Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Will There be a Sunni-Shi’a War in the Middle East? Not Likely--William O. Beeman, New America Media

Will There be a Sunni-Shi’a War in the Middle East? Not Likely

Will There be a Sunni-Shi’a War in the Middle East? Not Likely

New America Media, News Analysis, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jun 18, 2014

The success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing large territories in Syria and Northern Iraq, and now threatening Baghdad, has raised once again the specter of a Sunni-Shi’a war in the Middle East. Such a scenario is possible, but unlikely. That’s because Sunni and Shi’a believers throughout the world are divided into many factions living under different social conditions and with different religious, social and political agendas. These differences greatly reduce the possibility of the emergence of a coalition of either group into a single bloc opposing the other.

ISIS belongs to a small faction of Sunni Islam committed to extremist fundamentalist religious convictions that they seek to impose on other Muslims. In this they have common cause with the Salafi movement (salaf means “ancestors,” referring to the original founders of Islam).

The Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda also spring from the Salafi movement. The Salfis view Shi’ism as heresy. They believe that Shi’a believers are “polytheists” because of their reverence for Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and his descendants. Salafi preachers have authorized the killing of Shi’a Muslims as a religious duty. Salafi adherents are found throughout the Arabian Peninsula and also in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

ISIS has roots dating back to 2000 and has evolved to the point that it is functioning as a quasi-government at present with an organized leadership and judicial, financial and military systems. They are actively hegemonic, hoping to establish an Islamic Caliphate, hearkening to medieval times, governed exclusively by their own narrow interpretation of Shari’a Law.

Meanwhile, Shi’ism also exists in many forms. The form known as “Twelver Shism” has been the State religion in Iran since the 18th Century, and is practiced in other nations where believers are a plurality or a majority. Although Americans have been led to believe that Shi’a Muslims are also fundamentalists, in fact Shi’ism is far more flexible in its belief system than fundamentalist Sunnis. Besides the “Twelvers” there are Zayyidis in Yemen, Alawis in Syria (the religion of the Assad regime) and Isma’ilis living in many locations throughout the world.

Twelver Shi’ism is organized into differing philosophical camps headed by Grand Ayatollahs. Shi’a believers attach themselves to one of these religious leaders from whom they seek guidance on religious matters. There are currently 66 living Grand Ayatollahs living mostly in Iran and Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait, each with his own individual view of proper conduct and religious philosophy. A coalition of thought for this diverse body of clerics is highly unlikely.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded by the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni with the controversial doctrine that the most knowledgeable Grand Ayatollah should be the ultimate authority in government and social life. However, many other Grand Ayatollahs disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of governance. A number were arrested and stripped of their religious credentials because of their opposition. One of the chief oppositionists to the Khomeinist view of government is Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Najaf, the most revered Grand Ayatollah of Iraq.

Shi’ites have been under siege everywhere else in the world outside of Iran. Shi’ites in Lebanon were attacked by Israel seeking to cripple Sunni Muslim Palestinians living in refugee camps there. The Alawite regime in Syria holds power, but has been continually attacked by the Sunni majority in that country. The Zayyidis in Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been attacked by the Sunni governments in both nations. The Bahraini majority Shi’ites have been under siege by the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family. Hazara “Twelver” Shi’ites have been persecuted and murdered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shi’a in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia have been prevented from carrying out religious observances and have been economically disadvantaged. The religious rights of Shi’ites have been curtailed in various parts of Southeast Asia.

Now, although Shi’a Muslims are a plurality, perhaps a majority in Iraq, they are under attack by ISIS.

Iran, meanwhile, has striven to help Shi’a communities when they have been under attack. Iran was instrumental in the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon when the Shi’a community was first attacked by Israeli forces in 1980. However, Iran no longer has any effective influence on Hezbollah’s actions. Iran also continues to provide aid to the Assad regime in Syria. It has sheltered Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran has been wary of providing direct aid to other Shi’a communities, such as those in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, despite the fact that ruling powers in those countries have accused them of doing so.

The current crisis in Iraq, though, is not likely to lead to more widespread conflict. ISIS is frightening even for the conservative government of Saudi Arabia and the more liberal government of Jordan. ISIS is well funded, largely because it has commandeered oil fields in Iraq and it robbed the Iraqi Central Bank in Mosul. It continues to receive funding from Salafi “businessmen” in the Gulf States. But support for ISIS will eventually run out, since for many other Arab nations, the ISIS Salafi agenda is far too extreme.

And if Iran does enter into confrontation with ISIS, it is not likely to engineer the disparate Shi’a communities in the Middle East into anything resembling a bloc. On practical grounds such an effort would fail, and savvy Iranians know this. Iraqi Shi’a don’t like or agree with Iran’s Islamic Republic governmental structure. Hezbollah in Lebanon has set its own course at home, and is not likely to be under Iranian control. Iran seeks better relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, even as the leaders of those nations denigrate Tehran. Even within Iran there will be many factions that will not support any kind of cultivation of a Grand Shi’a Alliance for military or political gain.

The United States is now considering making common cause with Iran, something that critics see as a dangerous move that would support “Iranian hegemony.” But this criticism is largely speculation, based on based on lack of information about Iran and the rest of the Shi’a world.

