On Anti-Shi'a Prejudices
Anti-Shi'a sentiment in many parts of the Islamic world has been around since...well, Ali. I've seen some of it amongst my own relatives. But it would be a mistake in my view to pretend the current upswell was something waiting to happen. There's plenty of subtle and not so subtle prejudices in the US, but its when people stoke them up that problems develop. Same thing in this case. The generic "those Shi'a aren't real Muslims" that somebody might mutter under their breath (especially in a place like Saudi Arabia where the real problem is widespread - though certainly not total - distrust of anything other than one narrow puritan-like worldview) having never met a Shi'ite, is the sort of minor annoyance that general political, social, and economic development alleviates with time and a few civil rights type struggles.
What we are seeing here instead is a set of regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudis, Siniora gov in Lebanon, Abbas in Palestine - what I call the Middle Eastern "paleocons") who sense threats to the prevailing order. Their order. The threat is not Shi'a, the threat is genuinely popular movements who are achieving popular legitimacy from the ground up, rather than by doling out cash (and power) received from some source to which they are not accountable (oil rents) or else a source they feel they can manage and placate (the US primarily). Hizbullah for standing up to Israel, Hamas for standing up to Israel and winning a popular election rather than being annointed in some backroom deal, and to a lesser extent the popular forces in Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood, the independent judiciary, Kefaya, Ayman Nour, etc.). Those are the real targets here: any movement that shows an independent streak with street credibility.
Where do Iran, Syria, and the new Iraqi pseudo-state fit here? The Iranian and Syrian governments are certainly not populist movements with the democratic and populist legitimacy of Hamas and Hizbullah (though Iran's rulers can claim some democratic legitimacy, albeit modest given the nature of the elections that brought Ahmadinejad to the presidency), but as their strong allies and patrons, they have lined themselves up against the Middle East's paleocons. They may not represent an upswelling of populist movement in their own countries, but they are aiding it in Lebanon and Palestine and as such are the paleocons' enemies even though in some ways they are cut from the same cloth. They have broken ranks though and are seen as dangerous by the paleocons for supporting populist forces in the region rather than the old archaic order (at least outside their own borders). One might wonder why entrenched conservative forces like Bashar's Syria and Ahmadinejad's Iran would be breaking with the detente that had prevailed in the region since at least the late 90s: that's a big topic which involves getting deep into the domestic politics of Iran and Syria. In a nutshell I'd just say that Bashar and the neoconservative movement in Iran that Ahmadinejad represents, each for their own reasons (Syria's related more to domestic politics, Lebanon and Iraq; Iran's related more to domestic politics and the US's encircling of the country) saw the benefits of cooperation with the paleocon governments withering and the potential advantages of aligning with populist issues (resistance to Israel, nuclear program, etc.) more to their liking.
The Iraqi government stands somewhere in the middle. As it has gone through various incarnations, it's very newness has made it a curiousity. One which at first the region's paleocons likely thought/hoped they could bring into their club. As time has gone by and Islamist Shi'a parties with strong ties to Iran and its anti-paleocon tendencies have arisen, I think that possibility is severely weakening. If they can co-opt the current government to at least tow a middle line, they'll probably deal with it. If Iraq breaks down completely (and it's 3/4 of the way there already), then Nawaf Obaid's analysis of the Saudis taking sides in an Iraqi civil war will hold - his firing for writing the article notwithstanding.
Anyhow, my point again is that this is fundamentally about the region's paleocon rulers defending their order and system and not about anti-Shi'a prejudice. A corrupt, non-responsive, and generally economically undynamic system. A system that can offer people bribes (sometimes enough bribes to keep most people happy) when the cash is available, but not much else. Certainly not much in the way of human development. I'm not saying a wave of revolutions or outside interventions is the answer - in fact I think that's the worst possible outcome, something that the Iranian electorate for example I think is painfully aware of having been through a painful revolution - but that a genuine opening and transformation of the existing systems into something better is the way and that this requires opening up to voices outside the regimes and a restructuring of the politico-economic system so that the governments are primarily dependent on the people and not the other way around.
However, in order for the paleocons to defend their system, they need to distract people. And they've hit upon anti-Shi'a prejudice as the tool. It lies there, mostly dormant and under the surface, something which in a well-developing society would gradually fade away or face its Waterloo. But now it is being stoked. The paleocons realize that the composition of the forces opposed to their order now can all fall under the umbrella of either being Shi'a or being allied to majority Shi'a Iran. It's not that they are Shi'a that is the issue to the two Abdullahs, Mubarak, Siniora, and Abbas - it's that they can be painted as such and that the image of Shi'ites and Iran can then be denigrated in the crudest racist and xenophobic fashions to stir people up. Make people think that "the Shi'a" and "Iran" are the real enemies instead of the real bums at home.
