Why are Sunni Arabs generating waves of terror and zeal for the caliph? I argue that it’s a reaction to a century of steady erosion of Ottoman-era Sunni dominance, especially in the zone between the Mediterranean shore and the Persian Gulf. It’s not a sudden collapse, it’s a long-term unwinding that has taken Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad out of Sunni hands. The Shiites (and Jews), once last, are now first—and Arab Sunnis blame the West. (I also have something to say about the Sunni-mania in Israel.) Read the entire piece here, at Mosaic Magazine.
A presentation by Martin Kramer to the Policy Forum of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 15, 2004. Martin Kramer shared the podium with Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian writer, intellectual, and coordinator of the Damascus-based Tharwa Project , a program devoted to religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. A summary of Abdulhamid’s remarks appears here. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
When we hear the phrase “minority rule,” the first inclination is to think that it is something abhorrent. It is precisely the phrase that was used to categorize South Africa under apartheid: white minority rule. We assume that such rule is illegitimate by definition. The European ideal of the nation, as it formed in the nineteenth century, is predicated on the nation as a numerical majority, formed by people who share some fundamental attribute of culture, be it language, ethnicity, religion, or shared descent. The numerically smaller groups within the polity that do not share this attribute are described as minorities, and as such should be entitled to various protections even as they are offered avenues of assimilation. What is insufferable is minority rule; that is an inversion of the natural order.
But this is a very modern and very European idea. Minority rule has long been the norm in the Middle East. The traditional Muslim polity was not concerned with establishing the numerical superiority of Muslims. Indeed, in the most dynamic Muslim empires, Muslim minorities ruled over non-Muslim majorities. We do not have hard figures, but the evidence suggests that in the great Arab empires, Muslims did not form the majority of the population until the early Middle Ages. In the Ottoman empire, for most of its existence, and while it encompassed the Balkans, Muslims were in the minority. In the Moghul empire in South Asia, the Muslims formed a thin ruling crust resting upon a predominantly Hindu society.
Muslims did not agonize over their status as numerical minorities in these situations. The natural order since time immemorial had been imperial rule by elites who embraced a different culture, language, and religion than those of the populations over which they ruled. And since sovereignty belonged to God, and through him to the divine-right ruler, the question of who was in the majority or the minority had no relevance. Legitimacy had other sources, in Islamic law, and in the ideal of just rule.
Muslim empires generally ruled according to the precept that “there is no coercion in religion,” and because non-Muslims were subject to extra taxation, it actually served the rulers to remain in a minority. The result was that the Middle East, even after the Islamic conquests and the gradual conversions to Islam, remained home to a plethora of religious and other minorities, which enjoyed considerable autonomy. This gave rise to the mosaic that we see today, comprised of enclaves of different religions, sects, and ethnic groups. This is a consequence of the kind of social contract that prevailed across the Islamic Middle East for centuries: authority tolerated the autonomy of varied groups in society, and society accepted rule by an elite minority.
Now there are debates about the nature of this system, and the tradeoffs it involved. There is the harsh view of Bat Ye’or, who believes that the traditional system of state relations with non-Muslim minorities constituted a kind of thousand-year apartheid, systematically discriminating against non-Muslims, leaving them in an endemic state of insecurity. She has named this sort of apartheid dhimmitude, after the word dhimmi, which means a Christian or Jew living as a subordinate protected person under Islamic rule.
There is the rather more nuanced view of Bernard Lewis, who argues that the cases of actual persecution of minorities were few, certainly as compared to Europe, and that they occurred as a consequence of general societal crises. Lewis holds that in most places and times, minorities did thrive in their own autonomous space. He has been keen to stress that such tolerance was not equality, which would have been a dereliction of Islamic law, but his is a generally favorable assessment.
Finally, there is a view best articulated by the late Elie Kedourie, who believed that the Islamic system in its last, Ottoman phase had achieved a nearly perfect equilibrium among social groups. He regarded European nationalist ideas as a virus that brought disease, and the destruction of the Ottoman empire in the First World War as an act of hubris, one that unleashed the very worst forces, and substituted a “wilderness of tigers” for an ordered world in which everyone had a defined place.
