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Pan-Islamic merged mega thread

McG

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In the Middle East, an ancient war is new again
Michael Petrou
MACLEAN’S
03 January 2014

Of the various slurs and insults that opposing sides in Syria’s civil war fling at each other, there are some so archaic, they seem not to belong in a modern conflict. Among them is the Arabic and Persian term Majous, used by Sunni Muslim rebels against supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. Those familiar with the Christmas story might recognize its similarity to magi, as in the three wise men who came from the East with gifts for the baby Jesus.

The term originally referred to followers of Zoroastrianism, a now all-but-vanished religion that predates Islam. Rebels employ it today to deny the shared Islamic faith of their adversaries. Assad’s family and many of his supporters are Alawite Muslims, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam. “It means they’re not Muslims, because they’re still these weirdo Zoroastrians,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “And they’re not even Arabs. They’re crypto-Iranians.”

It is language that speaks to the deepening sectarian fault lines running through Syria and, increasingly, throughout the Islamic Middle East. In Iraq, for example, al-Qaeda leaders boasting about prison breaks near Baghdad last summer said they had damaged the country’s “Safavid” government. The Safavids were a Persian dynasty that brought Shia Islam to what is now Iraq some 400 years ago.



Divisions between the Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam are almost as old as the faith itself. But what’s happening now is a particularly bitter and often violent clash, and one that is intensified by a geopolitical power struggle between the two dominant nations in the region, Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, each acting as standard-bearers for Islam’s two major sects. Some have likened the struggle to a Middle Eastern version of the Cold War, with Iran and Saudi Arabia playing the roles of America and the Soviet Union, and other states in the region lining up behind them.

For the Sunni-ruled countries of the Arabian Peninsula, any sign that Iran is becoming stronger—by improving its nuclear capabilities, or even by moving toward normalizing its relations with Washington—stokes anxiety. They fear Iran itself, and the possibility that a more powerful Iran might embolden and stir up dissent among their own Shia populations. Repercussions of the struggle within Islam are not limited to the Muslim world, either. America and Israel, motivated by their own standoff with Iran, side with the Sunni camp. Russia, seeing an opportunity to counter Western influence in the region, backs Shia Iran and Alawite-led Syria.

The Shia-Sunni conflict “is not just a hoary religious dispute, a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam’s unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities,” Vali Nasr writes in The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. “Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.”

The Middle East’s sectarian divide sharpened following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Until then, Sunnis dominated the region, with Shia strength concentrated in Iran. When America toppled Saddam Hussein and brought democracy to Iraq, it also liberated the country’s Shias, who had long been suppressed by Saddam and his mostly Sunni power base, despite forming a majority of Iraq’s population.

“This was a tremendous earthquake in the regional balance of power,” says Landis. “It strengthened Iran tremendously. It made the Sunni powers extremely fearful of this growing Shia menace—at least what they saw as a menace.”

The Shia’s ascendency in Iraq was neither smooth nor peaceful. Sunni extremists resisted with suicide bombings and attacks on Shia religious processions and mosques. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was clear about his movement’s goals. The Shia, he wrote in a 2004 letter, are “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom.

“If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to waken the inattentive Sunnis, as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of Sabeans.”

Zarqawi, like Syrian rebel commanders today, reached far into history for an anti-Shia slur. The Sabeans were pagans of southwest Arabia. The Shia of today, he implied, are similarly godless. Zarqawi succeeded, to some degree, in provoking a sectarian war in Iraq whose bloody reverberations continue today. He also pulled Iran deeper into the conflict. In 2005, a cleric there described Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq as “wolves without pity,” and vowed, “Sooner, rather than later, Iran will have to put them down.”

Since then, Shia prime ministers with close ties to Iran have governed Iraq. A once Sunni-ruled state has shifted into Iran’s sphere of influence. It was this reality that prompted King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004 to warn of a Shia “crescent” stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that would alter the Sunni-Shia balance of power and risk destabilizing the region.

At the time, Abdullah’s comments sounded alarmist, says Matteo Legrenzi, an associate professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Today, they seem prescient. “Sectarianism is now one of the defining characteristics of the current moment in Middle East politics.”

