Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fifth (Relatively) Easy Piece: The Shi'a Arc

Yesterday’s news made me realize I had neglected a fifth item in my last blog.  Several channels mentioned the Shi’a in their coverage of the troubled Muslim countries of Bahrein, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria.  It should be clear by now that a very old antagonism hovers in the background of the story about oil.  Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan are the largest majority Shi’a countries.  But Shi’a constitute nearly forty percent of the total Muslim population of the Middle East. The Shi’a arc begins in India, where they constitute around one third of the Muslim population of that predominantly Hindu country.  Shi’a constitute a majority in Azerbaijan, with significant minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kurdistan. Iran and Iraq and tiny Bahrein have majority Shi’a populations. but Shi’a also make up over 35% of the population in Lebanon, over 45% in Yemen, approximately 30% in Kuwait, over 20% in Turkey, and 15% in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Roughly speaking, the Shi’a constitute a northern arc beginning in central Asia,  and encompassing up to 200 million people.

The Sunni arc occupies the southern rim of the Middle East and Near East landmass, starting at the tip of the Arabian peninsula in Yemen, and centered in Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni country, where religious authority is held by the puritan Salafists, whose Wahhabism inspired Al Qaeda. Along the Mediterranean lies Egypt, which since the days of Nasser has had a strong national and secular component, followed by have the countries of the Magreb: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, the Western Sahel and finally, up its west coast, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.

The Sunni/Shi’a fault line of the Eurasian continent where these two arcs meet is deepening, and the current fight over the future of Syria is the first round in a larger fight between Islam’s Sunnis and Shi’a as to which will dominate the Middle East. A resurgence of the traditionally down-trodden Shi’a across the Muslim world is a subset of the Arab Spring, but its ramifications go beyond the Arab or Muslim world.

Repeated visits by Iran’s President Ahmedinejad to Latin America do not seem incongruous if one considers the fact that Shi’ism has always been the revolutionary form of Islam, making it a natural ally of left-wing secular regimes, however far-flung.  In the seventh century, Mohammed’s cousin and designated successor, Ali, was brutally struck down by representatives of the merchant class. His followers, most of whom are ruled by wealthy Sunni majorities, represent the Muslim 99%.0   A must read if one is to understand the importance of Shi’ism today, is Resistance : The Essence of the Islamist Revolution by the British international civil servant Alastair Crooke. It gives the lie to lose talk about ‘terrorism’, and shows just how handicapped our diplomates would be in a philosophical conversation with them.

The Iranian Islamic revolution, changed the Shia–Sunni power equation in Muslim countries from Lebanon to India, arousing the traditionally subservient Shia, to the alarm of traditionally dominant Sunnis. What makes Syria unique is that it involves a reverse Sunni-Shi’a divide: strongly backed by Shi’a Iran, the Alawi minority, a Shi’a sect, rules over a majority Sunni population while its neighbor Lebanon, which it dominated militarily from 1975 to 2005, continues under the influence of Hezbollah, a fighting Shi’a minority.

When the veil of ignorance about Shi’ism is torn away, it becomes clear why both Russia and China have opposed strong measures against Syria: In a special section of the January 21st Economist , both these superpowers are described as paragons of State Capitalism.  What is significant about this assessment by a conservative publication is that the purpose of State Capitalism is to create greater equality among the classes. (On a more prosaic note, Russia must also bear in mind the majority Shi’a population in Azerbaijan, and China must be mindful of the 2% of Muslims, located mainly in the areas that border Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, i.e. Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinighai provinces,  known as the "Quran Belt".

America’s commitment to Israel - the main thing that interests many Americans  - must be seen in this light. It was born of belated shame for Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to grant asylum to Jews being slaughtered by Hitler.  Then, as things evolved in the neighborhood of the Jewish Homeland, Israel, founded on modern, democratiic principles, was our natural ally against the majority Others: 'backward' Arabs, whose oil we coveted.  The Janus tail of oil supply and Zionism is now wagging the American dog, forcing us to permit behavior by the one that endangers the other.

It is folly to believe that we can somehow make everything right for Israel, but if we follow the daily news, we can see that America is determined to steer the political turmoil among her neighbors to its advantage. There is nothing new about this.  The Eurozone crisis is the long-term consequence of America’s post-World War II domination of Western Europe, which began with the ‘generous’ Marshall Plan: we saved Europe from the Nazis in order to remake it in our cowboy capitalist image. Then, using the tools of the late twentieth century, we did the same to Eastern Europe. Now, as the European 99% rebel against the world America created, and the remedies being forced down their throats after its failure, we are determined to steer the Arab Spring toward political/financial regimes that will espouse that model.

Fortunately for us and for them, its people see the writing on the wall.

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