Fanning Sectarian Fires
in the Middle East

In 1609, a terrible thing happened: not terrible in the manner that great wars are terrible but in the way that opening Pandora’s Box was terrible. King James I of England discovered that dividing people on the basis of religion worked like a charm, thus sentencing the Irish to almost four centuries of blood and pain.

If the Bush administration is successful in its current efforts to divide Islam by pitting Shi’ites against Sunnis, it will revitalize the old colonial tactic of divide and conquer – and maintain the domination of the Middle East by authoritarian elites allied with the U.S. and the international energy industry.

Its vehicle, according to the New York Times, is an “American-backed alliance” of several Sunni-dominated regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, “along with a Fatah-led Palestine and Israel.” The anti-Shi’ite front will also likely include Turkey and Pakistan.

Iran and Beyond

The target is not simply Iran, but the “Shia Crescent,” a term first coined by King Abdullah of Jordan. This “Crescent” includes Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Alawites are of Shia origin. The Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq is generally excluded because of its alliance with the current occupation forces led by the United States and Britain.

Suddenly, rhetoric like the “eastern tide” and the “Persian menace” have begun appearing in official newspapers in the region, although the average Arab does not view Iran as a threat. A recent Zogby International poll of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) found that roughly 80 percent of those polled considered the United States and Israel the biggest threats to their security, while only 11 percent listed Iran. Further, fewer than 25 percent believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear program, while 61 percent think Iran has the right to a nuclear program even if it results in nuclear weapons.

In fact, Iran’s opposition to the United States and support for the Palestinians is widely popular in the region.

Omayma Abdel-Latif, project coordinator for the Carnegie Middle East Center, writes in al-Ahram Weekly that “the consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasize Sunni-Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and continued Israeli aggression. That the U.S. is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the U.S. is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the specter of sectarianism across the Muslim world.”

The real U.S. target may be a good deal bigger than simply the Shia Crescent. “Could it be that the U.S. endgame is to weaken Islam from within,” asks Lebanese writer Jihad Azine in An-Nahar, “and divert attention from targeting U.S. interests to targeting the Shia?”

One major concern for the United States is oil. While oil production in the United States, Mexico, and the North Sea is declining, U.S. consumption is predicted to increase by one-third over the next 20 years. By 2020, two-thirds of all U.S. oil will be imported, and since 65 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East, one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to conclude a strategy of divide and conquer is aimed at keeping strategic control of those resources.

Keeping up tensions in the Middle East is also enormously lucrative for U.S. arms companies. Since 2006, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman have spent – or will spend over the next year – more than $60 billion on arms purchases.


In its campaign to divide and conquer, according to journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration has ended up bolstering “Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” Hersh quotes Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as saying, “The Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shi’ite cold war. The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq; it’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated.”

“Blowback” has already happened. As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations wrote in the New York Times, “Who cannot remember that to contain the so-called ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ after the 1979 revolution, the extremism of the fundamentalist Salafi movement was nourished by the West – only to transform into al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Why should the same policy in the same region procure any different results now?”

While the Shia are often represented as a single entity, there are in fact enormous differences among Shia communities. They are a majority in Iran, but Persians are ethnically different than Arabs. The Shia constitute the bulk of the Muslim population in Lebanon, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been sharply critical of Iraq’s Shia government for working hand-in-glove with the U.S. occupation.

In any case, Shia make up only 12-15 percent of the Muslim world and, outside Iran and Iraq, constitute a majority only in Yemen. Traditionally they “are under represented,” according to Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Socially and economically, Shia communities are more marginalized, less educated, and poorer.”

The fact that Shia communities – particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, but also in Saudi Arabia – are suddenly on the radar screen has less to with any kind of Iran-driven conspiracy than with growing resistance to the sect’s traditionally second-class status in the Middle East. The “divisions” are political and economic, not sectarian, says Abdel-Latif.

Although the division between Sunnis and Shia dates from shortly after the Prophet Mohammed died in 632, the great gulf between them is often exaggerated. As London School of Economics Middle East expert Fred Halliday points out, the distinctions “are small, far less than those between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity,” and conflict between the two is “essentially a recent development, a product of the Middle East political crisis in recent decades.” For instance, Shi’ites and Sunnis have intermarried and shared holy sites for centuries.

Halliday argues that the wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan encouraged the division because militant Sunni groups were the heart of the resistance. The real divisions may be small, but religious conflict has always been a surrogate for something else. In Ireland, it divided native Irish from Protestant settlers and kept the two at one another’s throats. The British manipulated Copts against Muslims in Egypt, and Christian Greeks against Muslim Turks in Cyprus.

As the Irish found out to their woe, small differences, if linked to a wider policy, can turn esoteric matters of theology into a life-or-death matter. “These fires, once lit, can destroy forms of coexistence that have existed for centuries,” points out Halliday.

And no one can be certain where those fires will spread and who they will burn.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan writes for Foreign Policy in Focus.