Often a normal being would wonder how irrational a sizeable chunk of the populace of a particular culture or a region could be – especially after watching the recent developments in the Middle East. It astonishes that at this stage of human civilisation so many people there don’t care about their and their family’s life the life of other fellow being when it comes to sectarian sentiment. People can be as dumb to destroy their own community, township, city or even country fighting over mere sectarian identity originated in the antiquity. Common language, culture, heritage and centuries of living side by side evaporates when an otherwise petty sectarian cleavage pops up or deliberately cooked up by the worst of the madmen. All the teachings and talking of great ideas like democracy, tolerance, coexistence etc vanish with the first shot of the denominational infighting. No one is talking about the Arab Spring, often described the greatest political awakening of the Arabs, anymore. Sectarianism has completely overshadowed it.
It now appears that the predictions and warnings by few seasoned Middle East experts to the US and its allies ‘not to stir the stability, enforced by the dictators and Ameers, in the name of bringing liberty and democracy in the Middle East,’ has come dead true. Dumb American politicians like George W Bush and his mean advisors were simply unfit and unwise to be in charge of global affairs for so many years.
Many often forget that the Middle Eastern societies are not modern societies in Western sense or even by some Eastern measure especially of the Far East. The petro-dollars have bought the Arabs modern amenities; certainly not modernity itself which mostly is about rational ideals, values and norms. Beneath the veneer of material gains of these Rentier States there lies almost primitive Deep States of religious radicalism, sectarianism, neo-patrimonialism and tribal-kinship ties in the place of rational and impartial bureaucracy of a twenty-first century Weberian State. Common people of distant countries and leaders with sub-ordinary intellect like George W Bush would never be able to grasp such nuance insights. And thus the latter messed around with somewhat lasting balance and stability created by homegrown despots. Some suspect it was deliberate and the hidden purpose was to secure the long term safety of Israel meaning putting millions of Arabs in peril to ensure full proof safety of the Jewish state.
The Shi’ite –Sunni and tribal/kinship divide is an old one. But it was somewhat sent to back burner by dictators like Asad, Saddam, Mubarak, Gaddafi and the Gulf Ameers. The dictators and some Ameers were essentially modernisers to varying extent – although were unable to erase the ancient social construct. But whatever advancement was made was completely overturned when Bush and company bullishly decided to march into these states and stirred unwisely or with criminal intent the subtle stability enforced by the iron fist of local strongman on the otherwise belligerent sects and tribes.
The sectarian and tribal contestation have some similarity with the caste divides of India with the variance in intensity, which is obviously more on the Arab side, and some unique characteristic like ritual status. But of course there are tradition-sanctioned, if not scripture-induced, tribal or kinship hierarchy, a silent yet influential factor.
A strange aspect of the Shi’ite-Sunni identity cleavage is that it’s more about historical events and personnel rather that ideals or value driven. That’s where it differs from Catholic-Protestant divide. The Shi’ite doesn’t recognise the first three Caliphs of ancient Islamic state or Caliphate, who were, as per Sunni version of history, elected democratically by the Sahaba-e-Kiram or companions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi’ite consider them illegitimate and claims that only the members of the Ahlul Bayt or the household of the Prophet were entitled to be the leader of the Muslim Ummah (worldwide Islamic community) and the Caliphate. They term the ultimate Islamic leader as Imam who they consider holds some divine authority. They have an additional set of holy sites in the ancient region of Kufa – present day Iraq, which are often targeted by Sunni extremist these days and triggers sectarian violence.
Regionally, it is understood that Saudi Arabia loosely patronises the Sunni groups whereas Iran the Shi’ite. In Syria, the Alawite Shiite was in leading role due to their traditional dominance and over-representation in the military despite being only 13 per cent of the population, whereas the Sunnis constitutes close to 70 per cent. Obviously they have some Sunni allies. There is a sizeable Christian population as well. But most of the Syrian rebels are now sectarian Sunni groups. In Iraq it was the other way round until Saddam’s regime. After that a conservative Shiite coalition came to power which is still in the helm of the country. The Shiite are the majority in Iraq mostly concentrated in the south of the country a partly in the center in and around Baghdad. The Sunni Arab areas are centre, west and north-west along the Syrian border. The northeast is mostly Sunni Kurd and they are the only relatively peaceful self-administered regions. Lebanon at the west of Syria has sizeable population belonging to all sects Shiite, Sunni, Christians and Druze Muslim. It has a bloody sectarian past. Sectarian crises in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are getting increasingly interconnected also influenced by rival Iran and Saudi patronages as part of regional sectarian power game. There are also sectarian issues in other Arab countries Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia itself and Egypt, among other countries.
Recent emergence of Sunni extremist outfit ISIS/ ISIL which quickly occupied large part of Syria and western and northern Iraq with support from local population gain vindicates the severity of sectarian faultline. Belligerent Shiite reaction to the ISIS rise was also vivid. Clashes are increasingly getting widespread in the region and human catastrophe more and more massive. Close to three hundred thousand people have died in past three years and numerous cities, townships and villages were destroyed. Number of refugees is massive and so is the human suffering and collateral damage. Decades of buildup and progress have been wiped out in the madness of few years.
Of course the Arabs and their dumb leaders are the primary ones to be blamed for their nightmares who also are playing to the hands of cruel and cool-headed America-Israel nexus. Arab nationalism, which was a source of inspiration for so many decades cutting across sectarian lines appears untraceable now. There are so many conflicting interest among Arabs ranging from maintaining the vested interests of sects dynasties of kingdoms and Emirates, radical Islamist. Moreover, there are seemingly perpetual issues of Palestinians, Arab leadership question and so on.
It’s difficult to see any ray of light in near future in the Middle East. The international community, especially the US, is playing a dubious role. What happens next in the Middle East is anybody’s guess. Sensible people all around world should raise their voice for a logical and peaceful solution to the Middle Eastern crisis and for the end of this acute human misery.
The author is the Head of Operations in BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University and member of its Regional Studies Research