An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabism#Afghanistan_jihad

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.

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