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Sects and Death in the Middle East

Lee Smith

Beirut — It’s unclear how damaging the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi will be to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But the admiration of sympathizers like Hamas, which called him a “brother-fighter,” reminds us that he was not just a blood-drenched killer and lowlife. He was also the product of his region. The impact of his career on his extremist peers and the Middle East’s Sunni mainstream will therefore bear close watching.

Even happier than the White House at his demise are Middle Eastern minorities, especially the Shiites, for they, rather than the Americans, were at the core of his exterminationist program. For Sunnis, the Shiites have always been barely tolerable heretics, but Zarqawi took this traditional loathing to new heights. Shortly before his death, he called Lebanon’s fanatical Islamist militia Hezbollah a cover for Israel—because, after all, they were Shiites who stood between the Zionists and the wrath of the Sunni resistance.

Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah and supporters were most certainly appalled and quite possibly terrified. After all, one reason for waging the “resistance” against Israel is to prove that the minority Shiites are Arabs in good standing just as much as the majority Sunnis. Indeed, since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has been bragging that it was the first Arab group to make the Zionists taste defeat, and thus that the Shiites had managed to out-Sunni the Sunnis.

In effect, Zarqawi said he saw through the charade, and that Hezbollah should disarm—a demand that reminds us why it is probably going to be impossible to convince Nasrallah to give up his weapons peacefully. Hezbollah may well believe its own rhetoric—that only its militia can protect Lebanon from Israel. But the Shiites also have to worry that, if they put down their guns, they are vulnerable to Sunni violence, a threat that Zarqawi’s spectacular Iraq campaign made very real to Shiites across the region. Thus, in response to the insult that he was doing the work of the Zionists, Nasrallah described Zarqawi in similar terms: “The killers in Iraq, no matter what sect they belong to, are Americans and Zionists and CIA and Mossad agents.”

This Arab habit of blaming everything on the United States, or Israel, or the West in general, strikes many observers as evidence of faulty logical processes, or an abdication of basic political responsibility. But it is also part of an unspoken ceasefire pact—a reminder among Arabs that they have agreed not to attack each other and will focus their energies on external enemies in order to keep the peace at home.

For over half a century, Arab leaders from Nasser to Nasrallah have all sounded the same note—we Arabs are in a battle to the death against Israel, the United States, the West, colonialism, etc. Zarqawi broke that pact. We Sunnis are Arabs, said Zarqawi, but you lot are Shia and we will kill you.

And so Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter last year urging Zarqawi to leave the Shiites alone and focus on the Americans indicates that, at least compared with the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the al Qaeda home office is staffed by rather mainstream Arab demagogues. Many Arabs believe that Israel would be lost without U.S. support. The same holds true in the bin Laden-Zawahiri worldview, where Washington is the only thing protecting weak Arab regimes from jihadist takeovers. Zarqawi believed, for whatever combination of religious, political, criminal, and sociopathic rationales, that to truly set the region in flames and bring down the established order, you get the people to fight each other.

Zarqawi tapped into the id of the region, the violent subterranean intra-Arab hatreds that no one wants to look at very closely, neither locals nor foreigners, because the picture it paints is so dauntingly gruesome that it suggests the Middle East will be a basket case for decades to come.

A recent Zogby poll on Arab TV-watching habits explained that Al Jazeera remains the most watched station in the region for foreign news. Curiously, the poll ignored Iraq, where 80 percent of the population, Shiites and Kurds, are not apt to patronize a media outlet that regards them as little more than fodder for the heroic Sunni struggle against the Americans and Zionists.

That other 20 percent of Iraq was Zarqawi’s target constituency, his Sunni base, and it is a much, much larger number outside of Iraq. It includes not just takfiris like himself—extremists who believe in murdering infidels and heretics. It comprises a mournful Hamas government, elected by a majority of Palestinians, and “moderate” Islamists like the four parliamentarians from Jordan’s Islamic Action Front now facing prosecution for openly lamenting the death of a man who had repeatedly targeted the Royal Hashemite Kingdom. Certainly not all Sunni Arabs approved of Zarqawi’s tactics, but many agreed that someone had to put the Shiites back in their place lest they misunderstand what is in store for them once the Americans leave.

Last year, Jordan’s King Abdullah famously warned of a Shiite crescent—a sphere of influence running from Iran to Lebanon—and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has accused Shiites of being more loyal to Iran than the countries they live in. And these are the heads of the two major Arab states that are almost devoid of Shiites. Feelings run even higher elsewhere in the region.

In Saudi Arabia, the mere existence of Shiites in the Eastern Province threatens not only the kingdom’s primary source of income, oil, but also the very legitimacy of Wahhabi rule. After all, as true Wahhabis, shouldn’t they be converting or killing Shiites, as the founder of the country, Ibn Saud, once insisted? Further west in Syria, the Sunni majority has been grating for more than 40 years under the rule of a Shia sect, the Alawites, who have now cost the Sunni merchant class in both money and prestige. The Assad regime has so isolated Syria from the rest of the international community that its only ally is the Islamist Republic of Iran. And then there is Lebanon, where Hezbollah has effectively usurped the mantle of Arab militancy from the Sunnis.

