Fiery, Dangerous Words
From the February 16, 2007, New York Sun
February 23, 2007
by Nibras Kazimi
Some very incendiary words are being said these days in the Middle East: Sunnis and Shiites are trading insults, barbs, and, most ominously, threats on a scale not heard before.
This agitation is being cynically manipulated by some Sunni Arab regimes — namely the rulers of Saudi Arabia — that hope that sectarian demarcation will ward off alleged Iranian and Shiite designs for regional domination.
The Saudis think that the damage done by dividing societies into warring sects can be contained, but hate-filled myths have a way of taking on a life of their own. What gets said today may result in setting the Persian Gulf ablaze in a few years time, sending the global economy into tumult.
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Saudi regime understood that the power balance of the Middle East had undergone a historical shift when the Shiites began to lord over Baghdad. They saw that three important regional countries — Iran, Iraq, and Syria — could form a bloc against the Sunnis, whose two major powers in the region, Egypt and Turkey, were either too weak or too disinterested in joining the fight. When Hezbollah made a bid for the takeover of Lebanon, thus displacing Saudi Arabia's Sunni acolytes there, the Saudis felt they must act quickly to save themselves. The Saudis needed to do that because there is a basic demographic formula they must always be mindful of — the Shiites constitute a majority of the populations on the Persian Gulf littoral, essentially making that body of water a Shiite lake. This wouldn't matter too much except that under the rim of this lake lies most of the world's oil reserve. Should the Shiites get too uppity, they may make a bid for the control of the one thing that keeps the Saudis and other Gulf Sunni regimes in power — oil wealth.
Therefore, it was convenient for the Saudis to forestall any Shiite notions of hegemony by agitating anti-Shiism across the region. The jihadists and the Saudi regime seem to be reading from the same page when it comes to sectarianism, for they both share Wahhabi roots — an Islamist ideology that is virulently anti-Shiite. Some in the American government seem to have jumped on board by thinking that anti-Shiism distracts the jihadists from attacking the West and that it keeps Iran on the run.
This is a stupid, stupid policy.
When cornered and in danger of extermination, the Shiites will fight back — and with vengeance. The first to do so will be Saudi Arabia's own 2.5 million Shiite minority, which is concentrated on the eastern edge of the country — where all the oil is.
The two leading global authorities of Wahhabism, very much part and parcel of the Saudi establishment, have authored fatwas, or religious edicts, essentially holding all Shiites as fair game for Sunni attacks. The biggest recognized Wahhabi authority, Sheik Nassir al-Barak, issued a fatwa denouncing the Shiites as "worse than the Christians and Jews" in December, which was followed a month later by another, even harsher fatwa dictated by the second biggest recognized Wahhabi authority, Sheik Abdullah al-Jebreen.
The latter put forward seven reasons why he sees the Shiites as heretical polytheists and concludes that "we must be careful and should warn others of their tricks and plots, and we should boycott them, and expel them and cast them off to protect the Muslims from their evil."
But the jihadists will not allow the Saudi royal family, whom they accuse of hypocrisy, of outdoing them, and they are apparently making anti-Shiism one of the central tenets of their jihad inside Saudi Arabia itself. After a 22-month lull, the "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" organization has resumed its monthly magazine, Sawt Aljihad, whose 30th electronic issue was released just last week on jihadist Web sites.
One lead article, written by someone calling himself Abu Ali al-Shimali, warns that "every Muslim must be aware of what might happen in the near future concerning the role to be played by the [Shiites] of the Gulf in the next phase which I believe will be similar to what the [Shiites] of Iraq did after the American occupation." In other words, Mr. al-Shimali is cautioning that the Shiites, who live in places like Saudi Arabia, may become allies of America, and must be dealt with before that happens. How is this Saudi jihadist's rhetoric different from that of Mr. al-Jebreen's?
Interestingly, this current issue of Sawt Aljihad is mostly focused on Al Qaeda's attack on the Abqaiq refinery in eastern Saudi Arabia on February 24, 2006, lauding it as a model of future operations that would bring the world's economy to its knees. But the real threat to the oil fields is not spiteful jihadists, but rather desperate Shiites.
For 300 years, the Shiite oasis-dwelling peasants and tradesmen of the Gulf have been mostly docile as Sunni tribes, fledgling states, and naval powers fought over their lands. The Islamic Revolution in Iran excited some fantasies of Shiite virility in the early 1980s, but Shiite radicalism was soon snuffed out by state brutality and watchfulness, especially in Saudi Arabia. Nowadays, the Saudi regime can legitimately claim to be in full control of its security situation, but it is only a matter of time before young Saudi jihadists figure out that killing Shiites in Saudi cities and towns is far more convenient than traveling to Baghdad, Beirut, Kabul, or even Damascus.
Will the Saudi regime protect its Shiites then, even after allowing its leading clerics to bray for their blood? If it does, it risks losing its anti-Shiite credentials and would further inflame those jihadists to lash out against the royal family itself.
The attacks will come regardless, and the only defense the Shiites would have, when faced with being annihilated or deported, would be to set the oil fields on fire to grab world attention. The irony is that the Saudis will sell this to the rest of the world as Shiite "terrorism" just as the arrest of Saudi democracy advocates a couple of weeks ago was spun by the authorities there as "counterterrorism."
But can those Shiites really be blamed for acting in desperation? And will newly empowered Iraqi Shiites sit idly by, especially given that the Saudi Wahhabis have been fanning the flames of the Sunni insurgency thus setting a precedent for cross-border meddling between the two countries?
I guess we'll know the answers soon enough if sectarian hate-speech proceeds unabated, but what can be certain is that igniting irresponsible sparks in the Middle Eastern tinderbox may not be very wise for anyone.
Mr. Kazimi, an Iraqi writer and visiting scholar at Hudson Institute, writes a weekly column on the Middle East for The New York Sun. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org