By James Le Grice of Insight Consulting Group
The New Year was barely a day old before the Saudi-Iranian cold war heated up again. The beheading of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric at the head of anti-regime protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, was swiftly answered with threats of "divine revenge" from Iran and the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations were severed and a war of words ensued. Over the past three weeks, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s regional allies have rallied behind either side in the dispute, and western commentators have been quick to label the whole affair as yet another chapter in the interminable Sunni-Shia conflict. However, the execution of Nimr al-Nimr is a prime example of why the “Sunni vs Shia” narrative is misleading.
Consider that Nimr al-Nimr was one of forty-seven prisoners killed in Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution for terrorism since 1980. Forty-three of the others were Sunni extremists linked to a series of al-Qaeda attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. These men included Adel al-Dhubaiti, who murdered a BBC cameraman in 2004, and Faris al-Shuwail, a senior al-Qaeda ideologue.
Reprisal attacks would customarily follow the killing of so many al-Qaeda members, and these were threatened. Al-Qaeda’s branch in neighbouring Yemen warned in December that it would “shed the blood of the soldiers of al-Saud” if the executions went ahead. After the executions, al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, using nearly identical language to the Supreme Leader of Iran, called for revenge attacks on the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.”
But these threats fell on deaf ears as attention centred instead on the response Nimr al-Nimr’s execution provoked from Iran and Shia communities worldwide. Al-Qaeda reprisal attacks have yet to happen, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. With Saudi Arabia now firmly cast as the bastion against Iranian aggression - the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is the latest group to back the kingdom in its diplomatic stand-off – reprisal attacks risk their perpetrators appearing to be on the Shia side of the dispute.
Sunni extremists are arguably a far greater threat to Saudi Arabia than Shia revolutionaries ever will be. Hundreds of Saudis fill the ranks of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and many others back them financially. But as the glue holding the Saudi state together is Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Sunni theology not dissimilar to what these groups are fighting to impose, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is limited in the extent to which it can confront them ideologically. Uniting all behind a common enemy is a much easier tactic.
This applies equally to Iran. There are vast theological differences between all the sects that fall under the banner of Shia Islam. The Shia are also anything but a united political voice, with most clerics outside of Iran rejecting waliyet e-faqih, the system of clerical rule instituted by the Iranian Revolution.
The profound problem this creates for the Iranian regime is best summarised by Iran’s President Rouhani, who said in the wake of the 1979 Revolution that “if the Revolution remains within the country it will be destroyed.” Put another way - if the Shia outside of Iran do not implement the same system, the Iranian regime will struggle to justify its existence to the Iranian people. Thus, Iran’s zeal to export its revolution is as much about survival as it is about regional domination.
The Islamic Republic has proxies committed to this purpose in Saudi Arabia, but Nimr al-Nimr was not one of them. He was a follower of the ayatollahs Mohammed Taqi al-Modarresi and Mohammed al-Shirazi, both of whom were placed under house arrest in Iran for criticising the regime. While Nimr al-Nimr shared a position with Iran in condemning the Saudi and Bahraini royal families as oppressors, he was “off message” in condemning Bashar al-Assad, whose regime Iran is throwing its weight behind to save, as an oppressor too.
He also did not accept the idea of the United States as the “Great Satan”, saying instead that the Shia are natural allies of the US due to similar ideals of justice and liberty. As for spreading Iranian influence, he warned followers that Iran acted out of self-interest and urged them not to expect support from the Islamic Republic. It is reasonable to speculate that if Nimr al-Nimr had lived in Iran rather than Saudi Arabia, he would have found himself in jail there too.
But a basis for Shia unity exists in the persecution they face worldwide for Islamic unorthodoxy. It is this basis that Iran seeks to exploit in order to position itself as the defender of Shia Islam. So Iran’s leaders seized the opportunity, hailing Nimr al-Nimr as a martyr and making his cause against the Saudi regime their own. Conveniently, he is no longer able to give his own version of the story.
And thus the “Sunni vs Shia” narrative plays the role of the magician’s attractive assistant, distracting the audience from the illusionist’s subtle slip of the hand.
Viewing the present Middle East conflicts through the “Sunni vs Shia” lens has dangerous policy implications. For a start, it implies that the current disputes between Shia and Sunni are age-old and irreconcilable. This point of view was implied in President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he said that the Middle East’s wars were “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”
The natural conclusion of such a view is that members of different religious sects are unable to coexist in the Middle East and partition is the solution. The region has already had a violent history of partition - as any Palestinian, Kurd or Armenian can testify. Partition encourages ethnic and religious identity politics and necessitates population swaps. Should Syria, Iraq or Yemen be partitioned next, it would likely only worsen current sectarianism.
The second dangerous policy implication is the idea that the Middle East requires governments based around confessional representation for peace. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed this view during last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Asked what his government is doing to support peace in Yemen, the Prime Minister said he is working toward a “Government who can represent all of the people. We have got to make sure that both Sunni and Shia are properly represented in that country.”
As well-intentioned as this may sound, one need only look to Bosnia to see why confessionalism is a bad idea. The state established to resolve the Bosnian crisis of the 1990s was based on ensuring sufficient representation of Bosniak Muslims, Croat Catholics and Serbian Orthodox Christians. The result was the political reinforcement of sectarian identities, a government with three presidents perpetually in political deadlock, and posters of long-promised construction projects hanging on bullet-riddled walls twenty years after fighting ceased.
Setting up such weak states in the oil-rich Middle East is inviting them to be overrun by those with malicious intent.
However, there is another option: the establishment of secular states. Though the Sunni-Shia divide is certainly a fault line from which conflicts have erupted over the ages, these conflicts usually occur as a result of one Islamic interpretation being asserted as the basis of national authority. Those who believe that Sunnis and Shi’ites are irreconcilable forget the not too distant past when secular states dominated the Middle East, Sunni-Shia intermarriage was common, and it was considered the height of rudeness to ask someone what their sect was.
There were two significant but overlooked protest movements last year that called for secular states in the Middle East - a Kurdish uprising in Iran during the spring, and a series of street protests in Iraq by Sunni and Shia Arabs during the summer. What’s more, in the absence of the Assad regime’s control, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have set up their own secular democratic micro-state which could become an example for the region. As sectarianism intensifies around the Saudi-Iranian cold war, these secularism movements may find themselves more supporters and a louder voice in 2016.