It is difficult to say which is worse: nationalism or sectarianism in the Ummah (Muslim World). The ruling elites in the Muslim world exploit both these weaknesses to advance their own nefarious agendas. Just as nationalism is alien to the political culture of Islam, so sectarianism is the very antithesis of Muslim unity. While most Muslims have little reason to indulge in divisive polemic against fellow Muslims, there are groups within the Ummah whose survival depends on keeping us divided.
Let us consider two recent developments: Hizbullah’s successful resistance to zionist aggression in Lebanon last summer and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s standing up to the US. The first elevated Hizbullah leader Shaikh Seyyed Hasan Nasrallah’s stature among the Muslim masses, while the second turned Ahmedinejad into a symbol of the courage and defiance so lacking in other Muslim rulers. The popularity of both shot up among Muslims all over the world. Their photographs were prominently displayed in people’s homes and in restaurants and coffee shops throughout the Middle East. It did not matter that both are Shi’a; people instinctively identified with them because their stature and conduct stood in sharp contrast with the spineless cowardice habitually displayed by their own rulers.
These developments clearly alarmed other Muslim rulers and the US, who are struggling to neutralize them. When the two Abdullahs, Saudi and Jordanian, condemned Hizbullah, the Muslim masses reacted angrily and both men had to back down. Their retreat, however, was tactical; aware that the elation at Hizbullah’s victory and Ahmedinejad’s courage would dissipate in the face of new problems, real or imagined, they waited for an opportune moment to strike back. They did not have to wait long. The US, too, the main loser in these developments, needed to recover lost ground.
In October, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a highly publicized trip to the Middle East to rally “moderate regimes” against the “extremists”, meaning Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria. In December, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Bahrain to offer their own pearls of wisdom about confronting extremists. Rice was in the region again in mid-January to mobilize the Arab dinosaurs for a confrontation with the forces of Islam. By this time, events in Iraq, grossly mishandled by the incompetent Iraqi government, were effectively supporting the US effort. “The reality of the current situation is that we are approaching an open Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in the region,” Emad Gad, a specialist in international relations at the government-financed Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told the New York Times on January 17. “And Egypt will also be a part of it as a part of the Sunni axis. No one will be able to avoid or escape it.” Egypt is not alone in stoking sectarianism; the Saudis are even worse. They fear the growing power of Iran as a threat to their illegitimate rule. Abdul Rahman al-Barak, a Saudi ‘alim close to the ruling family, has described the Shi’a, whom he referred to by the derogatory term ar-rafideen (the rejectionists), as worse than Jews and Christians.
Members of the GCC also jumped on Rice’s anti-Iran bandwagon when their foreign ministers met in Kuwait on January 16. The communiquÃ© they issued must have sounded like music to American ears: “The participants welcomed the commitment by the United States as stated in President Bush’s recent speech [January 10] to defend the security of the Gulf, the territorial integrity of Iraq and to ensure a successful, fair and inclusive political process that engages all Iraqi communities and guarantees the stability of the country.” Their concern about inclusiveness would be more convincing had Iraq under Saddam been a model for inclusiveness or if the regimes themselves were so inclined. Their concern is more mundane: to join America’s anti-Iran crusade because they fear Iran’s growing influence. To undermine Iran, they are willing to resort to crude tactics: fan sectarian tensions by financing it on behalf of the US.
All this is, unfortunately, nothing new; some parts of the Ummah have a long history of falling into the sectarian trap. Soon after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger convened a secret meeting in Cairo to instigate Shi’a-Sunni conflict by staging an uprising against the regime in either Sudan or Syria. The plan was to embarrass Iran. If Tehran supported the uprising, it would disrupt its relations with these regimes; if it sided with the regimes, Islamic movements worldwide would condemn it for not supporting a part of the Islamic movement. The Syrian Ikhwan were pushed into staging an uprising against the Syrian regime, even though a significant faction, led by Dr. Issam al-Ataar, refused to join this US-engineered conspiracy. Inevitably, Hafez al-Asad brutally crushed the uprising, killing thousands in Hama. As planned, this led to years of virulent anti-Iranian propaganda because of Tehran’s good relations with Damascus.
The question now, as history threatens to repeat itself, is whether the Ummah has learnt anything from the tragedy of Hama, or whether it will again fall into the traps being laid to advance Uncle Sam’s agenda.