The hot centre of this divide is Syria, where Sunnis form a majority, but where the Alawite Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years. It might have been possible, early in the uprising, for the country to avoid the religious animosity now tearing it apart. The popular movement against Assad was not initially a rebellion against the Alawites and, for a time, Assad’s regime maintained the loyalty of many of his Sunni soldiers.

Assad’s decision to arm Alawite civilian militias helped shape the conflict as a religious one, creating the perception among Alawites that the uprising was against them and not just Assad’s regime, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Clerics and media outlets in the Gulf augmented the war’s sectarian nature by “demonizing” Alawites and focusing on Iran’s support for the Assad regime, says Wehrey, who is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising. “The Gulf [states] and the Saudis see this as a pivotal moment in checking Iran’s regional influence. This is the strategic prize. The rest of the Arab world’s position hinges on what happens in Syria.”

This belief has pushed Sunni governments and private donors in the region to support Sunni rebel militias in Syria—some of whom subscribe to an extremist version of Islam and include foreign fighters in their ranks. Iran, for its part, has sent advisers from the Revolutionary Guards to fight for Assad, along with the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.

“It’s a regional war. All the militias in Syria have become proxies for a much broader Sunni-Shia struggle,” says Landis. “You could look at this like Central Europe during the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics, because, in many ways, the Middle East is in the pre-Enlightenment world. Sunnis and Shias have not accepted each other as equal partners in Islam.”

By the time the Thirty Years War was over in 1648, millions were dead. The death toll from ongoing Sunni-Shia disputes—even in the charnel house of Syria—is much smaller. And while religious differences are an accelerant, the clashes are also about power and wealth.

“The grievances always stem from actual situations of disempowerment and of the nature of authoritarian systems of government,” says Legrenzi, citing as an example Bahrain, where a Sunni minority that includes the king dominates a Shia majority. Public demonstrations in 2011 were put down with help from Saudi troops and armour, and police from the United Arab Emirates.

Despite attempts by some commentators at the time—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—to frame the unrest as an Iran-backed plot, Legrenzi and Wehrey both describe the uprising as an indigenous one fuelled by a genuine desire for a more just and equitable society.

Sunni and Shia powers have also co-operated when it suited them. Saudi Arabia and Iran were allies against Communism prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. More recently, Iran backed the Palestinian Sunni militia Hamas against Israel—though this partnership has unravelled because of Iran’s support for Assad.

The Muslim world, in other words, is not condemned to unending antagonism between its major sects. But the divide today is deep and violent, even at street level. Faith-driven lynchings have claimed victims from Egypt to Pakistan. There is little reason to believe this acrimony will soften soon.
http://www2.macleans.ca/2014/01/03/an-ancient-war-is-new-again/
 

Edward Campbell

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I'm pleased to see a reference to the Thirty Years War (one of my favourites) because I believe it was an essential "accelerant"* to the religious and social reformations that were going on in 16th and 17th century Europe and which were, themselves, essential precursors to the 18th century Enlightenment.

I believe, strongly, that the Islamic world - almost ALL of it - is sorely in need of a socio-cultural enlightenment of its own; and I also think that religious and socio-economic reformations are, now, in the Middle East, just as essential as they were in Europe 450 years ago.

A long, multi-generational, bloody and bitter series of internecine wars are just what the Islamic Crescent needs.

_____
Thanks for that word, Mr Petrou, it's very apt in this situation
 

pbi

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And while religious differences are an accelerant, the clashes are also about power and wealth.

I'm glad to see this being pointed out. IMHO it's a knee-jerk of popular "wisdom" that religion causes wars. I think this description is far more apt. Religion is rarely a primary cause, but often a banner and usually an aggravating factor.

A long, multi-generational, bloody and bitter series of internecine wars are just what the Islamic Crescent needs.

Of course we're assuming that this can all be kept nice, tidy and manageable, and won't spill over in any inconvenient ways and bother the rest of us, including Israel.  We can just be spectators as the Islamic world butchers itself. I have a feeling it won't be quite as simple as that.

Rather than more slaughter, the three things the Islamic Arab world really needs, IMHO:

a)-the separation of religion from politics, such that political dissent can't be treated as an attack on God and thus worthy of all sorts of hideous treatment;

b)-a significant drop in the birth rate (admittedly a very long flash to bang on this one); and

c)-the widespread education and empowerment of women, which usually produces b) above
 

Edward Campbell

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pbi said:
I'm glad to see this being pointed out. IMHO it's a knee-jerk of popular "wisdom" that religion causes wars. I think this description is far more apt. Religion is rarely a primary cause, but often a banner and usually an aggravating factor.