To your average Joe Sunni, then, it’s good that Osama bin Laden kills Americans. And it’s wonderful that the Palestinian groups kill Israelis. But Zarqawi was the man in the trenches who went after the heretics that Sunni Arabs all actually have to live with every day, and have successfully kept in their place for a millennium now, and don’t ever want overturning the scales.

The sectarianism of Iraq has been topic A in Washington ever since the war began. And yet it is not merely a temporary eruption at a time of crisis, but rather a permanent and defining feature of every Arab society, and you don’t have to scratch beneath the surface of things to find it. Sometimes, it’s just gossip and banter, as in Lebanon, where I’ve heard Sunni women talk about the disgusting way that Shiites hang their laundry. A Christian friend married to a Shiite confided his concern that their daughter’s fashion sense was becoming gaudily Shiite. The Sunnis say, eat with a Druze but sleep with a Christian—meaning the Christians are filthy but the Druze are untrustworthy and will slaughter you in your bed. Some exchange Jew for Druze.

Other times, the gossip turns to folk wisdom. Some Sunnis really believe that Shiites have little tails. And there are scores of volumes of age-old Shiite propaganda about the bizarre sexual practices of Sunnis. Much of the sectarian enmity, in fact, partakes of sexual loathing and envy. Sunni women, for instance, are famously believed by their detractors to relish anal sex. Recently, Hezbollah supporters surrounded a Sunni neighborhood in Beirut, where they insulted deputy Saad al-Hariri, chanting “the c—of his sister, the c—of his mother.”

Many Arabs believe that Syria’s Alawites engage in pagan orgies where men sleep with each other’s wives, or with their daughters, or with each other. Osama bin Laden’s mother, as it happens, is an Alawite, which is strange only in that the 14th-century jurist and father of modern jihad Ibn Taymiyya, one of bin Laden’s role models, thought the Alawites were “more infidel than Jews or Christians, even more infidel than many pagans.” He wrote, “War and punishment in accordance with Islamic law against them are among the greatest of pious deeds and the most important obligation.”

Of course, most people don’t speak about sectarian hatreds publicly. In Syria, the Alawite government has made it very dangerous to talk about sects. In Lebanon, people are too polite to ask you directly what you are, and so to find out, they will ask you your last name, your neighborhood, your school, your father’s name, his hometown. The well-educated Arab classes are especially careful about speaking in sectarian terms in front of Westerners, because, as elites talking to elites, they believe that Westerners think religious faith is bizarre to begin with and sectarianism evidence of a primitive society. To hear many Iraqi officials and journalists describe their country, there is so much intermarriage between the sects and tribes that their Iraq, the non-Zarqawi Iraq, actually looks something like a page out of the New York Times wedding announcements. And to be fair, a case can be made that 20th-century Iraq was at times among the most cosmopolitan of Arab societies.

But to downplay sectarian issues is to risk misunderstanding the real problems in Iraq. There are already scores of books and articles detailing how the Bush team screwed up the war or the postwar occupation, some written by former administration employees, others the mea culpas of self-described onetime true believers. But the biggest problem in Iraq isn’t really the stupidity or arrogance or incompetence of the Bush administration. The real stumbling block isn’t getting Iraq’s electricity or water on full blast. Police and army recruits aren’t bound and tortured before they are decapitated or shot in the head because of premature or insufficient de-Baathification, or because the State Department and the Pentagon were fighting over the role of Ahmad Chalabi. Americans should have provided better security, and more overwhelming force. But the political and religious cover so amply offered to the assassins of ordinary Iraqis did not issue from the office of the Coalition Provisional Authority or the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. No American exhorted Sunni or Shiite gangs to butcher their neighbors. The American arguments over Iraq sometimes achieve truly astonishing levels of parochialism and self-obsession. The problem in Iraq is Iraq. More broadly speaking, it is the problem of Arab society. Intolerance of the other, fear of the other, is always there.

Osama Bin Laden, some Middle Eastern wags like to joke, is the father of Arab democracy, for without September 11, the United States would have gone on ignoring the region. But Zarqawi is the real radical, for he exploited and illuminated the region’s oldest and deepest hatreds. And he stayed on message until it was very difficult to argue that the root causes of violence in the Middle East are colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism.

Zarqawi made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that a more “even-handed approach” toward the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not really defuse tensions in the Middle East. That particular problem, at least in its political dimensions, goes back at most only to 1860; the Sunni-Shiite split begins with the death of the prophet Muhammad. Zarqawi also made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that getting U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia will not really calm jihadi fervor, because the American military is just one among the many valuable targets the jihadists see in the greater Middle East.

The world looks like a different place thanks to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, for without him the obtuse, the partisan, and the dishonest would still have room to talk about root causes and such stuff and reason away mass murder and sectarian fear and loathing. Zarqawi clarified things. If his death turns out to be a turning point in the war or the political development of Iraq, we will not know for many years, maybe decades. But it will only be a turning point if, having held up a mirror to the people who quietly cheered him on, they recoil from what he showed them.

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