Whatever you think of these approaches, it is clear that the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman empire, if not also in its last days, has been a dangerous place for many minorities. The list is long: the Armenian tragedy or genocide; the depradations against Assyrians upon Iraq’s independence; the persecution of ancient Jewish communities across the Arabic-speaking lands; the enslavement and massacre of non-Muslim blacks in Sudan; and the list goes on. As a result, parts of the Middle East have become much less diverse than they were two generations ago. Just visit Alexandria, which was once a Mediterranean melting pot, and that has become a bleak and monolithic city with its back to the sea. Just visit Bethlehem, now largely emptied of its Christian population. There are many such cities and towns and villages across the Middle East, where monotone has replace mosaic.
That change was the result of coercive nationalism, which declared that you must either shed all your particular beliefs and traditions, in order to join the Arab (or Egyptian or Syrian) nation; or you will be regarded as a foreigner and fifth-columnist of imperialism, and be gradually dispossessed and driven out. It is true that both Britain and France used minorities as allies in their efforts to find economical ways to exert imperial control. They recruited from minorities, as a counter-balance to the very same Arab nationalism they had once promoted. But the Arab nationalists then took this as a license to suppress and dispossess those very same minorities. The predominant effect of half a century of Arab nationalism has been this: those who would not or could not conform, had to submit or leave. Christians submitted or left. Kurds and Shi’ites in Iraq faced a similar choice. Jews left or reassembled in Israel, a kind of redoubt for a minority that made a programatic plan to become a majority in one place, and so chart its own course.
Now the interesting thing about Arab nationalism is that, while it purports to represent the identity of the majority of Middle Easterners, many of its prime promoters have been members of minorities. Many of its early ideologues were Christians, who saw in Arab identity a way to escape their own subordinate status in an Islamic state. The Hashemites, who were installed in Transjordan, Iraq, and briefly before that in Syria, were outsiders—a small ruling clique imported from Arabia. In Syria, it was minority groups, such as Alawis, Druze, and Ismailis, who seized the mantle of Arabism from the old Sunni elite, and used it to make Syria into a pan-Arab champion. And in Iraq, when the minority regime of the Hashemites fell, it was eventually replaced by minority regimes of Sunni Muslims who concocted a notion of Arabo-Iraqi identity, precisely to deflect the charge that they were ruling on behalf of a minority sect. Jordan is a case of minority rule twice over: by the imported Hashemites, and by the native East Bankers in preference to the imported Palestinians, who form a majority.
So even in the era of nationalism, the Middle East, east of Suez at least, continued to be ruled by minorities. This applied not only to Sunni-ruled Iraq, Alawi-ruled Syria, and Hashemite-ruled Jordan. It has also come to apply to the Arab Gulf states, in which the number of foreigners now wildly exceeds the number of natives. This is one of the paradoxes of Arabism: it was used by regimes to give themselves a veneer of populism, when in fact these regimes had their bases in minority groups.
Democracy vs. social order
Outsiders, especially Westerners, look at this and say to themselves: this is not legitimate and it cannot last. Each person should be allotted one equal vote. If that means that power will shift from the Sunnis to the Shiites in Iraq, so be it; if that means it will shift from the Alawis to the Sunnis in Syria, so be it; if that means it will make the Shiites into Lebanon’s power-brokers, so be it; and if that means dominance will shift from the Hashemites and the East Bankers to the Palestinians in Jordan, then so be it. Minority rule is a vestige of the past; let it be phased out, through the implementation of real democracy.
This is the reason democracy promotion is so feared in the Middle East. We see democratization as a noble enterprise to erode authoritarian rule. They see it as a foreign demand for a fundamental shift of power among sectarian and ethnic groups. In a homogenous place like Egypt, and in other parts of North Africa where the rulers come from the majority social or ethnic group, democracy does not have that same association. But across the Fertile Crescent, to empower “the majority” means to take power away from a long-empowered sectarian or ethnic or kinship group that happens to be smaller, and vest it in one that happens to be larger.
