Three Mideast Stink Bombs

by Sharmine Narwani Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. 11.04.2011

Popular revolts may be spinning through the Arab world with a fervor and determination not seen in decades, but efforts to sidetrack the reform momentum are also gaining strength.

Three issues have plagued the region for decades and threaten to derail progress at every turn. I call them the Mideast's "Stink Bombs" - hyper-divisive issues that inflame passions and serve a politicized minority only: 1) Religious vs. Secular; 2) Sunni vs. Shia; 3) Arabs vs. Iranians.

While protestors have been cautious in avoiding confrontations on these issues (who said the Arab Street is not smart?), political figures inside and outside the Mideast, and extremists on all sides, have sought at regular intervals to undermine national andregional unity with these polarizing issues.

The Stink Bombs have subverted the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, al Nahda in Tunisia, the Ikhwan in Jordan, and stirred sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni in Bahrain and Yemen - two countries that also depend on the Iran card to justify all their unlawful actions against civilians. The Stink Bombs have worked to prevent common cause on the Palestinian issue, and to undermine regional resistance to US, Israeli and western hegemonic designs, by keeping populations divided and in conflict.

Confidence in government authorities is at such a low ebb among Arab populations, that in some cases, these threats are being ignored or challenged head on. But that will not always be the case, and protestors and reformists alike will need to be vigilant in guarding against attempts to hijack progress with these long-held dogmas.

Let's look at the Stink Bombs in more detail:

Stink Bomb #1: Religious versus Secular
This one has been played out skillfully through narratives that have long sought to associate Islam with extremism and terrorism. Washington's close friends in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria and other places have exploited the "Islamist" narrative to put a lid on moderate Muslim groups within their countries and gain unfettered US political and financial support for their elite.

For decades, grassroots Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been either banned outright or subjected to intimidation, detentions and political machinations that have deprived them of fair participation in governing bodies. After September 11, Washington's narratives on Islamists held them all to be one and the same - on virtual par with America's greatest enemy, Al Qaeda - and any effort to differentiate between groups was largely ignored in the political mainstream.

Any non-ideological US area specialist could have pointed to half a dozen groups on the US list of terrorist organizations that should not have been featured in that unfortunate blacklist, but they would have been fighting a tidal wave during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq occupations, the 2006 Lebanon war, and the orchestrated removal of Hamas after its election victory.

When the Bush administration failed to achieve even its most elementary war goals, then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband took a half-hearted shot at pointing out the obvious:

Miliband wrote in the Guardian in January 2010 that efforts to "lump" extremists together had been counterproductive, playing "into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common."

But instead, the West stood aside during recent elections in Egypt and Jordan when the ruling secular establishments absolutely undermined the participation of their respective Islamist political candidates and parties.

During the wave of protests in Tahrir Square in January and February, the world witnessed the schism between populations and their rulers on this hot-button issue. After attacks on politically-secular Coptic Christians who make up ten percent of the nation's populace, Egyptians demonstrated their skepticism about the source of this sectarian strife in a startling display of unity. That Friday, Copts linked arms to form a protective circle around praying Muslims. On Sunday, Muslims returned the favor for Christians.

To be sure, secularists and religious minorities don't face an easy time in the Middle East, particularly with the boom in Salafist extremism and growing conservatism experienced, in particular, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the three Stink Bombs, this is the one that has some legs in a troubled Middle East where foreign intervention and autocratic rule has ensured stagnation on the political and social fronts. But this does not negate the very real threat that religious and secular groups - both ideologues in their own way - can be exploited to divide and manage populations.

Stink Bomb #2: Sunni versus Shia
With roots in an age-old rivalry between those who believed the Prophet Muhammad's successors should be selected from among his faithful companions (Sunni) and those who believed that Muslims should be led by members of the Prophet's family (Shia), this issue is essentially a political one - the Sunni and Shia share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith, after all.

