Middle East: The Clash Of The Fundamentalists

By Anthony Zeitouni
Those who visit the Arabic countries of the Persian Gulf can easily recognize the elevation of sectarian tension between the Muslims of Sunni tradition and the Muslims of Shiaa tradition. It is the era of strife among Shiaa and Sunni. The Sunnis are the majority in the Gulf, and other Arab countries as well, while the Shiaas are the second largest denomination of Islam in the region; they are even the majority in some Arab countries such as Iraq and Bahrain.

The Sunnis are backed by their religious head, Saudi Arabia lead by the Wahhabist conservative regime (Wahhabism is a particular orientation within Salafism). The Shiaas are influenced by their Shiaa-Iconic regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Mullahs regime that launched “The Shiaa Revival” with its Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Iran is now accused of imposing its political and religious agenda on non-Iranian Shiaas, causing conflict in their own countries, and also influencing Sunnis as well.
Throughout the Arabian Gulf countries, one phenomenon is found: Imams are loudly swearing to – both inside and outside their mosques – the fundamental basics of the Shiaa tradition. At the same time, many books have recently been released that are against the Shiaa tradition.Those books are freely available to the public. An analyst from the region told me in confidence that this phenomenon is a “Wahabist invasion of the Gulf countries”. The Sunnis have started to call the Shiaas as rawafid (Rejectionists and perhaps dissidents) The Shiaa have started to call the Sunni as Nawasib (Have intentional hostility against Imam Ali).These words are derogatory, stereotypical, and highly provocative.

On the other side of the Gulf, Iran’s regime, propelled by its dream to dominate the region, is doing everything possible to keep the tension high. Some Iranian officials clearly state that they will target Arabian Gulf countries if Iran were ever to be hit by Israel or the United States because those countries are simply “Israeli agents” in Iran’s eyes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in the Arabic countries, which were originally formed on the basis of intolerance. The current situation is that of a troubled area that feeds on the scare tactics of a fast growing powder keg reaching from Yemen to Lebanon; no one knows when it will explode. Where will this sectarian tension lead? Will the rift deepen between the two sides of political Islam?
Not far away, another area is waving its fundamentalist flag. It is Israel’s very influential “Hebrew Salafist” (radical Judaism) forming a map of three religious Salafists who confront in the Middle East: Shiaa, Sunni and Jew. Those three religious Salafists have conflicting ideologies and Incompatible desires concerning regional hot spots. I think the future of the area will be defined by the influence of this trio and by the results of the confrontations inside their religions and with each others. It is the era of the religious Salafists, who are leading the area down a road that eventually ends in war.

Even worse is the knowledge that not a single group in this trio accepts to play a win-win-win game; each one needs to play out this game to the death. Iran’s regime defines winning against Israel as “wiping it off of the map”, as well as taking out the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia and its allies. Israel is content to watch the rift within Islam so that Israel can turn the situation in the Middle East to be a Sunni –Shiaa conflict instead of an Arab- Israeli conflict over an occupied Palestine. In the long run, Israel’s assumption is wrong. The Wahabists are patiently waiting for the death of the “rogue” Mullahs Regime of Iran either through external forces, an Israeli or Western attack, or through internal strife.
Where are we going from here? Who can keep the Middle East from heading to war? Egypt, the largest Arabic country with its historic Azhar mosque and University, which is the symbol of the moderate Sunni tradition, can balance Wahabism. Unfortunately the Azhar is marginalized by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq can play an important role by balancing the power of Khamenei in the Shiaa tradition, and pushing up and renewing the role of Al-Najaf of Iraq with the Arab Shiaa.
Turkey also has potential by way of its multi-national relations and by its modernity, which allows Ankara to emphasize the moderate practice of Islam by lowering the influence of fundamentalists in Arab countries.
The US and Europe can play a role first in preventing a war, and later by strenuously promoting democracy and good governance in the Arab countries in the long run.

Without intervention, the clash of these three fundamentalists will lead to an all-out religious war, on par with the Christian Crusades centuries ago, but fought with today’s ever more deadly weapons.

Editor’s Note: Anthony Zeitouni (anthonygaz@gmail.com ) is a Washington-based analyst, working in conflict resolution. He focuses on reform, good governance, human rights, minorities and interfaith dialogue in the Middle East. Zeitouni has published in Search for Common Ground and with Middle East Times. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon. His web site is www.anthonyzeitouni.com



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