The problem with this is that minority rule can sometimes be more respectful of difference, more tolerant, and more open than majority rule. That certainly was the case in the Ottoman empire for much of its history. It has arguably been the case in places like the progressive Gulf states and Jordan. In Iraq, of course, minority rule was a disaster. In other words, minority rule may be good, or it may be bad; it may be enlightened or it may be despotic; it depends on the circumstances.
The same goes for majority rule. The principal effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein has been to bring the Shi’ites to the fore of politics in the Arab world. The United States, willy-nilly, has allied itself to Shi’ite power, by dint of its democratizing message. But it is by no means certain that Shi’ite power will be tolerant of the pluralistic values that democracy is supposed to nuture and protect. Indeed, in Iraq, the prospects for such an outcome would seem to rest on the shoulders of one 74-year-old man, Ayatollah Sistani. In Lebanon, too, it is not at all clear that an enhancement of Shi’ite power would make the country more open and tolerant of differences, be they political, cultural, or religious. And would we really want Palestinians, with their historic long-running grievances, to set the course of Jordan?
The democracy agenda tampers with much more than the political order. It tampers with the social order, in a number of places where that order functions passably. These are conservative societies; they fear disorder; and if democracy means overturning ethnic and sectarian balances, and opening the door to possible conflict, they are bound to suspect it.
In fact, the unseating of such minorities already has a reputation for serving as a precursor to civil strife. It could well be argued that Lebanon would not be Lebanon without the Maronites; in the same measure, Iraq would not be Iraq without the Sunnis. These minorities founded both states, and they legitimized their separate existence. In Lebanon, the decline of the Maronite minority has left a vacuum that persists to this day, and that makes it uncertain even now whether the country can be restored to sovereignty. The same holds true of Iraq: the displacement of the Sunnis, who have always been the hinge of Iraq, has unhinged the country. One does not have to be a follower of the Phalanges or the Baath party to realize that these two communities have cultural roles in both countries beyond their numbers, and that their marginalization might be as fateful for pluralism as the earlier marginalization of Jews, Greeks, and the other groups that leavened Middle Eastern society.
America’s inadvertent overturning of the group hierarchy is one of the reasons why “they hate us.” The people who really hate America think that it will do everywhere what it has done in Iraq: shift power to the benighted Shi’ites, in the name of democracy. The empowerment of the Jews via the creation of Israel overturned one traditional order, but empowering Shi’ites is an escalation that reaches into the very essence of Islam. That is what fuels the insurgency in Iraq, and that is what keeps new recruits coming to Al-Qaeda. All one has to do to find evidence is look at the jihadist websites to see what they say about Shi’ites. We are tampering with a 1,400-year-old hierarchy, the product of untold generations of struggle within Islam.
If democracy contains within it the seed of disorder, what is the alternative? The problem in the Arab world is not a lack of democracy. It is a lack of self-determination. Here I do not mean national self-determination; I mean latitude for ethnic, religious, and kinship groups to exercise the maximum autonomous control over their collective lives. This is what has been eroded by the cancerous growth of the state over the past fifty years, exemplified by Iraq. The problem is the overbearing state, which has achieved efficiency in one thing only: depriving the Middle Easterner of the freedom he most cherishes, which is to be left alone to practice his faith, speak his language, and enjoy the traditions of his sub-national community.
This community does not always value democracy. In Iraq’s Sunni triangle, they like their tribes and they might want a tough-minded sheikh to keep order among them; in the Shi’ite south, they might wish to venerate a white-bearded recluse in a turban, and have him resolve all their disputes; and so on. What they crave is not democracy, but sub-national self-determination, for both majorities and minorities. More important to them than one-man one-vote, are guarantees for social, religious and linguistic freedom, implied by the retreat of the state.
To what point should it retreat? Ideally, to the distance at which the Ottomans stood. We have much more to learn from the Ottoman way of empire in the Middle East than from the British or the French. The European imperial powers also overturned heirarchies, which is why they constantly had to put down the kind of insurgencies that the United States now faces in Iraq. The Ottomans obviously had certain advantages over Europeans: first, they were Muslims, and second, the peoples of the Middle East were not at a heightened level of political consciousness until the empire’s last days. But the Ottomans ruled for as long as they did because they did not threaten their subjects with an all-intrusive state, and did not seek to turn the social order on its head.
