The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

By Khaled Diab

Like in and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists  are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.
In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, , Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region's defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan- cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was in Cairo, whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam's holiest sites by the ISIS of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use religion (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for , socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the , in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and , is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” , who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other's throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we' have caused this. We haven't.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.

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