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Sunnis are not a sect and Islamic terrorism model is Shiite not Sunni

on the use and abuse of the Sunni-Shia strife in U.S. analysis and Arab policies
Wednesday 31 December 2014



While agreeing with many U.S. analysts’ critique of president Obama’s Middle East policy, it is important to take exception to the recurrent use of the terms "Sunnis" and "Sunni States" (versus "Iran"!) or at least to stress the limits (intellectual, but especially political) of this concept too often used in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Note, first, that Egypt, UAE, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia often define their foreign policy positions as "Arab" and not as "Sunni" policies. While this "Arabism" certainly hides or encompasses a "Sunni" element, there remains a real part of "Arab interests" that puts Arab monarchies and Arab liberals and democrats alike in the same camp against Iranian-theocratic (Iranian and theocratic) hegemonic schemes in the "Arab" (both "sunni" and "non-sunni") Middle East. Note, also, that it would be difficult to discern a "Sunni" dimension to King Abdullah’s policy (which we applaud) of sending more than a hundred thousand Saudi students for graduate studies in the U.S. and Europe- notwithstanding the declared opposition of influential Saudi "Sunni" ulemas!

Second, there was a time, from the middle of the 1950s and until the end of the 1970s when Arab struggles were not based on a Sunni-Shia antagonism. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist policies were popular among Arabs (and Iranians), Sunnis and Shias alike! The "Islamic" (not "Sunni") emphasis of Saudi policy at the time (with the support of various U.S. Administrations) did not have much appeal, whether among (Arab and Iranian) Sunnis or Shias. It did, however, appeal to U.S. policy makers.

When did the change come about?

Of course the Muslim Brotherhood has existed since the late 1920s. But the tidal change occured in the late 1970s with the triumph of Khomeiny’s revolution. Iranian Shiite fundamentalism displaced Arab pseudo-socialist and nationalist currents. However, one judges the despotism of the Shah of Iran, it is undeniable that Khomeiny’s ideology was "retrograde" in its emphasis on Shiism rather than on a"national" (including "citizenship") definition of society. Compare Mohammad Mosaddegh (in Wikipedia: "author, administrator, lawyer, prominent parliamentarian, his administration introduced a range of progressive social and political reforms such as social security, rent control, and land reforms.His government’s most notable policy, however, was the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry) to "Ayatollah" Khomeiny!

Last ("but not least", unfortunately!), U.S. officials and analysts alike tend to ignore the role played by U.S. policies after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in spreading the Sunnis-versus-Shias "ideology". U.S. officials and analysts mostly tended to define Iraqi politics in terms of (oppressed) Shias (and Kurds) versus (pro-Saddam) Sunnis. This was reflected in the extravagant estimates of the percentage of Shias in Iraq: from the usually accepted figure of 60 percent (used by the late Hanna Batatu in his excellent studies on Iraq), Iraq’s shiites seemed to grow up to 70 and, recently, to 80 percent of Iraq’s population. Based on what population census? Iraq, like every other Arab country since the 1940s, never undertook any population census. It seems only fair to conclude that the 70 and 80 percent estimates of Iraqi Shiites suffer from an "ideological bias".

The same "ideological bias" encountered when reading many U.S. analysis of Lebanese politics. The myth of a "Shiite majority" in Lebanon, or even of Shiites being the "largest community in the country" does not stand up to the test of Lebanon’s electoral lists, indicating the "real" number of voters in every general election. According to official electoral lists, Sunnis are the largest community in Lebanon’s present demographic landscape. (Had lebanese emigrants been incorporated in electoral lists, Christians might attain a majority!).Facts are stubborn!

Do Arabs include Sunnis, Shias and "religious minorities"? Certainly. But that remains only one aspect of the Arab landscape. If not, how to interpret the less than 5 percent of support for the so-called Islamic State in Sunni-majortiy countries, including Saudi Arabia, Tureky and Egypt?

Sunnis are not a "sect"- they are 90 percent of muslims

When referring to Sunni-Shia struggles, many analysts tend to ignore a basic fact: The majority of Muslims are Sunnis - estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%.

The Middle Eastern countries with the greatest proportion of Sunnis are Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with Sunnis making up 90% or more of the population.

Shia make up roughly 10% of all Muslims, and globally their population is estimated between 154 to 200 million, according to a 2009 report from the Pew Forum.