Of course we're assuming that this can all be kept nice, tidy and manageable, and won't spill over in any inconvenient ways and bother the rest of us, including Israel.  We can just be spectators as the Islamic world butchers itself. I have a feeling it won't be quite as simple as that.

Rather than more slaughter, the three things the Islamic Arab world really needs, IMHO:

a)-the separation of religion from politics, such that political dissent can't be treated as an attack on God and thus worthy of all sorts of hideous treatment;

b)-a significant drop in the birth rate (admittedly a very long flash to bang on this one); and

c)-the widespread education and empowerment of women, which usually produces b) above


You're quite right. Israel lives in one of the worst "neighbourhoods" on the planet and, as the Israelis themselves point out, over and over again, in order to just survive Israel must win every war ... the Arabs only have to get lucky once. In my estimation Israel's survival, to the end of the 21st century, will require something akin to a miracle; it is more likely that we, and America and Australia, will benefit, greatly, from a small flood of well educated, sophisticated Jewish refugees.
 

CougarKing

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E.R. Campbell said:
it is more likely that we, and America and Australia, will benefit, greatly, from a small flood of well educated, sophisticated Jewish refugees.

I'm going to infer from your omission of the UK and other western European powers in the above statement- e.g. France- to mean that you've written them off as a destination for Jewish refugees, in part because of the unchecked immigration from Islamic nations to those countries would discourage a return exodus from Israel?

 

Colin Parkinson

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Jordon is no doubt relieved to have Israel at it's back, at least they can count on the Israel not to go nuts on them. 
 

Edward Campbell

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S.M.A. said:
I'm going to infer from your omission of the UK and other western European powers in the above statement- e.g. France- to mean that you've written them off as a destination for Jewish refugees, in part because of the unchecked immigration from Islamic nations to those countries would discourage a return exodus from Israel?


I'm anything but an expert, but the few Israelis I know have all expressed a fondness for America, Australia and Canada and a more general distaste for Europe, based on 20th century history ... it's hard to blame them I guess.

Some years ago I escorted a very senior Israeli back to Toronto after an official visit to Ottawa. He asked if we could drive ~ we had a day, plus to kill. I took him part way along Hy 7 and part way along the 401 and we stopped somewhere around Port Hope for lunch and then had dinner somewhere North West of the airport. He suggested that if things ever went wrong in Israel it was here, in Canada, specifically in "small town Ontario" that he would want to end up. I go the impression a lot of Israelis have similar views; certainly a few I met in Shanghai in 2010 peppered me with questions about life in Canada for people like them (young to early middle age, well educated, etc). But  :dunno:  impressions and guesses, not knowledge.
 

Ostrozac

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Colin P said:
Jordon is no doubt relieved to have Israel at it's back, at least they can count on the Israel not to go nuts on them.

Yes, but the Jordanians also share a border with the West Bank (which they used to occupy) -- and have a sizable Palestinian population. Even if Jordan feels it can count on Israel from a security standpoint, it still has to keep a close eye on Palestine.
 

a_majoor

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Just cycling back to a previous post, the ME isn't just divided by religion, but also by ethnicity. Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Copts and an host of smaller minorities rub shoulders, and also have centuries old divisions and hatreds. Suni Turks won't be particularly fond of Suni Kurds, for a well known example, while Bedouin Arabs look down on their Palestinian "brothers".

Lining up "sides" for this version of the 30 years war isn't going to be nice and neat at all. For a bit of fun, you might take some talc and start drawing overlays of ethnic and religious groups on a political map of the ME. Spice it up with some economic overlays to see where large pools of resources that can be used for warfighting (or coveted by their neighbours) lay. Now look at a geographic overlay to see where natural "redoubts" exist, giving certain groups shelter and much more breathing space than others.

That should provide a nice introduction to why the next generation is going to be so "interesting" in the Chinese sense.
 

pbi

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Thucydides said:
Just cycling back to a previous post, the ME isn't just divided by religion, but also by ethnicity...
That should provide a nice introduction to why the next generation is going to be so "interesting" in the Chinese sense.

