The worst thing that could happen to the Arab world is for the struggle for communal improvement and development to turn into a doctrinal conflict leading to fragmentation and setbacks in all areas of life.
Take the sectarian drums of war that have been beating in the past few weeks, not least the statement by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a week or so ago which announced that his group is fighting alongside the Syrian army in the town of Al-Qusayr.
Nasrallah conveyed three messages: members of Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government, are now engaged in large numbers in the conflict in Syria; that this engagement is not for the purpose of protecting Lebanese border towns or religious sanctities, but to defend the Syrian regime and kill rebels; and that Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict represents support from Lebanese Shia for the Assad regime and its “Shabiha” thugs, who are mostly Alawite Shia.
These points were used to justify Free Syrian Army officials’ statements about carrying out operations on Hezbollah bases in Lebanon in response to the party’s involvement in Syria.
That would, of course, destabilise the already fragile state of affairs in Lebanon and even Iraq, where the Sunnis are preparing for a coup against the doctrinal authority in Baghdad. Moreover, the fear has to be that Lebanese Shia involvement in Syria will encourage Sunni groups to go to the aid of their fellow Sunnis fighting against the regime.
We cannot hold Hassan Nasrallah solely responsible for igniting a sectarian war in the Arab world; he claims to have resisted involvement until now. He has also made several treaties to strengthen Lebanon’s resistance against Israeli aggression to quell any suggestions of sectarianism.
However, Hezbollah’s defence of the regime in Damascus against the Syrian resistance cannot be justified. Nasrallah’s move is, I believe, a major error of judgement on his part which has wiped away Hezbollah’s street credibility in the Arab and Islamic world even though he claims that the move to fight in Al-Qusayr was nothing to do with sectarian bias.
Since the start of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Tehran has opposed American and Israeli policies. The Iranians are Shia and Persians, and the Persian Safavid Empire engaged in a violent struggle against the Sunni Ottomans 400 years ago; there is a long history of sectarian conflict there. We must also keep in mind that Iran has its own aspirations and interests in the Arabian, or Persian, Gulf.
The Pahlavi Dynasty which was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution kept such factors hidden. Since 1979, though, the sectarian differences have become more pronounced, culminating in the Iran-Iraq War in which all available weapons were used – including chemical weapons – as well as the spectre of sectarianism.
This coincided with the release of several studies and reports from America which focused on the differences between Sunnis and Shia; they did not view the Arabs as a nation characterised by its wealth and diverse identities, but spoke in terms of their doctrines, difference and factions. The US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 reflected that idea as the transitional council formed after the fall of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussain was not formed with the vision of Iraqis as one nation, but as a variety of groups distributed amongst the Shia, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities. Since then, Iraq has been divided more or less into three regions for Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, paving the way for the demise of the singular state of Iraq in due course.
In this context, we cannot ignore the historical conflict between the Sunni Wahhabis and the Shia, the roots of which date back to the early nineteenth century. The current manifestation of Wahhabism are the Salafi groups, who remain hostile to the Shia post-Arab Spring.
We saw this hostility clearly in Egypt last year when the government in Cairo attempted to normalise relations with Iran; this was opposed fiercely by the Salafis. They protested in front of the office of the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Cairo and threatened to besiege Cairo Airport if Iranian tourists arrived. Some of the Salafis criticised Shia doctrines openly while others questioned their intentions and warned against their spread among Sunnis.
Iran must share the responsibility for fuelling sectarian conflict in the region; Tehran’s position on Iraq is haunted by the suspicion that it has inbuilt sectarian bias against Sunnis. It is hard to deny it, even though a few Shia leaders are struggling against sectarianism in Iraq and Lebanon.
Paradoxically, Iran has supported the Palestinian resistance movements and welcomed the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, such positive actions cannot outweigh the negatives in many Sunni eyes.
The impact of this miserable sectarian conflict is not limited to tearing apart the Arab nation in the face of challenges and threats which do not distinguish between Sunni and Shia and hope that they eliminate each other. No less dangerous than this is the battle between brothers which distracts them from the real enemy.
A report by the Brookings Institute in America, released in April, noted that the battle between the Sunnis and Shia is more advanced than the Arab and Muslim conflict against Western domination, and has also become a bigger priority than the Palestinian cause, which many in the Arab world are no longer concerned with.
This statement is relatively true, in the sense that it applies to the talk of the elites in the Arab world, which has been promoted by the media platforms which represent them. In Egypt, we have seen Salafis vent their anger against allowing Iranian tourists to visit Egypt, but have heard no protests against Israeli tourism. We have also noticed that the Palestinian cause is no longer a priority in speeches made by the Arab elites. It has slipped down the priority list in the political arena as well; Arab Spring countries, starting with Egypt, included.
The only solution I can suggest is the detachment of politics from sectarian and doctrinal issues. I see nothing wrong per se with the politics of Iran, Iraq, Syria or any other country. We have made such a shift in our opposition to Israel by distinguishing between Judaism and Zionism so it is ironic that we appear to be unable to do it with Sunni and Shia and the politics that their followers adhere to.
Why can’t we be explicit that our battle is against the policies of, say, Iran, Hezbollah or the Al-Maliki government in Iraq, just as we are against the tyranny of the Al-Assad regime, but that we are not against the Shia or the Alawites? Even if some regimes try to use religious doctrines or sects to achieve their goals, the awareness of such distinctions must be present in our minds. We have to condemn the political choices not the religious affiliations.
While some may believe that the distinction between political and doctrinal matters is blurred in many cases, I argue that such a clear distinction is necessary. The battles against policies are short-term but the battles against sects and doctrinal affiliations are both foolish and endless, not to mention a traditional and tried recipe for communal suicide.
The author is an Egyptian writer. This article is a translation from the Arabic text which first appeared on Al Jazeera net, on 4th June, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.