For several weeks now newscasters have admitted they don’t understand why the United States appears to be supporting groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as the Salafists - or at the very least the Muslim Brotherhood, which is often considered little beter. To understand what is going on, we need to consider the fundamental difference between the Sunni and Shi’a versions of Islam and its relationship to the political divide.
The Sunnis - to which belong the Salafists, Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies - have traditionally represented the ruling classes, while relatively large segments of their populations espouse Shi'isn, the form of Islam traditionally favored by the lower classes. (The Sunni/Shi’a divide has roots in the poitical rifts that occured after the death of Mohamed.)
But it’s more complicated than that: Iran is ruled by a Shi’a theocracy installed by a revolution whose roots go back to a socialist Prime Minister deposed in a CIA coup in 1953. As for Syria, it is ruled by Alawites, a small Shi’a sect long associated with the Ba’ath Party, an Arab socialist party which also ruled Iraq until we deposed its leader, Saddam Hussein; and Libya’s recently deposed leader Muammar Ghaddafi also considered himself a socialist. Whatever one may think of these various leaders (to the extent that we, as outsiders, are entitled to assess their validity as rulers of their respective peoples...), it should be clear that America’s determination to effect regime change in the Middle East is not only about oil.
Whatever the official doctrine may be, the ideological war between capitalism and socialism is not over, but merely confined to Third World countries which, during the Cold War, were aligned with either the Soviet Union or the United States. As the Arab Spring shows, the conflict between recognition of community responsibility toward its most vulnerable and the conviction that it’s each man for himself, is no longer limited to secular ideologies, causing the United States to no longer know who its friends are.
One thing is certain: Washington prefers the Saudi and Qatari Wahhabi regimes because they are part of Sunni Islam’s Western oriented consensus based on the supremacy of money, as opposed to the Syrian and Iranian regimes which are welfare states. (Syria continued the secular educational system it inherited from France after the Second World War, and Syrian women are the most liberated of the Arab world. Until the 1960s the Alawites were not considered true Muslims either by mainstream Shi’a or Sunnis, because their version of Islam incorporates elements of other religions and is often practiced sitting and in silence rather than prostrated and voiced.)
When it comes to countries like Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s political class is ill-equipped to see beyond the fact that these are Muslim countries. They are unfamiliar with the ideological currents that have marked their recent history.
Perhaps the most glaring example of America’s ideological handicap is it’s view of Hezbollah: the Shi’a leader Nasrallah has a sophisticated knowledge of Western philosophy and ideology, and in the 2006 war with Israel he instituted the ‘flat’ systems of the Argentinian cooperative movement. Yet he is seen as a ranting representative of a benighted ideology.
Moving now to Egypt, a longtime American ally, its new President, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood supports freedom of religion, peace, democracy and the Palestinian cause, opposing American imperialism. As a recent analysis by the French journalist Thierry Meyssan pointed out, Morsi talks to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, but will not organize Egypt to suit the United States or Israel.
Although the Cold War is officially over, a United States dominated by neo-conservatism and the financial sector, is still determined to stamp out any regime that espouses a socialist ethos. It is no coincidence that besides being the homeland of the Jews to whom the U.S. refused entrance when they were being gassed by Nazi Germany, Israel is the only neo-liberal country in the region.
Less obviously, the socialist ethos partly explains why both Russia and China oppose U.S. policies: Just as our ideology harks back to our genocide of the Indians, the two former (to all intents and purposes) Communist countries are still influenced by the basic socialist ethos of solidarity and peace. And that is why both support Ahmedinejad, who expounded on these principles at the U.N. General Assembly this week.
Following the pattern I’ve been describing here, The Iranian president’s speech could only be greeted by cynical derision by Western officialdom, which cannot for a nanosecond appear to recognize his sincerity, at the risk of being expected to emulate him.
Unfortunately for these severely handi-capped politicians, Ahmedinejad’s ideals are recognized by the European 99%, from Spain, to Greece, to Italy and France, as they demonstrate ever more determinedly against IMF-inspired austerity. Washington blames the Europeans for the crisis of their common currency, passing over the world-wide penetration of crooked Wall Street financial institutions. The American public’s ignorance of other countries’ history and politics make it gullible, but your average European or Middle Easterner knows otherwise.