America's sectarian problem


Residents gather at the site of a car bomb explosion in Sadr City, northeastern Baghdad February 17, 2013. A series of car bombs exploded in mainly Shi'ite neighbourhoods across the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens, police and hospital sources said.

Article Highlights

  • It is ironic that when it comes to the schism between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the US has become as sectarian as Saudi Arabia or Turkey

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  • There are numerous reasons for America’s slide into Islamic sectarianism; first and foremost, the Iran hostage crisis.

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February was a bloody month for Iraq. A wave of bombings directed at Iraqi Shi‘ites killed 200 and wounded more than 550. The attacks come against the backdrop of political stalemate and increasingly violent protests which many journalists and diplomats date to the arrest of (former Deputy Prime Minister) Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges.

Rather than blame the terrorists, too many American and regional figures blame the Iraqi government. Writing in Commentary Magazine, for example, one civilian advisor to General David Petraeus’ inner circle wrote, “the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.”  And in The Washington Post on February 8, two other military analysts placed blame solely on Iraq’s prime minister. Such aspersions are unjust, unfair, and unwise.

It is ironic that when it comes to the schism between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the United States has become as sectarian as Saudi Arabia or Turkey. America’s sectarian approach to the Middle East, however, is bad for both the region and bad for the United States.

There are numerous reasons for America’s slide into Islamic sectarianism.  First and foremost is the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.  Prior to the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, American and Iranian universities had regular partnerships and exchanges. Bell Helicopters had a factory in Isfahan. Ordinary Americans thought of Shi‘ites as friends and neighbors, not as hostage-takers or terrorists. That all changed with the Islamic Revolution. A 50-year-old American official today would have been 16 years old when Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy. Most every general, colonel, diplomat or cabinet secretary grew up with Iranian revolutionaries taunting the United States. Few American government officials remember the days when the United States and Iran were close allies.

The American experience in Lebanon was also formative. When a Hezbollah operative rammed his explosive-laden truck into the U.S. Marine Barracks in 1983, the movement might have achieved its immediate goal to drive American, French, and Italian peacekeepers out of Beirut. But that attack, and subsequent hostage-takings cemented in the American mind the idea that Shi‘ites were radical, anti-American, and out-for-blood.

Saudi, Turkish, and Jordanian diplomats and generals are happy to reinforce this prejudice. Within U.S. Central Command, American military officers interact only with Sunni generals. Majority Shi‘ite Azerbaijan falls outside the boundaries of their bureaucratic structure and while the United States military does have a large presence in Bahrain, Bahraini authorities do not allow Shi‘ites to serve as senior police officials or as military officers. When generals and ambassadors have meetings, throughout the region, their interlocutors criticize the Iraqi government, not because of the serious problems it confronts but rather because it has empowered Iraq’s Shi‘ite majority for the first time.  To this day, Arab diplomats and military officers from across the Middle East privately recommend that Iraq erase the legacy of its constitution and elected government and instead impose a strong Sunni general to lead the country. Kings in Riyadh and Amman may have liked Saddam, but Iraq should never return to the era of squandered wealth and mass graves.

Also driving America’s sectarian bias are many of its own Islamic organizations. Up to one-quarter of American Muslims are Shi‘ite, migrating originally from Iran, India, and Pakistan, or Ismaili areas in Central Asia.  Their voice is overshadowed by fiercely sectarian organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America who, with millions of dollars in funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar advocate less for Islam and more for the Muslim Brotherhood and its sectarian causes.

Make no mistake: Criticism of the American approach to Shi‘ite Islam does not mean either the Islamic Republic of Iran or Hezbollah are democratic.  The Iranian people struggle for true representation and largely wish they had the same religious freedom in Qom as Iraqis enjoy in Najaf. And, as far as most Lebanese are concerned, Hezbollah today acts more as a business mafia than as a nationalist or “resistance” organization. Still, democratic tendencies are deeply engrained in traditional Shi‘ism, in which individuals choose their own marja at-taqlid and where religious authorities encourage debate and tolerate divergence of opinion. An ordinary Muslim is much freer to question religious authority emanating from Najaf and Karbala than from Al-Azhar or Riyadh. The embrace of individual thought spreads readily from the religious sphere into Shi‘ite political culture. Iranian authorities worry about Iraqi nationalism and the free expression of Iraqi Shi‘ites precisely because the Iranian system of velayat-e faqih cannot tolerate the freedom and individualism which Iraqis have embraced. They sponsor militias to impose through force of arms what is not in the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shi‘ites.

For any American official to blame Prime Minister Maliki for the current violence is not only wrong, but encourages further terrorism. Criticism of arrest warrants for (former Vice President) Tariq al-Hashemi or Rafi Issawi’s guards ignores not only the fact that many of the judges signing off on the warrants and the original plaintiffs were Sunni, but also the fact that the Iraqi government has also moved to arrest Shi‘ite terrorists belonging to groups like Jaysh al-Mukhtar. No Iraqi should tolerate a situation in which politicians threaten violence and terrorism unless the government accepts their demands: That is not a political process, but blackmail, corrosive to both democracy and freedom. Video footage from Friday sermons which embrace Al Qaeda and terrorism not only in Iraq but also in Europe and against Americans suggest that the goal of the protests in Al Anbar is not Iraqi democracy, but an extreme, radical, and anti-democratic agenda.

Iraq is not a perfect democracy. Authorities in Baghdad must do more to reform, punish sectarian discrimination, and eliminate corruption. Iraq must hold free, fair, and transparent elections not only in Baghdad and Basra, but also in Sulaymani and Erbil. But, the most counterproductive thing the elected Iraqi government or any Iraqi who believes in democracy should do is to compromise in the face of terror.

It is ironic that American officials would be so willing to accept the propaganda put forth by regional states supporting such terrorism or, against the backdrop of repeated terrorist attacks in and around Baghdad, blame the victims rather than the perpetrators.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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