Global Policy Forum

Beware the Spread of Sunni Anger


By Vali Nasr

International Herald Tribune
March 10, 2004

Anti-Shiism in Iraq and beyond

The first celebration of the Muslim holiday Ashura since the fall of Baghdad has been particularly bloody for Shiites - and ominous for American foreign policy. About 140 Iranian and Iraqi Shiite pilgrims died in suicide bombings in Baghdad and Karbala last week, and 43 Pakistani Shiites were killed in Quetta, Pakistan.

The attacks bring to light a grave problem facing America: The Shiite revival in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated a Sunni militancy that in turn threatens peace and stability in a broad swath of Asia from Pakistan to Lebanon.

American authorities may well be correct that the bombings were the work of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda operatives who see sectarian violence as the means to subvert American plans for the country. However, it would be a mistake to view the anti-Shiite violence in Iraq as the work of a small group of terrorists and limited to Iraqi politics.

Anti-Shiism is embedded in the ideology of Sunni militancy that has risen to prominence across the region in the last decade. Wahhabi Sunnis, who dominate Saudi Arabia's religious affairs and export their philosophy to its neighbors, have led the charge, declaring Shiites "infidels" and hence justifying their murder.

These anti-Shiite beliefs have spread to South Asia and Afghanistan, where the Taliban government used them to justify massacres of Shiite civilians. Even with the fall of the Taliban, widespread killings of Shiites and bombings of Shiite mosques and community centers in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have continued.

Many of the Sunni militants responsible for the attacks were trained in the same camps in Afghanistan as the Qaeda fighters and the Taliban soldiers. They fought side by side when the Taliban secured its grip on Afghanistan, notably the captures of Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan in 1998, during which at least 2,000 Shiite civilians were murdered. And Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, is also a prime suspect in the bombing of the Shiite shrine of Mashad in Iran in 1994.

The point here is that the forces that are today killing Shiites in Iraq have their roots all over the region. It is a network of Arabs and non-Arabs, South Asians and Middle Easterners, Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis. And if these men succeed in starting a sectarian civil war, it will quickly spread beyond Iraq's borders.

While Shiites make up only 10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, 120 million of them live in the Middle East. They are the majority populations in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, the largest community in Lebanon, and sizable minorities in various Gulf emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has produced a Shiite cultural revival there that is shifting the balance of power between Shiites and Sunnis. Political events have further angered Sunnis outside Iraq - especially the creation of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Governing Council and the virtual veto power over it exercised by the Shiites' religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It is virtually unthinkable to many Sunnis that one of the most important Arab countries - the seat of the Abbasid Empire from the 8th to 13th centuries, which established Sunni supremacy and brutally suppressed Shiites - would pass from Sunni to Shiite domination. In militant Sunni circles, it is taken as proof of an American conspiracy against them and against Islam as a whole. Thus Sunni militancy is not only inherently anti-Shiite, but anti-American as well.

What America is facing in Iraq is not just a Qaeda operation against U.S. control, but the vanguard of a broad movement. It is based on the premise that violence against Shiites will not only derail Iraq's transition to democracy, but will also incite Shiite-Sunni violence throughout the Muslim world.

To contend with Sunni militancy in Iraq, America must contain it throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This means putting pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to stem the tide of anti-Shiite rhetoric. It also means ensuring that Iraqi Sunnis do not feel left out of the emerging democratic Iraq, and working with Sistani to quell Shiite rage over the attacks. What happened in Karbala must not become a sign of things to come for the whole region.

Vali Nasr is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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