I want to briefly note and summarize two important essays on the Sunni-Shia question in the Arab press today before I take off to DC for a workshop tomorrow.
First, Fahmy Howeydi in al-Khaleej. Reflecting on the now-famous Doha conference on Sunni-Shia relations, Howeydi writes that the tense, hostile atmosphere surrounding the event differed from all of the dozens of similar "inter-sect" forums in which he had participated over the years. On the other hand, those dozens of conferences had tended to follow similar patterns: highly theoretical and abstract discussions, mutual flattery, an emphasis on the common ground rather than on real differences. At least this conference demonstrated some much-needed frankness, he muses. There have been real changes in Shia-Sunni relations in recent years, he writes, including the rise of hard-line conservatives in Iran, rather than the pro-dialogue moderate Khatemi forces and the rise of a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. The near-complete collapse of the Arab order or any effective Arab political presence in the region's politics created an opportunity for Iran to fill the void. Instead of using that opportunity to pursue the interests of all Muslims, however, Iran chose to pursue narrow Shia interests. He emphasizes that the Shia themselves are not bad, there is a range of views in the Shia community just as in the Sunni community (he distinguishes sharply between what he describes as the noble Sunni insurgency fighting occupation and the tiny al-Qaeda fragment which instead declared war on the Shia). Finally, the Shia nature of Saddam's execution brought these growing Sunni concerns to the street. But, he concludes, unleashing the fire of sectarian war would be a disaster for the region: not only for its direct consequences but because it would weaken any Muslim front against the umma's common enemies. And so he returns to the Doha conference. The first session passed without incident, but then Qaradawi opened the wounds. In Howeydi's telling, Qaradawi did a service by demolishing the pleasantries and demanding a frank exchange of views: painful at first, but necessary for any healing to begin. In the end, as in his earlier essays on the subject, Howeydi sees the need for a common front against shared enemies as the highest priority - even as he wants to see honest discussion of real issues.
Second, Abd al-Wahhab al-Effendi in al-Quds al-Arabi. Effendi begins with the 1980s, when - in his view - the United States entered the sectarian wars by calling to defend the Arab Gulf states from the Iranian threat. He remembers a prominent pro-Iraqi Gulf Islamist telling him then that the Shia posed a unique threat because of their deviationism. Am I to understand, he replied at the time, that you believe that Reagan is coming to us to establish a true Sunni order and fight Shia deviationism? Of course not. And now, he writes, here the region is again, repeating the same arguments and the same mistakes. Effendi does not want to deny that real Sunni-Shia differences exist, because they do, but differences are one thing and conflict is another. There is nothing religious which drives Sunni and Shia to conflict. The current conflict is created, he writes, to serve the political interests of those forces desiring conflict with Iran - nothing more, nothing less. Actually, the best part of this essay is the title, from which I took the title of the post: "Conflict between the Sunna and the Shia... is struggling over the deck chairs on the Titanic."
So, to sum up a lot of what I've been posting the last few days, what we're seeing is something of a return to the regime-popular lines of conflict which characterized the anti-Hezbollah mobilization last summer. Saddam's execution briefly drove many prominent figures from the populist (Arab nationalist, Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist) camp towards the anti-Shia position, since there was a lot of very real popular outrage that they either shared or wanted to be aligned with. But now they seem to be backing away from the anti-Shia line (without giving up their grievances over Iranian behavior in Iraq) because they see a political trap being laid by the pro-American authoritarian regimes. Whether their appeals to abstain from sectarian conflict in the interests of a common political project will suffice in the face of the sectarian demons already unleashed - or in the face of the interests which still push for their unleashing - very much remains to be seen.
And with that, I'm off. Blogging and responding to comments will depend on internet access. Cheers!