The novel coronavirus is advancing across the Middle East, straining frail public health services and exacerbating preexisting political and sectarian tensions, both within states and between regional rivals.
The spectre of sectarianism haunts the Middle East. It is blamed for chaos, conflict, and extremism. It defines what is seen as the region’s principal fault line: Sunni versus Shiite. It has the power and elegance of a grand theory that seemingly explains all.
The eruption of Bahrain’s political crisis seven-and-a-half years ago marked a watershed in Manama-Washington relations. It also transformed how both Bahrain’s regime and its Shia-dominated opposition viewed the United States. For decades, Bahrain’s leadership has seen the United States as the archipelago kingdom’s offshore security guarantor and a bastion against political ambitions from regional powers.
In this interview for the FRONTLINE documentary “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Middle East scholar Vali Nasr talks about the history driving today’s wars in the Middle East, whether these conflicts can be solved, and the parallels between ISIS and the nightwalkers from “Game of Thrones.”
The February 2018 PBS documentary ‘Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia’, for which this interview was conducted, can be accessed here.
Donald Trump sets off on Friday to create the fantasy of an Arab Nato. There will be dictators aplenty to greet him in Riyadh, corrupt autocrats and thugs and torturers and head choppers. There will be at least one zombie president – the comatose, undead Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria who neither speaks nor, apparently, hears any more – and, of course, one totally insane president, Donald Trump.
Ecumenical initiatives to promote Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation and
mutual respect have failed to take root because they do not tackle
the incendiary issues that prompt each branch to view the other with
disdain, if not as outright apostates or unbelievers. I argue that this
will not change until the main fault lines in their worldviews, communal
self-understanding, sacred narratives, history, theology, and
philosophy are confronted head-on.
If this cannot be done, then all proclamations of Muslim unity and
brotherhood/sisterhood under one ummah will remain hollow and
lack substance, because each side’s internal discourse would remain
unchanged. Any type of mutual tolerance and coexistence prompted
by expediency and power dynamics cannot be expected to be deeprooted
and long-lasting. The United States, along with such other
local and foreign players as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, and
Syria, have instrumentalized Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism to promote
their own myopic vested interests. The result is clear for all to see:
an exponential increase in Sunni-Shi’i antagonism.
The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 33:1 (2016), 133-47