Saturday, May 28, 2011

Two US visions of Sunni-Shia politics in Middle East

The failure on the part of US President Barack Obama to press ahead with the agenda of his Cairo speech of 2009 distracted attention from his singular contribution to rescuing the US regional policies from the intellectual tyranny of Bernard Lewis. Obama did open the doors and windows and has been receptive to new thinking regarding Islamism and the problems of the Muslim world. That was how Vali Nasr walked in. When I wrote the article in Asia Times last week titled Decoding Obama's Bahrain Puzzle, frankly, I was having Nasr's classic work The Shia Revival as my compass.

Lewis of course did great damage to the US's Middle East policy by advocating that America's geopolitical interests lay in exploiting Shia-Sunni sectarianism in the Middle East by putting together a phalanx of Sunni Arab states, which would be natural allies of Israel, and thereupon to confront Iran. Lewis wove an entire thesis toward this political end by portraying the Iranian Shias as essentially Persians who by being Indo-Aryans are inherently hostile to Jews - unlike the Arab Sunnis including the Wahhabis. The edifice that Lewis erected was on weak foundations and it lies in complete ruins today -- and alongside the debris of US regional policies -- and the Arab Spring will ensure that the edifice can never be made habitable again.

Today, much of what Nasr wrote and spoke about over the years stands vindicated. There is great validity in Nasr's assessment that:
A) Since 1991, Sunni militancy, and not Iranian Shi'ism, has been the ideological force animating Islamic activism.
B) Militant Sunni forces are growing in prominence as the expression of Sunni frustration.
C) Sunni miltancy and Wahhabi activism pose the greatest danger to US interests.
D) Shia revolutionary activism, on the other hand, is essentially a spent force.
E) Iraq - and not Iran - will be the first country to become openly Shia.
F) The Shia revival in Iraq may well lead to other regime changes in the region.
G) The US cannot, perhaps, afford to openly embrace the Shia revival without alienating many in the Arab world.
H) However, the challenge of Sunni militancy coupled with the promise of change brought about by the reemergence of Shia political influence in the Middle East demands new US thinking and policy toward Islam and the challenge of Islamic activism.

Many of Nasr's ideas, it was apparent to the initiated, were struggling to surface in Obama's great speech in Cairo. (Remember Obama's historic 'apology' for the overthrow of Mohammad Mossaddegh in the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat in Tehran in 1953?) But everything went astray in the period since then due to the realities of power politics in Washington. It seems highly unlikely that in his first presidency at least, Obama, being an astute politician, will push the envelope.

Nonetheless, there are occasional flashes of Nasr's thinking on US - like a lighthouse on a stormy sea that is malfunctioning. An important template here concerns the Shia-Sunni strife in the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece last week tangentially touching on this. It analyses how continued Saudi efforts to rally Sunni countries to form a bloc against Iran (by rallying countries as diverse as Pakistan and Malaysia) "signal increasing friction with the Obama administration".

Alas, the WSJ piece was more on the lookout for the trees and may have missed the woods, but nonetheless it makes a few points of interest for Indian geo-strategy - such as this, for example: "The Saudi overture in Pakistan is a sign of how diplomatic friction in two distinct regions — the Middle East on one hand and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other — could make it harder for the U.S. to pursue its goals of ending the conflict in Afghanistan, stabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, limiting Iran's power and keeping a lid on violent turmoil in the Mideast."

Of course, the Saudis are not going to be deterred by the Obama administration's lack of enthusiasm for resurrecting the discredited regional strategy based on Muslim sectarianism. The US needs to factor in that the new Iraq, which is arguably its legacy in many ways, is destined to play a lead role in the politics of the region sooner rather than later. Indeed, Iraq is raring to go and the Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq constitutes the cornerstones of the country's democratic system and, as Bernard Shaw would say, its "life force" itself.

Equally, the new Egypt will not have a relapse, either, as it moves on to a new plane of secular politics built on Arab nationalism and non-alignment. Last week, Saudis extended a 4 billion-dollar soft loan to the military leadership in Cairo as "inducement" for not accelerating the improvement of Egypt's relations with Iran -- and for not being too hard on Hosni Mubarak, who, of course, was a votary of Lewis.

2 comments:

Adam of the Road said...

The author seems a little confused about the estimable Dr. Lewis - almost to the point of having it exactly backward! It is the New Iraq that is the real brainchild of Lewis and the geopolitical notion that the Shia must be strengthened in order to counteract Sunni extremism is very much his - not Nasr's. Sorry, dude.

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