The fight over succession ended centuries ago, but this issue has reared its head in the past few decades with the kind of political cynicism that shows the real divide - with the exception of small groupings of hardcore fundamentalists - is between political "worldviews" more than religious tradition.

I recall a trip to Jordan in 2009 when a leading senior member of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political party of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and a respected Sunni moderate, told me:

"In the first year after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, about eighty books were published on the Shia," intimating a concerted effort by the hyper-conservative Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and its anti-Iran allies in the West. He continued, "I promise you, in the many decades before this revolution, there were maybe three or four books on the Shia."

To be sure, this Stink Bomb finds at its core a desire to undermine a resurgent Iran, a Shia-majority nation in the mostly Sunni Middle East. But Saudi Arabia - ground-zero for anti-Shia propaganda and material support, and by far Iran's most belligerent regional neighbor in a post-Saddam world - represents a political minority in the wider Mideast, where most Muslims, when asked their religion, will still reply "Muslim," instead of the name of their sect.

Years of anti-Shia propaganda have led to rising sectarian violence and tension, with Shia groups targeted in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and elsewhere. Thousands have been killed for no reason other than to limit the influence of Iran, but in the battle for political hegemony among leaders, ugly sectarian views have evolved in many normal households across the region.

The stereotypes are rampant and often come from the most unexpected quarters. A senior political reporter for an influential daily newspaper in Amman - a secular man - once asked whether it was true that a Shia cleric had passed a Fatwa (an Islamic religious decree issued by the clergy) that "the Shia can drink the blood of the Sunni?"

Washington directly and indirectly condones the Saudi view by arming, financing and defending groups and governments who target Iran and Shia populations, only some of whom may have a natural affinity with a Shia-majority state like Iran.

Case in point is the US's reaction to the Arab revolts in the Persian Gulf. The White House and State Department have only offered cursory criticism of government-sponsored violence against protestors in Bahrain, a Shia-majority country ruled by a Sunni royal family, and in Yemen, where ostensibly "Iranian-backed" Shia offshoots have waged campaigns against the autocratic government of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In both cases, there is no evidence that Iran has financially or materially supported anti-government activities within the Shia communities. If anything, Iran and other Shia groups in the region have maintained a low profile so as not to provide an excuse for more violence against indigenous Shia.

Just last weekend, an explosive article in the Asia Times revealed that Washington still plays a frontline role in the Sunni-Shia divide, giving Saudi Arabia a wide berth to squash Shia populations in exchange for bulldozing through an Arab League vote on a Libya no-fly zone.

A former senior State Department official confirmed to me recently that in regards to Washington's involvement with Libya "our actions are, in part, designed to get the spotlight shifted" from the uprisings in the Persian Gulf.

In Bahrain meanwhile, the Shia, who make up almost three-quarters of the population, are taking a quiet battering. In the absence of any real media focus, hundreds of activists are missing and people are beaten, detained or killed daily. Saudi troops patrol Shia neighborhoods unrestrictedly, free to intimidate - and as in thisvideo - free to destroy even innocuous Shia religious banners.

Stink Bomb #3: Arabs versus Iranians
This is the Stink Bomb that will define the Middle East going forward if Washington has any say in spinning the narratives.

According to the New York Times' David Sanger, the uprisings in the Arab world potentially threaten the solid group of alliances that backed US goals in Iran, and US policymakers are having to consider the Islamic Republic in their every Mideast stance:

"Libya is a sideshow. Containing Iran's power remains their (Obama administration's) central goal in the Middle East. Every decision - from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria - is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration's regional strategy: how to slow Iran's nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there."

Former Bush administration officials and Iran experts, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, concur, adding: "Obama has wanted to use the wave of popular agitation for political change in a growing number of Arab countries as the basis for an alternative "narrative" and America's role in it, which could be used against both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic."

A US military source privately confirmed to me that they too are examining the viability of launching a new Arabs vs. Iranians narrative push.