:goodpost:

This is something that is perpetually overlooked in popular discourse here. As you point out, "Arab" does not equal "Muslim"; "Muslim" does not equal "Arab"; "Christian" does not equal "European"; and the Middle East is not a single country full of oil sheikhs.

Just like everything else that matters, it's far more complicated than pundits and ranters on either end of the political/religious spectrum would like us to think. The region may break up/realign on axes we can't even foresee yet.

As for the future of Israel: my guess is that this will be determined by demographics as much or more than by military force. My (anecdotal) understanding is that unless there is a considerable upsurge in Jewish Israeli birth rates, Arab Israelis will constitute a majority within a decade or so. If that were to happen (and I don't have any evidence that it will...), what are the political options for Israel?

Deny Arabs political participation and marginalize them? Not sure how this creation of "lesser" citizens would go down, given the history of how the Jews themselves have historically been treated.

Watch Israel drift away from being a Jewish state into being something else? Something that doesn't automatically look to the West for its models? Probably equally difficult, and IMHO a prospect likely to trigger violence from the Zionist hard liners.

It will definitely be interesting times.
 

Colin Parkinson

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The best way to keep Israel going in my opinion is to help the Kurds form a state. Yes they have their own issues but they have shown a strong desire to move forward despite their internal bickering. They have shown to be sympathetic to Israel or at least neutral. A Kurdistan carved out of Syria and Iraq would be viable enough not to require carving chunks out of Turkey. However I have to wonder about Turkey being able to hold it's current borders and may eventually have to give up portions to the Kurds. As I recall the demographic trends in the eastern parts favour the Kurds.
 
 

Oldgateboatdriver

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Thucydides said:
Just cycling back to a previous post, the ME isn't just divided by religion, but also by ethnicity. Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Copts and an host of smaller minorities rub shoulders, and also have centuries old divisions and hatreds.

For a humourus look at that aspect of the situation, I recommend the cartoon book "Asterix and the Black Gold" (L'odyssée d'Astérix in French), where, as Obelix and Asterix are crossing the desert, they keep running into countless tribes, each looking for the next one claiming that they have a revenge fight to finish with the other and asking our heroes if they have seen them.
 

a_majoor

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Colin P said:
The best way to keep Israel going in my opinion is to help the Kurds form a state. Yes they have their own issues but they have shown a strong desire to move forward despite their internal bickering. They have shown to be sympathetic to Israel or at least neutral. A Kurdistan carved out of Syria and Iraq would be viable enough not to require carving chunks out of Turkey. However I have to wonder about Turkey being able to hold it's current borders and may eventually have to give up portions to the Kurds. As I recall the demographic trends in the eastern parts favour the Kurds.

That and a chunk of Iran as well.....
 

Colin Parkinson

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I think the west needs to support the Baluch Independence movement, that way we can return the favours to both Iran and Pakistan at the same time. While Iran is wrapped up in Baluchistan we can help the Kurds in Northern Iran form a semi-autonomous state. Peopel forget that Iran's population is only 51% Persian, lots of fertile ground their to stir up their domestic crap.
 

CougarKing

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tomahawk6 said:
Support the Kurds and tick off Turkey.

Won't supporting the Kurds tick off Iran and other nations as well? The notional borders of Kurdistan includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and northern Iraq.
 

GAP

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When the borders of these countries were established they were based on geopolitical boundaries, not ethnic boundaries.....it all had to come home to roost someday....
 

Colin Parkinson

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tomahawk6 said:
Support the Kurds and tick off Turkey.

The Turks are becoming less and less a friend of the west, plus Turkey may not have much choice in the long term. A Kurdish state in Iraq, Syria and Iran would actually need stable relations with Turkey to prosper.
 

pbi

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Colin P said:
The Turks are becoming less and less a friend of the west, plus Turkey may not have much choice in the long term. A Kurdish state in Iraq, Syria and Iran would actually need stable relations with Turkey to prosper.

Well, if that is true (as opposed to a dynamic between secularism traditionally defended by the Army, and an apparently Islamic political movement that is now in power..), wouldn't we seek to act to support and reinforce the secular forces (which may be a lot stronger than we think). If the West "ticks off Turkey", isn't that throwing a bone to the anti-Western, Islamist elements?
 
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