An interviewer once asked the late Elie Kedourie whether he was nostalgic for the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. Kedourie replied:
Nostalgia is not a very profitable sentiment nor is there any sense in regretting something that cannot be revived. All one can say, is that these political systems and institutions, contraptions, or call them whatever you will, worked while they were there. They functioned; and considering the societies that that Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians ruled, they did not do a bad job of it. What one can also say, is that the successor states have failed lamentably.
He went on to praise the Ottomans for their “very sensible attitude to the problems raised by large groups of people who were under their control. When it came to insurrection, the Ottomans were quite ruthless. But apart from that they tried very hard to maneuver, to meander, to try and conciliate.”
America cannot revive the Ottoman empire, but it might take a lesson from its legacy: that empire is most effective when it is invisible, that there are things worse than minority rule, that there is no greater evil in the Middle East than an intrusive state, that people who do not rebel deserve to be left alone to run their affairs as they see fit, and that it is wisest not to overturn existing heirarchies, but to maneuver and meander within them. Pursue the idea of majority rule, come what may, and we may eventually find the majority of the Middle East agreed on one thing: that America is an evil empire. That kind of consensus is bound to undermine American interests, and would be the worst outcome of the best intentions.
This lecture was delivered by Martin Kramer on October 16, 2004, at the 2004 Weinberg Founders Conference, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
In invading Iraq, the United States destroyed longstanding Sunni hegemony over that country. By its attempts to establish a democratic order, the United States seems destined to empower the Shiites, who form a majority of the population. This empowerment has yet to unfold, but when it does, it will have repercussions.
This moment reminds me of the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when we asked the same question. What will be the impact of the revolution on Shiites elsewhere? At that time, many analysts anticipated that the entire region was on the brink of a Shiite revolt. The Iranian revolution would undermine the established order and bring Shiites out from the shadows. In Iraq, where the Shiites form a majority, and in Lebanon, where they form the largest sectarian community, Shiites would be impossible to suppress. Their grievances against the Sunni-inflicted Arab nationalist order would be as irresistible as the Iranian revolution itself. We were on the brink of a Shiite era.
It did not happen. And the reason it did not happen can be summarized in two words: Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam Hussein who rallied the Sunni-led regimes around him in his war with Iran. It was Saddam Hussein who ruthlessly crushed the fledgling Shiite movement in Iraq. Saddam Hussein cast himself as the Arab bulwark against the Iranian hordes, but many in the Arab world also saw him as the Sunni champion against Shiite ascendancy.
Thanks in large measure to Saddam Hussein, the Iranian Revolution never really spread. He blocked its export to Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, the Shiite group Hizballah gained a foothold, but only because Syria licensed it to attack Israel. There was no Shiite-led Islamic revolution in Lebanon, and whenever Hizballah got out of line, Syria put it in its place.
The legacy of the Iranian revolution and Hizballah’s terrorism gave Shiism a reputation as an almost inherently anti-American form of Islam. The United States had seen Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini use Shiite themes to make an anti-American revolution and to establish a theocratic dictatorship. It saw Hizballah play on Shiite themes to rally its followers in Lebanon to support bombings, hijackings, and hostage-taking. Hizballah was seen then much as al-Qaeda is seen today, and Shiism was regard then much as Wahhabism is regarded today.
This legacy informed the U.S. decision not to support the Shiite revolt in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The fear was that it would open Iraq up to Iranian penetration. In 1991, Iraqi Shiites paid the price for Khomeini’s anti-Americanism and Hizballah’s terrorism.
Over the next decade, Americans pondered whether their assumptions about Shiism had been right. Iraqi Shiites set about persuading American policy makers that the Shiites in a liberated Iraq would be free of Iranian influence. The Shiites in Iraq, they said, would never be pawns in Iranian hands, and Iraqi Shiism would not spawn a new version of Hizballah. Iraqi Shiites had their own, largely secular, priorities. They had their own religious leadership. And they might form a partnership with the United States if America would liberate them. The United States allowed itself to be persuaded this was so.