If it is possible for the government of Iraq to repel and contain ISIS with Iran’s help, the United States should definitely support such an action. There need be no real fear at this time that either the Shi’a or Sunni forces will evolve into a kind of World War III in the Middle East.

If Iran itself or the sacred Shi'a Shrines in the Iraqi cities of Najaf, Kerbala, Kufa and Samarra are attacked, however, all bets are off. Iran fought an eight-year war with Saddam Hussein when it was attacked in 1980. The shrines are essential to Shi'ism and Iran considers itself guardian of them. No matter what nationality, if Sunni Muslims make common cause with any group that attacks Iran, they will be met with enormous ferocity.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology, University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Disintegration of Iraq Has Begun--William O. Beeman--New America Media

The Disintegration of Iraq Has Begun

New America Media, News Analysis, William Beeman, Posted: Jun 12, 2014
Iraq was a creation of the British following World War I out of disparate Ottoman provinces that had never had any coordinated existence. It is now on the verge of disintegration, thanks to the misguided policies of the American Bush/Cheney administration. President Obama is being pressured by his Republican critics to “do something” about this. But anything he does will only make matters worse.

The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have now taken most of Northern Iraq and are inching toward Baghdad. The withdrawal of American troops from the country, and the inexperience of the Iraqi national army have left the field wide open for this takeover. Since troop numbers for ISIS are very small—around 1000 by some estimates—their rapid advance seems incomprehensible, until one considers the ethnic makeup of the territory.

ISIS is a mature Sunni Muslim movement started in 2000. The government of Iraq and its troops are largely Shi’a Muslim. The territories now conquered by ISIS are also Sunni. There is only one conclusion that fits the facts of the success of the ISIS conquest: The Sunni residents of Northern Iraq are aiding ISIS in the takeover. Thus the ISIS “conquest” is not that at all—it is rather a full-scale revolt of the Sunni population against the Shi’a government.

The seeds for these events were sown a full century ago in the creation of the State of Iraq by the British. The British essentially created an artificial state that was doomed to self-destruct. The surprise is not that it is falling apart; it is rather that it has lasted this long.

After World War I, the British had two goals regarding Iraq. They wanted the oil riches of the Ottoman province of Mosul, and they wanted the port of Basra as a depot for the export of that oil and the transport of goods from India to Europe via the railway they also built. Baghdad, the historical metropolis that lay between these two on the great navigable rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, was the natural capital of the new nation.

The British were not at all concerned about the ethnic communities of the new nation. They were mere inconveniences controlled by force to allow the colonial occupation to continue to extract wealth. The Kurds, sitting on the oilfields, were traitorously cheated out of their own independent state. The majority Shi’a in and around Basra were deprived of any but a token role in governance, and the Sunni kings in Baghdad—natives of Arabia and installed by the British—were dominated by the British Embassy and army until a revolution removed them all in 1958.

Keeping the nation together after that point was a formidable task. After years of internal strife the nation devolved into a military dictatorship under Saddam Hussein whose ruthless authoritarian tactics suppressed all revolt on the part of the individual ethnic communities.

All of this changed in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. The first American invasion by George H.W. Bush had left the government intact, but the 2003 invasion destroyed Saddam’s rule and left the nation’s factions exposed like an open sore. The Shi’a majority established a government, but like in the Kingdom of Iraq, the new government was dependent on the American military to maintain the order they needed to govern. Moreover, the Shi’a leaders, fuming with rage at decades of mistreatment wanted revenge. They clamped down on the Sunnis, depriving them of any power in the new government and engaging in their own repression of Sunni majority regions. This of course created even more enmity between the communities.

Now, with the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, the wounds are open once again, and there is nothing available to stench the flow of blood. The United States situation presents a terrible dilemma for President Obama. He is being called upon to do something to stop ISIS, as if this organization was an invading force that could be air-bombed and stopped. In fact, ISIS is simply the vanguard of a popular resistance against the Baghdad government. Moreover, Iranian troops have been enlisted to aid the Iraqi army in countering these forces.

So the pressure on President Obama from his Republican critics to provide military support against ISIS is misguided. If the President acquiesced, he would be attacking a popular revolt. The justification for this would be that the United States is actually attacking the seemingly greater enemy—fundamentalist Sunnis who are already furious at the United States. However, this distinction is utterly lost on the Sunni residents of Northern Iraq who have been caught in military crossfire for more than a decade and already see the United States as the enemy.

Added to this is the fact that Iranian troops have been enlisted to aid the Iraqi army. Thus the United States, in attacking ISIS would actually be making common cause with Iran—which Washington has labeled “the chief State supporter of terrorism.” The irony is truly staggering.

So at this point President Obama is trapped. Opposing ISIS is in the interests of the United States. Allying with Iran is political poison for the Obama administration. Doing nothing will result in the disintegration of Iraq. Right now, disintegration seems to be the path that the United States and the Iraqis are following.

Can this terrible state of affairs be calmed? Perhaps. The United States handled the insurgence in the Sunni communities by bribing the leaders of the resistance with cash and promises of leadership positions. The cash was given, but the leadership positions never emerged. That is still a strategy that could work in the short run. In the long run if Iraq is to hold together, there must be a serious effort at power-sharing at the national level.

Failing that, the nation will certainly split apart. There is nothing more to hold it together.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years