Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Overstating the Sunni-Shi'a Divide

In sounding the death knell of pan-Arabism/secularism in the Middle East, the Lowy Institute's "resident fellow" Rodger Shanahan has it down just a little too pat:

"It appears that the days of the Arab secularists are gone. There is no longer a contest of ideas in the Arab world, only a contest whom God does and doesn't favour. Today the dominant narrative is one of religion, which in turn is largely a reprisal [sic] of the centuries-old contest between the two main branches of Islam. Religion marks a rather more prosaic battle for political influence between Shia Iran and Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia." (Pan-Arabism loses ground in religious divide, The Australian, 4/5/13)

If, as he contends, "[s]ectarianism is now a more defining characteristic than ethnicity or tribal affiliation, and each of them is more powerful than nationality," then how does he explain the results of the following polls?:

"Despite the Sunni-Shi'a divide - especially in Arab states where Shi'a populations are majorities or pluralities such as Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain - which is often matched by a division in attitude about Iran in these countries along sectarian lines, Sunni Arab populations elsewhere tend to base their views of Iran on issues that go far beyond this divide, and on some of which they are inclined to favor Iran. In polls I have conducted in six Arab countries - Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon - Iran consistently placed third on the list of choices provided by respondents when asked to identify the 'two most threatening states', indicating that many Arabs do see it as a threat. But what is more important in this case is that Arabs see Israel and the United States as presenting far greater threats. For example, in 2009, 88% of those polled identified Israel, 76% identified the United States, and only 12% identified Iran as one of the two greatest threats. There was some change a year after the start of the Arab uprisings in the November 2011 poll, although Iran remained far behind Israel and the United States: 71% identified Israel, 59% identified the United States, and 18% identified Iran as one of the two greatest threats." (Arab Perspectives on Iran's Role in a Changing Middle East, Shibley Telhami, Wilson Centre/USIP, February 2013)

Likewise, Shanahan's misrepresentation of Hamas and his use of Palestine's national poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, to support his simplistic thesis, is far from scholarly. Here's his concluding paragraph:

"Nowadays, the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired Hamas's Islamist persuasion, and Iran that nurtured its religious character have fatally riven an already divided Palestine. The despair of the original Palestinian nationalists at what religion has done to Arab inclusivity was summed up by the famous Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish near the end of his life when he famously noted of Hamas's triumph in Gaza that 'We have woken from a coma to see a mono-coloured flag (of Hamas) do away with the four-colour flag (of Palestine)'."

Hm... doesn't that first sentence rather contradict Shanahan's Sunni vs Shi'a thesis?

Now to Hamas:

First, as its full name - the Islamic Resistance Movement - suggests, Hamas is focused solely on resistance to, and liberation from, Israeli settler-colonial aggression in Palestine. National liberation, not pan-Islamism, is its raison d'etre. As such it has little in common, Zionist propaganda notwithstanding, with outfits such as Al-Qaeda.

Second, since the Oslo 'peace press', Hamas embodies more of the traditional Palestinian national program than its secular Palestinian rival, Fatah.

In short, Hamas is as much a nationalist organization as it is an Islamic one.

As for Mahmoud Darwish, he was not condemning Hamas alone, or suggesting it had dropped Palestine for Islam, the impression Shanahan gives, but reacting specifically to the democratically elected Hamas government's preemptive coup against the forces of the notorious CIA-backed Palestinian Fatah stooge Muhammad Dahlan in July 2007.*

That his words were directed at both camps is apparent in his following (ironic) words: "We have triumphed. Gaza won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don't greet each other. We are victims dressed in executioner's clothing."**

[*See my 6/3/08 post Mainsewer Media Clueless in Gaza;**See Failing Darwish's legacy, Sumia Ibrahim, The Electronic Intifada, 19/8/08.]

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