In the end, the obstacle of Saddam Hussein was removed not by Iranian human-wave attacks and Ayatollah Khomeini, but by U.S. guided munitions and President Bush. Saddam delayed the Shiite moment. U.S. intervention has brought it back.
The consequences of this are difficult to foresee. There is no question that the removal of Saddam has set the stage for a revival of Iraq’s historic role in Shia Islam. By now, most Americans are aware that Iraq contains the holiest Shia shrines, the Shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf, the Shrine of the Imam Husayn in Karbala, and other important shrines in other cities. But these are not merely places of pilgrimage and burial, and Najaf is not just the Jerusalem or the Lourdes of the Shiites. It is also an Oxford and a Cambridge. It was the great center of scholarship and study, a seat of apprenticeship for Shiite clerics. Aspiring young Shiites once flocked to Iraq from the four corners of the world, especially from Iran and Lebanon. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayn al-Sistani himself is a classic example. He was born in Iran. He came to Najaf as a young man to study and he stayed. But he still speaks Arabic with a distinct Persian accent, which may be one reason we never hear him speak in public.
Saddam’s regime shut out most of the foreign Shiites. He expelled many who had been resident in Iraq for decades. The centers of scholarship and learning atrophied, and places like Qom and Mashhad in Iran replaced them. But the liberation of Iraq has made it possible to imagine the restoration of Iraq’s Shia institutions to their former glory. That would shift the center of Shiism back to Iraq and away from Iran, which is one of the reasons Iran has such a keen interest in establishing influence over Iraq’s Shiite religious institutions.
Iraq is also immensely important to Lebanese Shiites. In earlier generations, virtually all of the senior Shiite clerics in Lebanon were schooled in Iraq. The most senior Shiite cleric in Lebanon today is Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. His father went to Iraq to study and then settled in Najaf. Fadlallah was born in Najaf; he lived and studied there until the age of thirty, when he came to Lebanon.
The younger generation of clerics beneath Fadlallah has had to study in Iran, but there is no doubt that a new generation would prefer to study in Iraq, which has very great prestige in the eyes of Lebanese Shiites.
Are the Shiites adversaries or allies? The answer is that they are something of both. The adversarial relationship is rooted in the history of U.S. relations with Iran and Hizballah. For more than twenty years, the United States had a reputation as the adversary of Shiite empowerment. It clashed spectacularly with Khomeini’s Iran and Hizballah. It allied itself with strongly anti-Shiite regimes in the Sunni Arab world, primarily Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq. And even when it broke with Saddam after the Kuwait invasion, the United States refused to lift a finger to help Iraq’s Shiites. That legacy is far from erased. The United States remains in an adversarial relationship with Iran and Hizballah, whose leaders still lead enthusiasts in chants of “death to America.”
There are two new developments. First, the United States now confronts another virulent form of extreme Islamism of the al-Qaeda variety. This variety of Islamism, which is Sunni and tinged with the doctrines of Saudi Wahhabism, is riddled with anti-Shiite prejudice. In the cosmology of these extreme Sunnis, the Shiites belong right down there with Americans and Jews as devilish subverters of true Islam. Where there are no Americans or Jews, as in Pakistan, Shiite targets will do just fine. The United States, by declaring war on these Sunni extremists—the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Zarqawi, and the Wahhabi hate network—is battling the visceral enemies of Shiism. This lays the foundations for a potential alliance of convenience.
The second factor is that the United States not only removed Saddam, but is now fighting the Sunni extremists who want their dominance of Iraq back. The Sunni extremists in Iraq have already targeted Shiite holy places and clerics. Because the Shiites do not have the means to strike back, they are counting on the United States to neutralize the threat. And the United States, by preaching democracy for Iraq, is essentially preparing the groundwork for the ascendance of a Shiite majority. Iraq’s Shiites need the United States to carry them to power, and the United States needs the Shiites to legitimize the U.S. mission in Iraq. So here, too, there are grounds for an alliance of convenience whose champion on the Shiite side is Ayatollah Sistani.
