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Media Skepticism of Arab Dictators Needed

Today Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post wrote about an alleged trend of Sunni Muslims in Syria to become Shi'a in support of Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah. The evidence of this trend is anecdotal, but certainly significant to the extent that it is happening. I thought this paragraph rather suspicious, though:

...The burgeoning of Shiism is worrisome to some Sunnis. Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt all have warned of the increasingly influential "Shiite crescent." The crescent stretches from Afghanistan through Shiite-ruled Iran to Iraq, where a newly empowered Shiite majority holds power, across Syria to Lebanon, where Hezbollah makes its base and Shiites are estimated to be the largest religious group...

This would have been better if the second sentence had began, "This alleged crescent stretches..." This paragraph accurately states what Arab rulers have been saying as they view the worrying trends of open politics and fair elections in Iraq. Yet there are problems with almost every element of the theory; the Shi'a make up a weak minority in Afghanistan, in Iraq they follow the teachings of religious authorities opposed to Iranian Shi'a state ideology (even SCIRI, the most Iranian of Iraq factions, now follows the marjas of Najaf, not Tehran), Syria has a very small Shi'a minority (a few converts notwithstanding) and while the Shi'a may well be the plurality now in Lebanon, they are the most isolated faction in the society. The most popular Sunni, Christian and Druze leaders form an anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon's parliament. And it isn't clear that the Shi'a are even a plurality; this is Hizballah's claim, and while their percentage has been growing in recent decades for sure, the Sunnis could also be a plurality.

The bottom line is that the "Shi'a crescent" theory is a bogus concept mouthed by Sunni rulers concerned that their time could eventually be coming to an end. The successful development of a stable and mature democracy in Iraq would embolden both Saudi Arabia's Shi'a minority and its secularist and Islamist opposition. While the Saudis have terrorist enemies, they also face moderate Islamists who seek a more democratic regime, a non-Saudi one. Newspapers should be more careful in their wording in order to avoid stating as fact the self-interested claims of illegitimate rulers.

Notes

4 Comments

Political legitimacy is a relative concept - relative to a particular people's criteria as to what is legitimate. And these criteria may change over time. For example: not too many centuries ago, "Deus gratia rex.." was acceptable to Western peoples. Can there be any objective criteria? Ultimately only the biological ones: do the rulers, basing their claim on their own concept of legitimacy, bring peace, prosperity and preponderance to their peoples. Such verdicts take a long time. So far, America's criteria have not proved themselves to the peoples of the Middle East.

I agree with the bogus shi'a crescent theory, and recomend the Shi'a Revial by Vali Nasar for futher reading.

Michael:

Valid point on the legitimacy issue. I would say that the Anglo-American concept of legitimacy based on popular sovereignty has a lot of fans in the Arab world, but no Arab society has yet established a stable government on that basis, although the Iraqis and Lebanese are working on it.

Yet I would emphasize that now under any standard of legitimacy, the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and the KSA are not making the grade. This is especially true in Egypt, but while the Jordanian monarchy has the support of most non-Islamist Jordanians, Palestinians are a majority of the population. I would put the true Hashemite support level at about 30% (this means genuine supporters; the percentage that support King Abdullah over the likely alternative is much higher). I think that support for the Saudis and the Mubarak regime is much less than 30%. Iraqi democracy would be a great threat to both.

Gundek:

I've only read part of Nasr's book, so I'll withhold full judgment on the book itself (I'm addressing it in an upcoming article, after I've finished reading it), but Iran's power is built on oil money, as even within Iranian clerical circles the doctrine of velayat e faqih is widely rejected. None of the major authorities outside Iran believe in it. The breaking of the regime in Tehran, by either military or non-military means, will render the "Shi'a crescent" harmless.

This is what Masood Farivar of the Wall Street Journal had to say (Aug. 22):

It must be said that Mr. Nasr supports his arguments by over-citing extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide. There is no doubt that such extremists play a role, intensifying the crisis and propelling the violence. But such an approach, on Mr. Nasr's part, has the effect of playing down unfairly the many moderate participants in these debates who aim at reconciliation and who respect the normal give-and-take of politics. In short, the Sunni-Shia divide does not yet even begin to approach the division, within Christianity, that incited the long and bloody Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.

More important, Mr. Nasr minimizes a reality at odds with his thesis: Religious extremism and anti-Americanism cut across sectarian lines. The strategic alliance directed at the U.S. -- Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas -- is half-Sunni and half-Shia. What is more, the region's other great powers -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- are overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus if the Shia are to gain rights in these countries, they are going to have to do so as citizens of each rather than as members of a pan-Shia movement.

Mr. Nasr urges the Bush administration to engage the region's Shia before it worries about the spread of democracy. But it was democracy that brought the Shia to power, and it will be democracy that will redress their centuries-old sense of injustice.

I am looking forward to your comments on the Shi'a Revival. The book does provide a better-quality view of the Shi'a than is given in the media. By explaining the divergence in the political and theological outlook of Khomeini and his ilk (doctrine of velayat e faqih) from the more traditional Shi'a clerics like Sistani, Nasr helps explain why there is not an overarching Shi'a (Iranian) crescent. Divisions in the Shi’a community just like divisions in Islam need to be understood in order to be used to our advantage in prosecuting GWOT.

I am more convinced that a continued push for democratic reform is the best long term solution to militancy in the Middle East after reading this book. Mr. Nasr explains the various reasons that the Sunni in the region are not keen to give up power, but he also explores the fact that all Muslims are watching the Iraqi experiment with democracy with a bit of envy. Once again how do we use ethnic and sectarian differences to our advantage especially when confronting the Sunni dominated AQ, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban etc.

Finaly, I am not expert enough to judge the validity of Sunni/Shi’a divisions and Christian religious differences. I have read other writers, principally Bernard Lewis, that explain the differences in Sunni and Shi’a pale in comparison to the divergences in Christianity. While this may be theologically true, I suspect that culturally the disparity between these groups is much larger than just religious differences.