Looming danger over Sunni-Shiite schism

A lot of talk has been going around lately that a Sunni-Shiite conflict is looming on the horizon that could engulf the whole Middle East with sectarian wars pitting Muslim nations against each other. Many Arab diplomats in the Turkish capital, for example, express their uneasiness in private conversations that the schism between Sunnis and Shiites could turn into a major confrontation, throwing the region into unprecedented turmoil that might last years to come.

It is true there are major differences between the two sects, and the schism has led to numerous conflicts in the past. Just recently, we have seen how damaging sectarian clashes have been in Iraq for the last eight years, costing hundred of thousands of lives according to various surveys that keep tabs on body counts. Nobody wants to imagine a doomsday scenario for a region-wide sectarian conflict that could throw the whole Middle East into chaos. I’m sure the idea of pitting the two major denominations of the Islamic faith against each other may appeal to some powers that want to keep energy-rich nations at bay and benefit from blood spilled over the whole region.

However, the tendency to see the recent unrest in the Arabian Peninsula through the prism of the Sunni-Shiite divide is a gross exaggeration, and one needs to be extra vigilant concerning the interpretation of grievances of people who have been under pressure for decades. It is the classic case of shifting the blame to others while the crux of the problem lies within.

How do we explain, for example, the situation in Bahrain, where both Sunni and Shiite joined in demonstrations? If we dig deeper, we would see the main reason for restless populations to rise up against regimes is the lack of democratic channels to express their legitimate demands. An absence of good governance, lack of transparency, a feeling of injustice and problems in exercising freedoms were at the heart of growing protest movements against the rulers of these regimes.

The fact that only 10 percent of Muslims in the world are Shiite, and some of the unrest has been taking place in traditionally Sunni Muslim countries with no sizable Shiite minority further indicates we are dealing with something far more pressing than a simple religious schism. For Sunni rulers to blame Iran as a meddler or to label Shiites in their home populations as disloyal groups does not pass as a convincing argument. One needs to look in the mirror to see one’s own reflection playing tricks and acting as the culprit rather than pointing a finger at others.

With the blessing of the Americans — who apparently decided to back royal monarchs while taking the opposite stand on authoritarian rulers in North Africa — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the two heavyweights in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led the assault on protesters in Bahrain to quash the growing unrest in the island kingdom. As expected, the intervention has infuriated Iran and raised the stakes dangerously high for the possibility of a crisis that escalates region-wide. This is not the first time an island became a source of contention between the GCC and Iran. The GCC has repeatedly called on Iran to give up occupation of three islands offshore from the UAE but has never resorted to armed intervention before.

Turkey, which enjoys cordial relations with both GCC countries and next-door neighbor Iran, is understandably on edge over deteriorating relations between the two sides. Turkish officials are privately advising both Iranians and Saudis to refrain from making harsh remarks publicly in order to not make things worse. Turkish diplomats were scrambling to contain the damage and shuttling back and forth to convince the players to act with self-restraint. While Ankara is telling the Iranians to use extra caution so as not to be seen as exploiting the opportunity presented by the unrest to make inroads into Sunni communities, it is also making clear to the GCC that the intervention should be temporary and that foreign troops need to be withdrawn from Bahrain immediately.

It is important to note that the remarks of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Jeddah Economic Forum on Sunday should be read along these lines as well. He said Bahrain is for Bahrainis, Iraq is for Iraqis, Egypt for Egyptians and Tunisia for Tunisians. Regional ownership is more important to secure stability in countries, and for that, the ruling regimes should make their peace with people from all walks of life. Promoting one segment of society at the expense of another is detrimental to the sustainability of internal peace over the long run and may risk exposing countries to external manipulations and exploitations.

As for the Iranians, the advice for “caution” and “restraint” should be seriously taken into consideration. Look at what happened in Iraq when Iranians disregarded Turkish suggestions not to solely back Iraqi Shiites, with whom they enjoy close ties, lest they risk alienating Sunnis and Kurds. The money and religious influence employed by Iran have simply created a mess in Iraqi society and severely tainted the national fabric of different ethnic and religious groups while fueling anxiety in Sunni Arab states. Iran has committed a similar mistake in Lebanon by forcing Hezbollah’s hand to drop out of the coalition to topple the government. It is therefore fitting to call Iran “the usual suspect” in many developments in the region.

For the moment, it seems Turkey is the best candidate to talk some sense to both Iranians and Arabs in producing some kind of framework for understanding potentially explosive situations. We hope they listen to what Turkey can offer.

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