Sunni vs Shia: From Myth to Self-fulfilling Prophecy

As a Saudi-led coalition marches into Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels, talk of a grand clash between Sunni and Shia Islam is growing. However, this is largely a mythical and extremely simplistic explanation for the true dynamics in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab
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Shi'ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa March 26, 2015.
Shi'ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa March 26, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries, including Gulf States, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, has invaded Yemen – ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels that are besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest, troubling development has inevitably fed speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region’s defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defense editor at U.K. daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni, and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading and, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen, to which belong the Houthis, is neither really Shia nor Sunni, but straddles the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only to consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen and the wider region.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), the Sunni-Saudi regime allied itself with the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite imam, Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Sunni-but-secular Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a military coup known as the September 26 Revolution. Saudi Arabia was driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen to within its own borders. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan-Arab cause.

Then, during the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia were uncomfortable allies in their battle against secular nationalism. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the established order and its Western backers regarded socialism, communism and pan-Arabism as the mob at the palace gates.

The same applied for the popular uprisings for democracy, socio-economic justice and dignity that swept across Arab states in 2011. When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms sounded in Saudi Arabia. The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the Middle East, in order to maintain their grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces domestically, and the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, is one measure ideology, but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like the United States and Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, painting the situation in Iraq as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle can help the Anglo-Americans – the architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war – sleep more easily at night.

“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t,” Tony Blair wrote in his own defense, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would’ve been at each other’s throats anyway.

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratization movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

Therein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennial jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian struggles, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has lived, studied and worked in the Middle East and Europe and is currently based in Jerusalem. His book Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land was published by Guardian Shorts in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter:@DiabolicalIdea.

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