And there's an added bonus for the paleocons! All of these ruling cliques are dependent upon the United States as a pillar of their rule. Mubarak gets guns, money, Israel kept at arms' length, diplomatic cover, etc. from the Americans. Abdullah Playstation (of Jordan that is) gets cash, guns, military training, diplomatic cover, etc. from the Americans and the Saudis. Don't-cry-for-me-Siniora the same. And of course Abdullah of Saudi Arabia much the same. In return, these rulers give the Americans what they want: military bases, intelligence, oil policy that doesn't cross the US too much (and sometimes has been downright generous to the detriment of their own countries), and the latest: torture-by-proxy for prisoners the Americans kidnap around the world and "rendition" to them. Everybody (over 400 lbs wearing rolexes and Armani suits or robes anyways) is happy!
This though makes them vulnerable against a populace that despises the Americans for the way they manipulate their countries and the region and who oppress the Palestinians via Israel and occupy Iraq. But...if "the Shi'a" and "Iran" can be labelled the "real" bigger threat, then voila! Doing a deal with the devil (the Bush Administration and the Israelis) suddenly seems a lesser evil. And of course to make such an unsavory prospect as working with the Americans to whack other Muslims appeal to their populaces, the paleocons have to stir up the crudest, ugliest, most racist, and most xenophobic rhetoric they can. They got particularly scared when they saw the incredible popularity of Hizbullah throughout the region and the entire Islamic world for standing up to the Israelis this summer. Indeed, that in and of itself is exhibit A showing this is not about people fundamentally having blind hatred throughout the region towards Shi'a -- a fact Hizbullah has worked hard over the years to do, i.e., creating an image of what one might call "patriotic" Arab nationalist Shi'a in Lebanon.
Where do the Americans stand in this? Well, there's the basic longstanding deal I outlined two paragraphs above. In the more immediate context though, I believe this is also about prepping for military strikes on Iran. I'm more worried about this than I know some others are, but I'm increasingly convinced it's a matter of how and when, and less and less about if. With Iraq it was always clear: there was no if, only when. With Iran it started out as if, but now I sense the if fading and the when growing. The Bush Administration has to first figure out how though, and that's where their role comes in here. As usual the Americans don't know jack about the region, so when they hear people talking about "thousands of years" of Sunni-Shi'a strife, they buy it. Then they consider how much they hate Iran (Republicans and Democrats agree on that if nothing else), how now it is supposedly Iran and it's "meddling" that is messing up Iraq (now that takes chutzpah!), and they listen to Arab rulers saying all this terrible stuff about Shi'a, and they listen to American neocons (and Arab-American neocons) talking about Shi'a minorities around the Gulf and now a supposed (though really non-existent) "Shi'a Crescent" ready to explode and threaten world peace and hold all the fuzzy pink bunnies in the world hostage. And they buy it all.
And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Americans hear this stuff and they buy it because it seems to be getting fulfilled right in front of their eyes (and it sadly is). Why? Because first the bloodshed that has been unleashed in Iraq has turned sectarian due primarily to America's bloody and clownish behavior there. So there are mutilated bodies and pictures of bodies for everyone in the region to see to use as exhibits to convince Sunnis that Shi'a are evil and Shi'a that Sunnis are evil. And then right alongside it you have the Middle Eastern paleocons, fearful for their own survival in the face of populist movements elsewhere (don't worry, Iraq is not a genuine "democratic experiment" they fear), stirring up their own populations to hate Shi'a and having plenty of fodder to do it with because of the bright neon pro-sectarianism sign that America has created in Iraq. And the hate builds, and the hate grows, and ignorant American officials blame it on Iraqis and Arabs and "thousands of years" of BS while totally ignoring their role in prepping, igniting, and fanning the flames of the fire. Then when the time comes that the Americans want to bomb Iran, they hope that most of the Arab world will smile with them when the bombs rain down and thus lessen the blowback. There may be more people satisfied to see Iran hit, but you better believe the blowback will be severe.
This is sad, very sad and very, very dangerous. The Arab world is in a precarious state and the US, Israeli, Saudi, Jordanian, Lebanese, PA, and Ethiopian governments among others are all complicit in seeking the destruction of genuine democracy in their pursuit of selfish interests. Neither history nor God will judge them kindly if they keep marching down this path. The Bush Administration is destroying the possibility for positive evolution and making another round of painful revolutions on the scale of the 1950s and 1960s inevitable again. Only this time, I fear they will be more painful, more bloody, and take more time for any long-term gains to be achieved therefrom.