The Myth of Sunni Power

March 28, 2011 Topic: ReligionSecurity Region: BahrainIranUnited StatesSaudi Arabia

The Myth of Sunni Power

The West's accepted wisdom says align with the Sunnis, especially the Al Sauds. But the real strength lies with the Shia.

It seems conventional wisdom in the West that the vast majority of Middle Easterners are Sunni, that they are more democratically oriented and less radical than the Shia, that they support religious freedom more than the Shia, and that they control the bulk of the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves. Thus it is in a country’s national interest to back Sunni Muslims. But not so fast—these are largely myths and the numbers tell a different story.

The population of the Muslim countries east of Egypt through the Persian Gulf—Lebanon (40% Shia), Syria (15%), Jordan (2%), Yemen (45%), Saudi Arabia (10%), Iraq (63%), Kuwait (30%), Iran (93%), Oman (2%), UAE (15%), Qatar (5%) and Bahrain (70%)—totals about 190 million. Although there are different sects within Shia Islam, the indisputable number of Shia in Iran and Iraq total about 86 million, or over 45% of the region’s total population; conservative estimates for the Shia in the remaining countries bring the total number of Shia to 106 million or 56% of the region’s population. In short, the Shia are the majority in the area that might be considered the "heart" of the Middle East, including all the countries of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, and the area that holds the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves.

Although in Islam rulers must be just and serve with the blessing of their community, none of the rulers in the Muslim countries of the Middle East could be classified as just, nor have they been selected in a free system. It is only Iraq, Iran and Lebanon that could be even remotely considered to be attempting to meet these criteria. Sunni imams teach their flock that even if their ruler is unjust, they should put the stability of the community ahead of justice and obey. Shia, on the other hand, are taught that an unjust ruler must be removed. Those who do not stand up to oppose an unjust ruler are as guilty as the ruler.

Non-Muslims around the world, especially Americans, have been brainwashed into believing that the Shia are the radical sect of Islam, spawning the likes of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that hate the West and its values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Saudi Arabia finances fundamentalist schools (madrassa) in a number of Muslim countries, most prominently in Pakistan. It is in these schools that young Muslims are taught to be anti-Western, anti-Shia, to reject the rights of women and modernization and to follow a path that excludes culture, science, social sciences and economic progress. It is was precisely this environment in Saudi Arabia that spawned Al Qaeda, the attack on 9/11 and the majority of the suicide bombers who have gone to Iraq to frustrate the country’s progress toward normalcy and democracy.

It is this same environment in Saudi Arabia that prohibits the practice of any religion other than their strict, austere and fundamentalist version of Islam. Churches, synagogues and private religious celebrations are not tolerated. But in Shia Iran, churches and synagogues are allowed, and although under today’s mullahs the Baha’is are sadly persecuted, the country’s constitution reserves two seats in parliament for Armenian Christians, and one each for Assyrians Catholics, Jews and Zoroastrians. In Shia Iraq religious freedom is upheld; even during the rule of Saddam Hussein Iraq had a Christian foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

In sum, the Shia are more tolerant and have values that are more compatible with how the US and the rest of the West see themselves.

Why have the Shia been so maligned? The taking of US hostages by Iranian student revolutionaries and the Mujahedin (or MEK) in 1979 left an indelible mark on the American psyche. Moreover, the anti-American rhetoric that spewed out of Tehran in the early days of the revolution and more recently from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has kept the anti-Shia flame strong. Shia’s traditional reverence for martyrdom has also put Shiism in the spotlight. The Al-Sauds have added fuel to the fire. They blame Iran for attacks on Americans; they tell visiting dignitaries to Riyadh that the Shia cannot be trusted; without a shred of evidence they blame Tehran for fomenting the uprisings in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, with their high-priced public relations campaigns and lobbyists, the Al-Sauds continue to escape close scrutiny.