Among the Shiites, two models for achieving ascendancy, for realizing the Shiite moment, are in competition. The first is the Iranian-inspired Hizballah model. Its basic premise is that the United States is the enemy of Islam in general and of Shiism in particular. The United States inevitably will betray the Shiites because its real interests lie with the corrupt Sunni monarchies and with Israel. For the Shiites to realize their moment in the Middle East and for other Muslims to accept their leadership, Shiites must lead the resistance to American and Israeli hegemony.
Hizballah offers itself as an example of how a Shiite movement can transcend its sectarian origins to capture the imagination of the Muslim masses. While Arab regimes and Yasser Arafat were trading away Arab rights to get back territory, Hizballah waged a determined resistance to drive Israel out of Lebanon and ultimately achieved what no Arab army or the PLO ever achieved. It drove Israel from Arab land. It put an end to an Israeli occupation without making any concession and without offering peace in return.
And since the Israeli withdrawal, Hizballah has taken its struggle into the heart of Israel through its material and moral support for the Palestinian intifada. Hizballah has smuggled arms, subsidized the so-called “martyrdom operations,” and spread its propaganda on al-Manar television. Hizballah presents itself to the Arab Muslim masses, to the Arab street, as the last standard bearer of genuine independence from Western domination and Israeli hegemony.
This is the resistance model. The message of Hizballah and its Iranian allies to Iraq’s Shiites is that resistance will take them from the margins to the center. It will put the Shiites at the vanguard of a struggle that is destined to prevail, the struggle of the Muslim masses to replace American military, economic, and cultural hegemony with the authentic and true values of Islam. We see strong echoes of this resistance discourse in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Opposing the resistance model is what we might call the democracy model. According to this model, the Shiites are now in a demographic position, both in Iraq and in Lebanon, to become the dominant factor in politics. If there were true one-man, one-vote systems in Lebanon and Iraq, the Shiites would inevitably occupy the center of the political arena. Since Iraq and Lebanon are central states in the Arab world, this would finally put the Shiites on a par with the Sunnis and break the Sunni monopolies enshrined in the dogmas of Arab nationalism.
Because the United States has ceased to be a status-quo power in the Middle East, because it is driving a democracy agenda, both in Iraq and, lately, in Lebanon, it is objectively the ally of the Shiites. The Shiite road to power runs through democracy, not resistance, and a de facto alliance with U.S. power to clear the road makes sense. This approach has important adherents, including Ayatollah Sistani, but it is not nearly as well articulated as the resistance rhetoric that often drowns it out.
Can the United States influence this competition of approaches? On the very simplest level, it already has. Just as the United States does not wish to be perceived as the enemy of Islam, it does not wish to be cast as the enemy of Shiism. The Shia shrines in Iraq are symbols of the creed; the U.S. facilitation of pilgrimages and avoiding damage to the shrines during battles has been vitally important in countering the idea that America is an enemy of the Shiites.
But just as the United States cannot have a policy toward Islam per se, it cannot have a policy toward Shiism per se. U.S. policy has been driven, and it will continue to be driven, by the usual factors. In Iraq in particular, policy will be driven by Iraq-specific factors.
But we should be aware that U.S. actions have shifted the sectarian balance. In promoting democracy, the United States does not just undermine the authoritarian order, it inevitably undermines Sunni primacy. It is often said that the Shiites constitute only one-tenth of all Muslims. There are about 130 million Shiites. But about 120 million of them live in the region between Lebanon and Pakistan where they almost equal Sunnis in number. The shift of political power in their direction will raise sectarian tensions. It will anger dispossessed Sunnis, who may gravitate towards extremism, and it will require the United States to find its own delicate balance so that it is not drawn into any sectarian conflict.
Until the Iraq war, the United States was largely preoccupied with a highwire balancing act between Israel and the Arabs. Now, the United States will have to juggle Shiites and Sunnis at the same time. All wars have unintended consequences. A major challenge is to identify them as they emerge. This is potentially a huge one. It will require consummate skill and a lot of luck to turn it into a minor one.