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The Sectarian Arms Race - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The King of Bahrain [Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa] issued a warning about the deepening sectarian divide while Deputy President of the Higher Shia Council in Lebanon, Abdul Amir Qabalan, called for the suppression of the Sunni-Shia sedition. Meanwhile, following his visit to the premier Shia authority Sayyed [Ali] al Sistani, Saad al Hariri stressed the Arab identity of Iraq and Lebanon and highlighted comparisons in their situations and goals. Everyone is warning of a sectarian sedition while the tension continues to grow and escalate like a fireball.

Al Hariri’s surprise visit to Iraq coincided with Hezbollah’s celebrations of the release of the prisoners; he launched a huge ‘media celebration’ of his own to initiate himself in the role of the sole decision-maker of war and peace in Lebanon.

This was happening at the same time that Hassan Nasrallah was delivering his speech, considering and discussing the deal struck between the Israeli ‘state’ and Hezbollah, whilst humbly announcing that he was not ‘king of the Arab world’ despite the Israeli media saying he would become so [if he was granted all his demands]. Thus the Lebanese politicians – out of greed or fear – were sitting listening and applauding ‘Mr. Lebanon’ in a scene that could be described as a lamentation of the ruins left of the faltering Lebanese state.

Hariri’s visit to Iraq, which was reportedly advised on an Arab level following the ‘openness’ towards Iraq by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Jordan, contains an indirect protest against Hezbollah’s monopoly of Lebanon’s Shia, which constitute the party’s primary support base.

The bottom line of the visit is: Hezbollah is not entitled to monopolize over the Shia discourse and the Arab Shia follow a different method, have other symbols and a different rhetoric [to the Iranian-influenced Hezbollah’s rhetoric] and moreover; the Arab Shia hail from a different origin, which is Najaf. Najaf is the seat of religious Shia sentiments. Why did he [Saad Harriri] visit the Sayyed of Najaf as opposed to the alleged ‘King of Arabs’?

Ayatollah al Sistani’s aide Hamed al Khafaf described Saad Hariri’s visit to al Sistani as ‘exceptional and extremely critical’ and added that both men discussed the Sunni-Shia situation in a 50-minute meeting with particular emphasis on Lebanon and Iraq, in addition to seeking ways to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide whilst highlighting the common ground between the two parties. Abdul Amir Qabalan and Nabih Berri were briefed about the visit, for reassurance perhaps.

According to some reports in Lebanon, Hezbollah is displeased with this meeting and has taken it to be a sectarian provocation at its expense. So, are we ascribing more importance to the visit than it can withstand? I believe so, since the issue of Iran’s management of the Shia [community], or the Iranian regime’s attempts to control it is a matter that surpasses Lebanon with all its politicians and parties just as it goes beyond the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. Moreover, it is a matter that not only strikes deep into the historically strained sectarian relations between the two sides but which also ingeniously relies upon the Iranian regime’s exploitation of this Arab clash and confusion amidst the sectarian crisis – and it is as though it has taken them by surprise!

Iran is depleting the Shia balance worldwide through state power and oil and by aggravating the existing religious tension and exploiting the symbols of Karbala and the oppression of the People of the House [Ahlul Bayt, the Prophet’s line] and other such emotive slogans that have a monumental impact on Arab societies that have yet to consolidate the concept of true citizenship.

This is why what Mr. Hani Fahs said was right. The Lebanese thinker and liberal Lebanese Shia scholar spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat last Saturday (19 July) and within the context of his criticism of political sectarianism he said that part of the crisis with Shiism today goes back to the lack of real understanding and correct implementation of the concept of citizenship in Arab political practices. He also added that the Arab states and societies have to refrain from dealing with the Shia as though they were ‘communities’ since they were fully equal citizens. Fahs stated that this was the only means to relieve the anxiety and put an end to the fear among the Arab Shia, which is the very same fear that the Iranian regime is investing in so as to hold the fate of the Arab Shia in their hands, whilst manipulating these sentiments for the interests of the Iranian agenda. This agenda is built upon nationalistic dreams and historical impact – cloaked in the Supreme Guide’s [Ali Khamenei’s] robes this time.