As for oil and natural gas reserves—where are they? Today’s figures give Iran and Iraq about 75% of the GCC’s natural gas reserves and 55% of its oil reserves. But it should be emphasized that this is today; Iraq has been cut off from the international oil community for a long time and only 15% of its potential area has been explored. Iran has been sanctioned since the time of its war with Iraq and has had limited access to foreign investment and much needed technology. In fact, a number of energy insiders expect Iran’s and especially Iraq’s oil and gas reserves to be adjusted significantly upward, with some anticipating that Iraq’s oil reserves could eventually equal if not exceed Saudi Arabia’s. My expectation would be for the combined gas reserves of Iran and Iraq to equal those of the GCC and for their oil reserves to climb up to 75-85% of the GCC’s. In short, our energy interests are linked to Iran and Iraq as much as they are to Saudi Arabia and the GCC. We neglect our interests in Iran and Iraq to our own peril.

Today, the growing division between Shia and Sunnis in the Persian Gulf has been in large part fomented by the Al-Sauds. In the past, the Shia could travel everywhere in the Persian Gulf, except in Saudi Arabia, without feeling that they were "different." The Al-Sauds have changed all that by sowing the seeds of discord within Islam throughout the Persian Gulf. They have drawn a line in the sand in Bahrain that could ignite a regional war. In Iraq and in Iran, Sunni and Shia have intermarried, but with increasing discrimination being practiced in Saudi Arabia and spreading to the rest of the GCC, new divisions have appeared where there were none before.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait have issued warnings bordering on threats to Iran not to interfere in the protests in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent soldiers and police to Bahrain to suppress the oppressed Shia, who make up 70% of the population there. Kuwait has dispatched its navy to Bahrain. Some countries may be scared by warnings, but what the Al-Sauds are doing is counterproductive. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and intelligence services have little respect for the GCC’s military and covert capabilities despite the GCC’s top-of-the-line hardware. With threats from the Saudis, Iran’s natural instinct is to show the Saudis a thing or two to put them in their place. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia shows little understanding, if any, of the Iranian and Iraqi mindset, nor does it understand the decision makers in the Persian Gulf, even sometimes countries that are members of the GCC. This will not serve the region in resolving regional differences.

Still, and no matter what GCC leaders say, Iran has not interfered in the internal affairs of Bahrain to anything approaching the extent claimed by Saudi Arabia. Recently, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said as much. The Saudis are using this line of rhetoric in an effort to further isolate Iran and hide their discrimination of Shia. While Tehran has not interfered in the past, things may be about to change. Iran has been given every incentive to interfere in the internal affairs of the GCC and especially in those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On what basis can the Al-Sauds intervene in Bahrain to crush peaceful demonstrators when Iran is not allowed to come to the defense of fellow Shia and support their basic human rights, both in Bahrain and across the region in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?

Perhaps the Al-Sauds have become delusional. Maybe they have begun to believe the story they tell the US about Iranian treachery and the dangerous Shia. If they could wake up to reality, the Al-Sauds might still save themselves and their GCC brethren by reforming and adapting, not by digging their heals in deeper, fomenting hatred and dragging the rest of the GCC down with them. Creating divisions throughout the entire Persian Gulf, especially in Bahrain and Kuwait, will not help them squash their own Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis may have succeeded in misleading the US about the Shia, but the US will soon discover that its future lies as much, if not more, with the Shia in the region.

While the rest of the GCC may have limited influence on their big brother in Riyadh, it is up to the US to persuade the Al-Sauds to change now and embrace reform before it is too late. US national interests are not what the Al-Sauds, the GCC rulers or the Sunni minority perceive as their familial or national interests. While developments in the GCC are important for US national interests, developments in Iran, Iraq and in the majority Shia community in the region are equally important today and could be much more important in the future. The Shia are the majority in this crucial region east of Egypt and they are much more likely to be compatible allies. If the Shia in Sunni majority countries are persecuted and the US does not support their rights as it has for those protesting in Egypt and Libya, then the Shia majority could threaten US national interests throughout the region. The US must stop ignoring the persecution of Shia in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.