Monday, February 12, 2007

Sunni-Shiite Rift is Widening Across the Arab World

This morning's Washington Post reports that the increasingly tense divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East has become the region's most dangerous problem:

The growing Sunni-Shiite divide is roiling an Arab world as unsettled as at any time in a generation. Fought in speeches, newspaper columns, rumors swirling through cafes and the Internet, and occasional bursts of strife, the conflict is predominantly shaped by politics: a disintegrating Iraq, an ascendant Iran, a sense of Arab powerlessness and a persistent suspicion of American intentions. But the division has begun to seep into the region's social fabric, too. The sectarian fault line has long existed and sometimes ruptured, but never, perhaps, has it been revealed in such a stark, disruptive fashion....

Episodes of sectarian conflict litter the region's history: Shiites revolted in medieval Baghdad, and rival gangs ransacked one another's tombs and shrines. The conflict between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Empire in Persia was often cast as a sectarian struggle. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was portrayed in parts of the Arab world as a Shiite resurgence.

But rarely has the region witnessed so many events, in so brief a time, that have been so widely interpreted through a sectarian lens: the empowering of Iraq's Shiite-led government and the bloodletting that has devastated the country; the lack of support by America's Sunni Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- for the Shiite movement Hezbollah in its fight with Israel last summer; and, most decisively, the perception among many Sunni Arabs that Saddam Hussein was lynched by Shiites bent on revenge. In the background is the growing assertiveness of Shiite Iran as the influence of other traditional regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia diminishes.
I blogged about Iran's increasing influence on the region last summer. In that post I discussed the work of political scientist Vali Nasr, who argues that the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq left a regional power vacuum that has allowed Iranian influence to prosper. Nasr has gained considerable prominence with the publication of his book, The Shia Revival. He was also the subject of a front-page Wall Street Journal article detailing his views, which includes the need for diplomatic overtures to Iran. Finally, Nasr's argument is also fleshed out in a July/August 2006 Foreign Affairs article, "When the Shiites Rise."

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