There is a strong controversy among Arab intellectuals and politicians surrounding this Iranian ‘assault’ on the region while Iran holds everyone at gunpoint with its nuclear and sectarian threats unless they submit to Tehran’s demands. The main line of this discussion revolves around one essential point: How can we confront this threat?

We are not referring here to those who exaggerate the threat of the ‘blitzkrieg’ Iranian regime; overstating its threat only benefits the imperialist Zionist project and so on, since the controversy with this exaggeration is part of the Iranian political discourse itself. [Supreme Guide] Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the voice behind this discourse, has repeatedly stated on more than one occasion that the “Great Satan” and Zionism are the reason that the Sunni Arabs fear Iran and that Iran only has goodwill towards its fellow Muslim brethren.

All of this rhetoric is emotional revolutionary talk that is used for drugging and consumption, and although it generates from Iran; it is reiterated by the Arab militants who are a mouthpiece for Tehran.

The fact is it is a grave and present threat and the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, with all the devastation and ruin, is nothing but a scary reminder for Arab states. After the ‘divine party’ destroyed Lebanon’s Shia and undermined the Maronite Christians and their leader [Michel] Aoun and scared the Druze, only the Sunnis remained. Hezbollah raided the Sunnis in Beirut, raised arms [against them] in Bekaa Valley and supported those who raised arms [against the Sunnis] in Tripoli and is thus in the process of bending the Sunnis to its will so that it may have sole control of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s sectarian situation and its seeking the defense of a foreign party cannot be limited to Hezbollah; antecedents include the Maronites in France and the Sunnis in Nasser’s Egypt. This always happens in the moments when the state is disrupted, which is why Fouad Chehab’s term (1958-1964) was Lebanon’s golden era since it was devoid of sectarianism as a result of his strength in overriding the sectarian issues.

Today, however, we are confronted by an overwhelming sectarian tidal wave and successive security crises in the Arab states and closer examination will reveal the Iranian hand tampering here and there. This applies to most cases; from the Houthis in Yemen to Bahrain’s disruptive Shia to the incident of eulogizing Imad Mughniyeh in Kuwait (incidentally, we have not seen the end of this conflict and will witness it manifest in the new parliament). This is to say nothing of the wide-ranging corruption that is practiced by the Iranian corps in Iraq, particularly the Quds Force.

Will the confrontation take on the form of an escalating sectarian opposition? Many believe that this should be the case while others maintain that the showdown should be limited to the political and security levels. However, Iran does not operate within these boundaries and is moving along a number of courses; there is the diplomatic front behind Manouchehr Mottaki and Saeed Jalili’s smiling faces and the loud voice of the two councils [The Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts] and that of [Hossein] Shariatmadari, in addition to the enigmatic intelligence façade of the commander of the IRGC Qassem Suleimani – and above all that; the Supreme Guide’s face.

In my opinion, we are confronted by two challenges; a political challenge and an urbanization challenge, both of which will result in a dangerous arms race that will manifest in the political arena with detrimental effects that will last for a long time. It is a race towards the annihilation of politics and civilization and it will bring about the ruin and devastation of communities.

This is why the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s initiatives for dialogue and rapprochement and his attempts to diffuse the volatility of sectarian and religious tension are not simply political or individual acts; rather, they are initiatives that will have a long-term impact on civilization if they are followed and implemented by clerics and intellectuals. It will also put an end to the support and applause that Iran, and other states and organizations whether Sunni or Shia or external or internal, have been receiving so that no one would raise his/her fist in the air and chant Iran’s name and sell themselves to death under its slogans. This is the true confrontation required to face the Iranian assault.

This is the inevitable way and it is true that it is a longer and more arduous road but it is the better one. If our culture was one of tolerance, enlightenment, criticism and rationality, we would not have Osama Bin Laden, Hassan Nasrallah, Muqtada al Sadr, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the hardliner sheikhs and sectarian statements and those who become enslaved by all this whilst erasing their selves and minds.

What is happening is simply an expression of the crisis that afflicts the collective mind and conscience in our part of the world, and it highlights more than ever the critical need for advancement.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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