The critical question today is whether the current civil war could spread beyond Iraq’s borders, engulfing its neighbors or sparking a regional war. Realists—not least James Baker, co-chair of the Iraq Study Group—have an interest in arguing that it could. In seeking to enlist the assistance of Iraq’s neighbors, specifically Syria and Iran, the United States would be appealing to their self-interest, not their altruism. Fear of contagion is why these long-standing foes of the United States might be willing to help stop the slaughter in Iraq.
Sixty years ago, Central and Eastern Europe was entering the final phase of a succession of wars and civil wars that originated with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before 1914, the Habsburg lands had been characterized by high levels of ethnic heterogeneity. Consequently, the transition from empire to the nation-states of the post-World War I era proved painful in the extreme.
Two minorities were especially ill-placed in the new order of the 1920s: the Germans and the Jews. The former fought back against their minority status in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland and, under the leadership of a messianic Austrian, temporarily created a Greater German Empire. The latter were among that bloodthirsty empire’s principal victims. Only with the expulsion of the Germans from Central and Eastern Europe and the creation of truly homogeneous but Soviet-controlled nation-states was peace restored. It is no coincidence that the one country that remained both heterogeneous and independent— Yugoslavia—was, in the 1990s, the scene of Europe’s last great ethnic conflict.
Only in our time, then, has the Middle East reached the political stage that Central and Eastern Europe reached after the First World War. Only now are countries like Iraq and Lebanon experimenting with democracy. The lesson of European history is that this experiment is a highly dangerous one, particularly at times of economic volatility and chronic insecurity, and particularly where tribes and peoples are mixed up geographically, both within and across borders. The minorities fear—with good reason—the tyranny of the majorities. People vote their ethnicity, not their pocketbook or ideology. And even before the votes are counted, the shooting begins.
This is not merely hypothetical. The Iraq civil war has served to highlight the differences between Sunni and Shiite; as the conflict has grown worse, members of each sect have felt increasing pressure to align themselves against the other:
Marc Lynch, who writes an excellent blog on Middle Eastern politics and Arabic media, has been covering this issue quite extensively. On a recent trip to Egypt, he noticed that "anti-Shia stuff is really spreading rapidly."Sensational-looking books about the Shia are all over the bookstands, along with stories in the tabloids and scare-mongering editorials. Even in al-Masri al-Yom, op-eds in recent days have (for instance) attacked Bush's plan for Iraq because it would empower the Shia, who would abolish all forms of Arab identity and seek to unify with Iran. The tabloids are worse, and even Egyptian TV has been hosting some pretty nasty anti-Shia rhetoric.This new divide between Shiites and Sunnis has actually become quite severe. As Lynch has said, and other analysts have also pointed out, anti-Shia sentiment has been on the rise primarily because of events in Iraq. While I wrote in my earlier post that I believed this to largely be a (Sunni) government-encouraged phenomenon, I seem to have been wrong on this point. Instead, more knowledgeable analysts suggest that it is the carnage in Iraq that is causing this new sectarianism. The brutal Shiite violence against Sunnis has resulted in anger towards the region's Shiite population and, as an extension of this, undermined Iran's popularity, because of their backing for these Shiite groups.
The power of ethnic and sectarian tension is such that it has divided members of the Muslim community even here in the United States:
Escalating tensions between Sunnis and Shiites across the Middle East are rippling through some American Muslim communities, and have been blamed for events including vandalism and student confrontations. Political splits between those for and against the American invasion of Iraq fuel some of the animosity, but it is also a fight among Muslims about who represents Islam.
Long before the vandalism in Dearborn and Detroit, feuds had been simmering on some college campuses. Some Shiite students said they had faced repeated discrimination, like being formally barred by the Sunni-dominated Muslim Student Association from leading prayers. At numerous universities, Shiite students have broken away from the association, which has dozens of chapters nationwide, to form their own groups.
“A microcosm of what is happening in Iraq happened in New Jersey because people couldn’t put aside their differences,” said Sami Elmansoury, a Sunni Muslim and former vice president of the Islamic Society at Rutgers University, where there has been a sharp
As the article goes on to state, it is not merely the Iraq war the divides Sunnis and Shiites here at home. There are other causes. But often, precipitous events like wars serve as a focus for such tensions. They give people an excuse to act on long-simmering resentment and anger, feelings of hostility that might otherwise stay bured in more peaceful times. I don't cite to that article to say that civil war between Muslims will break out here in the United States. But if sectarian violence can serve to divide even here, what is it's power to divide the Middle East?
This is why many governments of the Middle East who find it convenient to use the Iraq war in some fashion to their own ends, also must find it disturbing that tension and violence between two communities in another country has the insidious ability to find its way into communities in other countries similarly divided. The neo-conservative experiment in Iraq may not have touched off a flowering of democracy, but a resurrection of the ancient politics of division and disunity that have resulted in inumerable wars throughout the centuries.