When the "Arab Spring" burst onto our TV screens, Washington initially rejoiced over the notion that these popular movements would manifest in Iran as well, and predicted that the Islamic Republic would likely be unseated as the lead player in defining "resistance" narratives over the Palestinian issue and US-Israeli hegemony.

In fact, it is altogether possible that these popular movements will unravel US ambitions in the region, leaving Iran largely unaffected. Protests in Iran have to date not materialized in any significant way, and the non-US bloc in the region still looks to Iran as an influential player. Furthermore, successful revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere are more likely to seek political leverage from the region's "independent" nations as they struggle to wrest government control away from the pro-US Old Guard.

As an example, Egypt's foreign minister on Tuesday announced Cairo's interest inresuming diplomatic relations with Iran after a thirty year break.

The effort to push a strong Arab versus Iranian narrative was underlined by a special meeting of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Arab foreign ministers on Sunday, where they condemned "Iranian interference" in the internal affairs of Bahrain and Kuwait in the strongest terms. Ironic, given the military intervention of these nations - sans Qatar - in the internal affairs of Libya, and also in Bahrain and Yemen.

This Saudi-led agitation against the Islamic Republic spells trouble in the Persian Gulf region, and Saudi Arabia may do well to focus on broader regional realities. A Brookings poll last year found that even in Arab states whose governments are considered pro-US, only 10% of populations believed Iran to be a problem, compared to a whopping 77% who saw the US as a primary threat.

Let us remember a very real threat in that part of the world. As a Dubai-based avid Tweeter posted on Monday: "Al Qaeda is a reaction to US interventionism. They feed off each other. Less of one, less of the other." There is no greater threat to both the western world and Middle East than the largely Saudi-funded Salafist radicalism that emerged after the first Iraq war, and proliferated after US invasions in the past decade. And Washington's intervention in the Gulf continues to ensure cosmic divides - the elites we back are ever-shrinking, and the populations, more agitated than ever.

An exaggeration? Think again. A poll conducted this year concludes that a whopping 96% of Yemenis "disapprove of President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh's cooperation with the United States." Ninety-nine per cent of those surveyed viewed the US war on terrorism and Washington's relations with the Islamic world unfavorably, while 98% reacted negatively about the US government in general. In contrast, just over half of the respondents registered positive sentiments toward American-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Which may be why Washington just supported booting Saleh from office.

The Gulf nations will undoubtedly be on guard as one of their own, Yemen, heads toward regime change, surely opening the door for more protests in Bahrain and elsewhere. This will not stop until it reaches the gates of Saudi Arabia, unless mass reform is offered to the disenfranchised. Iran need do nothing more than sit back and offer passive verbal encouragement to these populations - much like we do when protestors hit the streets of Tehran.

An interesting time in the Middle East, for sure. Even if the Stink Bombs come into play, I believe they will be short-lived - one only has to log into the various social media networks to see that users are "reading between the lines" en masse for the first time.

The Egyptian blogger, protestor and prolific social-networker Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey, recently summed up how these three issues are being played out in his native country:

"The Salafists & MB [Muslim Brotherhood] are local players, but they have foreign ties and funding. Qatar fully funds and supports the MB, and Saudi fully funds and directs the Salafists. While Qatar is more interested in having a say in a democratic Egypt, Saudi is more interested in blackmailing Egypt into continuing the Sunni-Zionist alliance against Iran. Naturally, Egypt, right now, is totally not interested, so Saudi tries to pressure us by inciting lots of Salafi chaos and violence. Please note that it's all very targeted against so called Egyptian minorities, attacking Christians and women mostly, and burning churches. That's the kind of headache Saudi knows Egypt doesn't need, & will stop immediately the moment they are sure that the alliance is back on track, because they are shitting their Saudi pants over Iran. Please note that in this scenario, whatever we want as Egyptians, totally doesn't matter to them, or anyone for that matter."

Smart guy. Thank goodness for the Arab Street's ability to suss the Stink Bombs.

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