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Published on February 7th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, talks during a presser following his meeting with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, not pictured, at Al Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Egypt's most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of Al-Azhar, has warned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence. Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit to Egypt on Tuesday, received an uneasy reception from Ahmed el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost Islamic institution.

How to spot a Shia? The Politics of Sectarianism in the Gulf

What is a Shia? This is not an obscure theological question, it is very much a political question which US foreign policy-makers have asked since the 2003-Iraq war. Yet it is not only western policy makers who ask this question, it is also a question many Sunni Muslims have been asking with increasing urgency. There have been numerous attempts to ‘essentialise’ the Shia Muslim or reduce the Shia Muslim to a few religious, social and political characteristics by Sunni Arab leaders.  This ‘essentialisation’ can be summed up by the 2004 warning-phrase used by King Abdullah II of Jordan ‘The Shia crescent’. The ‘Shia crescent’ was a new political order created in post-2003 Iraq War and the ‘ascent’ of Shias of Iraq to political power in the country. This ‘ascent’ came at the expense of ‘Moderate Sunni Arab’ leadership in the region, which includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. The ‘rise’ of the Shia Arab was seen as a victory for the ‘fanatical and revolutionary’ force of Shia Persia (Iran), which seeks to rule over the Sunni Arab states.

This narrative has now been adopted into the official discourse of many Gulf Arab states. It’s acceptance has led to questions about the Shia of the Arab world and their ‘loyalty’ to the Arab world; they are looked at with suspicion by Arab rulers of being a potential ‘fifth-column’ for Iranian expansionism. Before the Arab spring, occasional insults and accusations were made against Arab Shias from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Sunni Arabs would call Shia Arabs ‘Ajamis’ (Persians) or ‘Safawis’ (Safavid Iranian expansionists) or even ‘Maduce’ (‘Fire Worshipers’ – an insulting term referring to Persians) in times of high tension. This was infrequent and only really occurred during short periods of time or flash points -that is, until the Arab spring.
Sectarianism is a mechanism of survival for many Gulf regimes – Bahrain provides the best example of this in recent times. When facing a popular non-sectarian pan-Arab revolt in 2011, the Bahraini regime sought to ‘Sectarianise’ the uprising and thus ‘de-universalise’ it by stating that the ‘uprising’ was an ‘Iranian conspiracy’.  The implication for Bahrainis of an ‘Iranian conspiracy’ is obvious: The demographic make-up of Bahrain shows that Shias make up 60% of the population, whilst the ruling Al-Khalifa family are all Sunnis. Suddenly, the points about democratic reforms and pluralism are no longer the issue – the issue has become ‘Iranian expansionism’.

The Bahraini opposition has made a concerted effort to emphasis their ‘civil’ and ‘non-sectarian’ opposition to the monarchy. However, there is anecdotal evidence that this fear has spread across the Gulf to places previously untouched by sectarian politics. There are rumours in Dubai that companies are discouraged from taking on Shia employees; there are even rumours of the Dubai security forces taking ‘special training’ in how to spot ‘Shia names’ and are expelling possible trouble makers. Whilst these rumours have been hard to verify, their origins are not. It has been reported that groups of Lebanese nationals have been banned from entering the United Arab Emirates. Tension remains high in the UAE and there seem to be little effort on the part of the UAE authorities to quash the tension.

Shias have always been a politically, culturally and religiously diverse group of people and no one set of characteristics defines them. In many cases, religion does not define their politics. In-fact before the 1970’s Shias did not have a form of Political Islamism, and many Shias joined nationalistic or Communist movements. The attitude of the Shia clergy was that Shias should not attempt to set-up an Islamic state until the Mehdi (Shia Messiah) returns and until then, Shias should either stay out of politics or join broad-based movements to protect their communities. The attitude towards a Shia state by the clergy was very similar to the Orthodox Jewish clergy’s reaction to Zionism before the founding of Israel in 1948 – one of complete alarm and denouncement.  This essentially changed with the advent of what Professor Ervand Abrahmian calls ‘Khomeinism’, which is a form of third-world popular nationalism fused with religion brought about by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Since the Iranian revolution political Shiaism has come to the forefront of Middle Eastern politics with the rise of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Whilst, political Shiaism is a factor in Arab politics there is no evidence that Arabs who happen to be Shia are agents of Tehran. In-fact in many Gulf states Shias are the most loyal group to the ruling regimes, Kuwait is an example of this. Whenever Kuwaiti Shias vote in elections, they almost always vote for parties which are pro-Al-Sabah (the ruling family). The politics of sectarianism in the Gulf is thus paradoxical, on the one hand Shias are ‘Foreign agents’, but on the other hand they are called upon to support the regime during election times. This paradox leaves many Shias in the Gulf in a state of ‘limbo’ and causes tension over their future. The language and politics of sectarianism may be a mechanism of survival for Arab Gulf regimes during the Arab spring, however the uncertainty it creates could in the long-run de-stabilise the region.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that sectarian tensions have shot up in the Gulf since the beginning of the Arab spring, yet whatever the opinions of Sunnis are of Shias and vice versa this current tension is bad for both communities.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

  • Showkat

    yet another well written article on a topic very important to understand middle east politics and the Arab spring. I expect you to write one on the Shia of Pakistan who have recently come under unprecedented attack by the sunni extremits.

    • Hakeem

      Mr. Showkat, what is your opinion about the shia fanatics of iran suppressing sunnis religous rights in the country.

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