Sunday, December 02, 2007

Again, Shiite vs Sunni is Not Important

There are various reasons Western commentators insist on the story that there is a serious rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis that motivates the actions of Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis and other relatively pro-US countries in the region.

One reason is that there is an iota of truth. There is just enough truth that a person who wants to believe it for another reason could not easily be convinced otherwise. In Iraq, today, there is and has been ethnic cleansing on sectarian lines. This is not a permanent feature of Muslim history. It was not the case before the US invasion in 2003.

Doubters of the story of eternal emnity between Shiites and Sunnis point to the intermarriages in Iraq and give anecdotes of how unimportant it was in that country in mixed areas before the invasion. Iran and Saudi Arabia both define themselves as "Islamic" nations, not Sunni or Shiite nations. But the recent flare-ups in Iraq, which are real, are the backbone of the story.

The importance of the rivalry is exaggerated when this historically unusual phenomenon of personal emnity between the sects in Iraq is extended to explain policies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. But because of the situation in Iraq, clearly made worse by the US invasion, it is not possible to say there is no rivalry anywhere.

The two more important reasons the story is widely believed are wishful thinking and a desire to minimize the impact of Israel on US' strategic situation in the Middle East. Wishful thinking in that commentators have gone so far as to claim that Saudi Arabia has given Israel a status as honorary Sunnis in their fight against Iran. The Saudis believing that Israel is their ally would be great for Israel, great for the US in its role as protector of Israel but there is no question that Saudi Arabia has far warmer ties with Iran than with Israel. One country does not have relations and will not shake hands, the other made a state visit recently.

I'm sometimes puzzled by the strength of the drive western commentators have to downplay the importance of Israel as a motivating factor in the actions of Arabs and Muslims in the region. Essentially the entire political spectrum everywhere in the Middle East believes that the right of the Palestinian refugees to return is more legitmate than Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

The division in the Middle East has been, essentially since Israel's inception, between states and organizations that openly express their societies' mainstream view on the conflict and those states and organizations that agree with the mainstream view, but out of deference to the West are more silent in their opposition to Israel's legitimacy. Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran are in the first camp, Egypt Jordan and Saudi Arabia are in the second.

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are presented as Sunni countries allied against the Shiites. But if religious parties take over the first two countries or political power leaves a single family in the third, all of these countries would change sides. Not to the Shiite side, but to the side that openly expresses and acts on their belief that Israel's Jewish identity is not legitimate if it comes at the expense of the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

On issues involving Israel, public opinion polls in Sunni countries always show majorities of the populations of these Sunni countries agreeing with Iran's position on and against the side the governments of the Sunnis countries take.

But instead of relatively pro-Israel countries against relatively anti-Israel countries - which is the more accurate description of the division, western commentators paint the division as between Sunnis and Shiites, which is far more an accident of history. The Shah was an ally of the Saudis, but Iran was just as Shiite as it is today. If the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Egypt, it will ally with Iran, while remaining just as Sunni as now.

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