Why is the Sunni- Shia "balance of power" broken to this extent? The answer is that, in the historical development of Islam, the pseudo-shiite currents and groups, which (probably in the 9th Century) become similar to what, today, call Shias were exactly that: groups, subgroups and currents within the main body of Islam. According to Montogomery Watt, at a late stage of the Abbasid period, what we now call Sunnis (or "Ahl el-Sunna wal Jamaa") was, in fact, the term used to define the lowest common denominator between ordinary muslims in distinction of smaller sects, groups or currents. Historically, Sunnism came as a "middle course" between muslims embroiled in sectarian strifes. This "middle course", or "common denominator", tended to be "conservative" against the "extremism" and "militantism" of "sects" and "groups", including of course what we now call Shias. (It is, probably, in this sense that Lebanon’s former PM Siniora insists that "Sunnis are not a sect"!)

The histórical roots and development of this Sunni-Shia strife are still pertinent in Arab and Muslim societies today. They are pertinent to the present day view that points out Sunnis as being the main carriers of Islamic terrorism.

Western observers, nowadays, tend to equate extremism and terrorism with Sunni Islam. The list is long: the so-called "Afghan Arabs", The Egyptian Jihad and Gamaa Islamiyya groups, al-Qaida (and affiliates) and the terrible September 11, 2011 attacks, until the Zarqawi terrorist group and, lately, the rise of Daesh and the so-called "Islamic State" and the atrocities committed by the Boko Haram group in Nigeria.

Islamic terrorism started in Teheran

For all its eloquence, this list of "Sunni" terrorist groups ignores the fact that indiscriminate terrorist attacks against Western interests go back to the beginnings of Khomeiny’s revolution when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981 in the U.S. embass compound and into the 1980s: in October 23, 1983, in Beirut, Lebanon, about 300 U.S. and French soldiers were killed in two seperate terrorist attacks against their barracks. The attacks were, certainly, perpetrated by pro-Iran "Shia" groups. The same goes for the kidnappings of Western press correspondents in Lebanon in the 1980s. Historically, modern Islamic terrorism started as a Shia phenomenon inspired, financed and organized by the Teheran Mullas regime in collaboration with the Assad (father and son) regime of Syria.

Sunni conservatism Vs Shiite extremism

If so, how to explain the current Sunni variant of Islamic terrorism. Reminding the reader, once more, of the conclusions of opinion polls undertaken by U.S. think tanks that not less than 85 percent of Sunni muslims (including in "conservative" Saudi Arabia) are against terrorism in all its forms, history could be pertinent guide. Sunni extremism followed in the steps of Shiite (read, Iranian) terrorism and, here is the novelty, was polluted by modern Shiite political expressions, especially the Khomeinist model.

While Shiism, in its main groupings, Twelvers, Ismailis and Zaidis, developed its historical myths around the figures of the Imams, the Imams in Sunni Islam were, mostly, subordinate to the rule of rulers. Sunni power, historically, was "secularist" in this sense. Even the emphasis of the late Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey on his Caliphate came about after the loss of Turkey’s european properties. The same applies to present day Saudi Arabia, where the king is not an Imam nor a caliph.

By contrast, present day Sunni extremists tend to "borrow" the shiite model where the "emir" is, himself, the "imam" of the group. Thus Bin Laden (called "the contractor" in the earliest documents of the egytian Islamic Jihad) becomes "Sheikh" Bin Laden. The most pertinent example, however, was the warning by Prince Turki al-Faysal, in a major Saudi newspaper, that "magistrates (read, kings) are governors who must be obeyed, while Ulemas are merely advisors". In the same week, Prince Talal bin Abdel Aziz published a similar piece of opinion to warn Saudi members of the official Ulemas body who seemed too keen on imitating the Khomeinist model of government.

This should point out to the solidity of the concept of "the State" in Sunni political thought, in contrast to the present day dislocation of the "state" in Iraq, Syria Lebanon and Libya. In the case of Iraq in particular (and Lebanon), it is pertinent to note the failure of the governing shiite currents to "build a state", even where shiite parties had the full power over the huge resources of the country. The case of Iran is not different. The Teheran regime is not very different from Russia’s Soviet regime, where "the Party" dominated state organs until the fatal end. After the two first "imams", Khomeiny and Khamenei, are the coming rulers of Iran "imams" or "heads of state"? In conclusion, there are shadings (’nuances’ as the French would say) in the Sunni-Shia strife often used and misused in U.S. analysis of the region. Similar shadings do exist in the attitude of Arab-Sunni states confronting an Iranian-Shiite offensive throughout the region. The tendency to look at Islamic extremist as mostly sunni should, similarly, be qualified. Even if Daesh/ISIS are mostly self-proclaimed sunni developments, it is not even certain that its "shareholders" do not include non-sunni actors: the Assad regime, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and even ex premier Nouri el-Maliki. After all, is it not true that the active part of al-Qaida leadership is still (until the present day) transiting through Iran or using Iran as a base for its operations?

Pierre Akel


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