In following the Western press one gets the impression that the Arab (Palestinian)-Israeli conflict is the most important story that needs to be covered in the Middle East. In reality, however, it ranks third in order of importance when viewed within the stricture of three concentric circles that complete the picture of the current Middle East. What makes these circles all the more significant is that they all touch upon religion.
The first and most important of the circles addresses the Sunni-Shiite divide and pits the aggressive and revolutionary Shiite Iran against Sunni (Wahhabi) Saudi Arabia over hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Directly associated with this circle is the attempt by Sunni-Muslim Turkey, led by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to assume they are the champions of Sunni Islam.
Erdogan’s involvement in Syria, his support of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), his unwavering support for Hamas (Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) and his close ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (poised to govern Egypt if and when civilian government resumes), are part of Turkey’s attempt to play the leadership role in the Muslim and Arab world.
The most obvious clash between Sunnis and Shiites has been over control in Iraq. Although Arab Iraq is predominantly Shiite (60%+) it has been traditionally governed by Sunnis (the last one being the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein). While the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam and restored majority rule, it created a Shiite-led government that is close to the Islamic Republic of Iran. For Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world this portends a “mortal threat.” And, when coupled with Shiite (Hezbollah) dominance in Lebanon, it appears even more ominous.
The second circle involves the recent uprisings in the Arab world, better known as the “Arab Spring,” which have granted power to Islamists everywhere, and made the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (or affiliated parties) the dominant political force in Tunisia, Egypt, and now in Syria. Political Islam has become a potent force throughout the Middle East, replacing nationalism and socialism – which some Arab regimes engaged in for decades.
The intolerance of the MB towards non-Muslims (Jewish Israel for instance), Christians and Shiite Muslims (whom they consider as “errant” Muslims) is connected to the first circle.
The third circle is that of the conflict between Arab countries as well as non-Arab Muslim countries (Iran and Turkey) and their ethnic and religious minorities. These include the Jewish state of Israel, the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and the Sunni Baluch minority in Iran as well as the Ahwazi-Sunni Arabs in Iran.
What the three circles have in common is religious and ethnic hatred and intolerance between Sunnis and Shiites, between Arabs and Persians, between Shiite Persians and Sunni Kurds, Baluch and Arabs, between Turks and Kurds, between Arab-Muslims and Israeli Jews, and between Egyptian Muslims and Christians.
Israel, an advanced Western democratic state, gets a disproportionate amount of press and criticism, to the near exclusion of coverage and analysis of intolerant Arab-Muslim states by the mainstream press. The ease of access Western journalists have in Israel compared to the absence of secure access in the Arab and non-Arab Muslim Middle Eastern states, makes for unfair and inaccurate reporting in the Western media, which results in holding Israel responsible for the lack of regional peace. Moreover, secular western reporters and editors, who are disconnected from religion, fail to grasp the overarching role religion plays in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Contrary to the reportage written and distributed by Western media sources, conflict in the Middle East is less about territory and almost entirely about religion. True also for the Arab (Palestinian)-Israeli conflict is that its foundation is in Islamic religious intolerance rather than territory or Palestinian victimhood (Palestinian Arabs could have established a sovereign state under the Peel Commission in 1937 over 72% of Mandatory Palestine, and again under the UN Partition Plan of 1947. They rejected both plans with the demand for all of Palestine or nothing – no compromise with infidels). Palestinian Arab-Muslims seek to replace Israel rather than live side-by-side with it. And, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is fueled by arms, funds, and propaganda provided by Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia to the Palestinians against the Jewish state, still pales in importance, to Shiite Iran’s encroachment and hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf.
The current uprising in Syria is a perfect example of the Sunni-Shiite divide and the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, as well as Turkish (Sunni)-Iranian (Shiite) rivalry over Islamic championship. Iran is allied with the Syrian Alawi-led regime of Bashar Assad, and the Alawis are an off-shoot of Shiite-Islam. The Alawis are despised by the Sunni majority which is supported by the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab League and Saudi Arabia, as well as non-Arab Sunni Turkey.
In Lebanon the Saudis have supported the government led by Sunni Saad Hariri, while Iran supported the Shiite Hezbollah. In the Arab Gulf states and most recently in Bahrain, the Iranian regime incited the majority Shiites to rise up against the Sunni ruler. Sunni Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the Sunni rulers. The Iranians have also incited the majority Shiites in the Hasa province of Saudi Arabia.
For centuries, the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Persian Empire clashed in battles over territory and faith. Today, the two modern nations seek to export their respective model of a Muslim state to Central Asia. And, whereas in the recent past Turkey presented itself as a model of a secular Islamic republic, under Erdogan it is portraying itself as a Sunni Islamic Republic. Iran touts itself as a genuine Islamic Republic.
A nuclear Iran would change the balance of power in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni-ruled Gulf sheikdoms, as well as Israel, view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran may be bitter rivals but they share in common the desire to implement Sharia law globally, and both these rivals support the restoration of the Caliphate. In more contemporary and immediate terms they both express hatred towards the Jewish state and the West. And, both regimes have contempt for the secular Arab regimes (Iran makes Syria the exception).
To the extent that the Palestinians have any value in the Muslim world, it is that they are on the front-lines of a war against the infidel and despised Jews. Used as pawns in this war, they have otherwise been shunned and discriminated against throughout the Arab world. So, for example, in Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon, Palestinians are regarded as aliens and therefore do not have the right to vote. In Jordan (where the Palestinians form the majority population) and in Israel (Arab-Israelis) alone have Palestinians become free citizens, able to vote and participate in national life.
It is high time the Western media reflect these realities in their coverage of events in the Middle East. The media has largely ignored the intense religious rivalry in the region, and the historical antipathies between Arab and non-Arab minorities. Likewise the media has overlooked the Kurdish and Baluch quest for national self-determination. The media have minimized the intolerance of the Islamists in Egypt towards the Christian Copts, and they have failed to emphasize the religious motivation of the Arab-Palestinian in rejecting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.
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