The other day I reported from Egypt my surprise at the remarkable rise of the "Shia question" there. Since then, it's only gotten more prominent. Just look at what's going on at a conference on Sunni-Shia relations being held in Doha. A few days ago, Yusuf al-Qaradawi - who has long preached tolerance towards the Shia - made waves by accusing Iran of instigating sectarian strife. Yesterday, Ahmed al-Tayib of al-Azhar complained about the profusion of pro-Shia books in Egypt, accusing Shia of proselytizing among the Sunni. (The idea that a lot of Sunnis are converting to Shi'ism is bizarrely widespread given that I haven't been able to track down even a single documented case of it.) Hazem Saghiye noted a couple of weeks ago the growing use of "Persian" as a descriptor in Arab discourse - which should set off alarm bells. Saudi Arabia has always had a nasty anti-Shia undercurrent, but its language and obsessions seem to be going mainstream in the Arab public discourse - we're seeing it as far afield as Algeria.
Last summer, I dismissed the 'Shia menace' trend as largely driven by regimes rather than by real popular enthusiasm:
The much-hyped communal dimension (Sunni-Shia) is probably a red herring, though. Arab arguments about Lebanon today fall along regime-popular conflicts rather than Sunni-Shia. Despite the sharp Sunni-Shia clashes in Iraq, and the anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of Arab capitals, the appeal to the wider Arab public of the Shia Hezbollah movement seems to have only increased. Egypt’s very Sunni Muslim Brotherhood has strongly backed Hezbollah, while al-Jazeera (often described by disaffected Iraqi Shia as a “Sunni network”) has given largely sympathetic coverage.
But a lot has transpired since then. Even if it was governments which fanned the flames, that doesn't mean that they can control the fire they unleashed. The scenes out of Iraq - from the daily violence to that accursed Saddam video - do seem to be sparking some real popular anti-Shia sentiment, regionalizing what started as an Iraqi civil war. A number of Arab commentators - including many who dislike American foreign policy and have in the past been sympathetic with Iran - now blame Iran and Ahmednejad for overplaying their hand in Iraq. The other day I mentioned Fahmy Howeydi as one example of this; today, the thoughtful Jordanian liberal Mohamed Abu Roman argues that Iran has revealed its true agenda against Arabs and Sunnis. Finally, as the Washington Post reports, the new Arab media appears to be contributing to the Sunni-Shia strife.
Combine all this, and we've got the makings of something very ugly. It isn't just the pro-American governments or Saudi media anymore: in an important recent essay published on the al-Jazeera website, the influential pan-Arabist journalist like Yasir al-Za'atra (no friend of American foreign policy) highlighted the historical and religious roots of the Shia threat to the Sunni Arab world. Quite a few other pieces on al-Jazeera and in al-Quds al-Arabi explore similar themes recently - often linking the anti-Shia trend to American foreign policy even as they support some if its main complaints. An al-Jazeera online survey (all usual caveats apply) found 73% blaming Iran for the deterioriating security problems in Iraq. In other words, now we're seeing something which goes well beyond the government-led campaign against Iran and Hezbollah which we saw last summer.
The American response to this trend seems to be best described tacit encouragement (it is being driven almost exclusively by pro-American 'moderate Sunni' regimes - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia). The popular idea out there, true or not, is that the US and its Arab allies hope to prepare the ground for a confrontation with Iran by turning Arab public opinion against the Shia (Edward Luttwak, for one, sees this as a positive trend). The official American position seems to be that that its concerns are all about Iran, not about the Shia, but that's not how it's playing out on the ground.
There's a very clear and obvious precedent for this anti-Shia/anti-Iranian mobilization, by the way: in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein rallied the Arab world against the Persian and Shia threat as part of his eight year war with Iran. 'Moderate Sunni' pro-American regimes - especially in the Gulf - rallied to the cause, and a lot of Arab journalists (whether on Saddam's payroll or not) happily raged against the Persian / Shia menace. Today, the United States and its Arab allies are seemingly replicating Saddam's Arab strategy against Iran, right down to the media campaigns. The mobilization also draws strength from the mainstreaming of the virulent anti-Shi'ism of the jihadists, which might rather bizarrely mean that American strategy is trying to reap what al-Qaeda has sown. Are Saddam and Zarqawi now America's role models and allies for dealing with the Iran question? That just can't be good.
Back to that Doha conference on Sunni-Shia relations. Ali Gumaa, the mufti of Egypt, for his part called on Sunni and Shia leaders to issue a joint apology and to work together to stem to the rising sectarian strife. I'd say that this is a good idea, albeit unlikely to make much difference at this point.