faithful to the Arab community and the Palestinians?

The Arabs' condemnation of Hezbollah suggests that the sectarian divide – which is already evident in Iraq – is deepening and intensifying throughout the Middle East. George W. Bush wants to create dynamism in the stagnant society of the Arab world by setting modern forces up against the traditional elements. But instead, it seems that he has unleashed the region's most atavistic forces. The opening of Pandora's box may have been the beginning of a new and even uglier era of generalized violence – perhaps what must be called a "Muslim civil war".

The divide between Sunnis and Shiites has existed from the beginning of Islam, but the geographical and ethnic isolation of non-Arab, Shiite Iran, as well as the Sunni Arab dominance over their Shiite minorities, has largely kept the rivalry down. Tensions were further dampened by the "Islamization" created by the Iranian revolution. In its wake, the sectarian identity of the Sunnis was pushed further into the background as a generalized "Islamist" self-consciousness emerged.

All this changed when Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim terrorist group heavily backed by Saudi Wahhabis, attacked the United States in September 2001. A specific variant of militant Islam was on the rise. As the United States launched wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq – both against Sunni regimes – this new radical direction flared up further.

The region's newly made Sunni Arabs perceive Israel and the West as just one of two threats. The second consists of the so-called Shia crescent – the arc of land from Lebanon to Iran via Syria and Iraq, inhabited by the "heretical" Shiites.

In the Sunnis 'eyes, the Shi'a not only dominate the oil-rich areas of Iran, Iraq and the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia, but through Hezbollah try to take on the role of "protector" of all Arabs' dream, the Palestinian cause.

Ironically, it is the United States, Saudi Arabia's old protector, who ousted Saddam Hussein and brought Shiite parties to power in Iraq. The Bush administration seems to be realizing what it has done: As the shiabu strengthens in the east of the Arab-Muslim world, the United States is trying to increase the protection of the sunnii – Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – in the western part of the region. Israel, formerly the most irreconcilable enemy of the Arab cause, now appears to be being incorporated into this defense structure.

However, due to panarabic bonds, the structure is unstable. Today, ordinary Saudi citizens are stuck past Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite stations. They see that Arab (not Shiite) blood is being played and that only Hezbollah is fighting. In their eyes, Hezbollah is a heroic resistance movement.

This causes the Saudi state to strengthen the divide between Sunnis and Shias. Following the Kingdom's official condemnation of Hezbollah, the State urged the Wahabi clergy to issue fatwas condemning Hezbollah as Shia deviants. Such condemnations can only help to strengthen the sectarian divisions within Saudi Arabia and the region.

Will the Sunni regimes, as this enmity deepens, feel that they need their own Hezbollah? If that's the case, they do not have to look far, for many such fighters have already been trained by Al Qaeda.

Posted by Mai Yamani who is a researcher at Chatham House in London. Her latest book is called Cradle of Islam.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

Translated by Anne Arneberg

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