The Revenge of the Truth

[Originally published with SaudiDebate].

Maps frame political problems; they offer up an area of concern, and the key through which we are supposed to think about the problem.

In 1952, three years after Mao came to power in China, Time Magazine published a map of Asiai as seen from Irkutsk. It is the details that count. The 3D edge given to the Russia-China border, the spiky Himalayas pointing ominously towards India and the tiny patch of red in Vietnam all conspire to make it seem as if Communism was an inexorable tide flowing down from Russia.

Today's maps might lack some of the colour of Cold War cartography, but they continue to chart contemporary political obsessions. Recently, the New York Times website posted a mapii showing the distribution of violence in Baghdad, dividing the city into pink (Sunni areas), blue (Shi'a), and green (zone). Maps such as this one, dividing Iraq along sectarian lines unthinkable in times pastiii, echo the narrowly divided Middle East that is being created by the actions of the American government, giving fictional weight to its simplifications.

These maps are not just being made of Iraq. Magazines and think tanks that used to produce maps showing frequency of terrorist attacks and undesirable undemocratic governments now create mapsiv showing an ominous band of colour stretching from Pakistan through to Lebanon, representing those countries that have a Shi'a population. Historical and political differences between countries, between Shi'a in different countries: everything vanishes into a solid block extending across the Middle East, producing the impression of a unified Shi'a population. These maps have been accompanied by a flood of articles and booksv from the think tanks and opinion journals of the United States warning of a Shi'a revival that would see Iran extending its influence over the main oil and gas producing areas of the Middle East.

On the lips of these commentators are two questions. Why do the Shi'a and the Sunni hate each other, and where can we see evidence of the Shi'a resurgence? In answering the first question, it is surprising how few analyse the issue in terms of America's insistence on sectarian thinking in Iraq. Instead, for many, as Fred Hallidayvi notes, the conflict between Sunni and Shi'a Islam is a "latent avatism that has long underlaid the politics of the region." Even the normally excellent openDemocracy has a commentatorvii exclaiming that "it is hard to see how them living together could create anything other than conflict." These books, articles and maps conspire to make Sunni-Shi'a conflict seem like a natural fact of Middle Eastern existence.

Commentators answers to the second question tends to be longer. They point to the way the Shi'a have been strengthened by the American collapse in Iraq, and how this has now left the country open to Iranian influence. This resurgence has been boosted by the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah, and now worried writersviii talk of the Lebanese converting to Shi'ism in ever greater numbers, and the Shi'a of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia following the example of their Iraqi brothers and rising up against the regimes which repress them.

This essay is not going to answer either of these questions. Indeed, it is going to suggest that it is the sentiments behind these questions that has played a large role in creating the sectarian conflict in the first place. This is indicated in the first question commentators ask: why do the Shi'a and the Sunni hate each other? It assumes several fictions that the American government are on their way to making a reality; it assumes that Sunni and Shi'a must be internally consistent entities, rather than religious identity being but one of many, and it assumes that they do indeed hate each other, and that any conflict we see in the Middle East must be a product of this primordial hatred.

The question presumes its own (incorrect) answer, and looking for evidence in support of it is a classic case of garbage in, garbage out.

This blue and pink thinking displays a worrying inability to think historically about the Middle East. If commentators were to do so, as this article will show, they would discover a world more complicated and divided than a blue and pink map suggests. However, the truly dangerous element of this obsession with pink and blue is that it does not simply exist in the words and maps of American commentators. It also organises government policy.

The catastrophic results of American efforts to re-configure Iraq on sectarian terms have already been well documented. This re-configuration might not end with Iraq In a recent article by Seymour Hershix in the New Yorker, a former American senior intelligence official is quoted as saying: “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can.” His article traces the way in which:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has co-operated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah.

The simplifications of maps in magazines do not end there. As governments and groups fight it in their interest to accept the fiction of an immutable Shi'a-Sunni division, a discourse that began life as a fantasy may well take take revenge as reality. The events in Lebanon over the past two weeks suggest this passage has already started.

The revenge of reality

In 1998, at Mazar-i-Sharifx, the Taliban massacred Shi'a Muslims in an operation they called "the revenge of the truth". For the Taliban, the supposed truth of God - that Shi'a were not real Muslims - was made manifest. Events like this are taken up by commentators who seek to prove the existence of a fundamental religious clash between Shi'a and Sunni Islam.

A favourite rhetorical strategy is describing Muharram, the Shi'a rituals of mourning that commemorate Hussain. These rituals can include straw effigies of Uthman, the third caliph of the Sunni world, being spat on and set on fire. The type of conflict they anticipate is made all the more foreboding by commentators who note, like Peter Brookxi (albeit in a very different time and context), these rituals power. "And when he was martyred, the theatre became a truth—there was no difference between past and present. An event that was told as remembered happening in history 1,300 years ago, actually became a reality in that moment." Such moments are thought to be indicative of the antipathy between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.

But to see such religious differences as sufficient reason for an enduring antagonism is a great mistake. Co-existence between Sunni and Shi'a has been the rulexii, not the exception, and conflict between them has done much less to shape the contemporary Middle East than conflict between Catholics and Protestants did to shape Europe. Furthermore, as Bringaxiii shows in a different context, conflict can just as easily find justification in the narcissism of petty differences as it can in major doctrinal feuding.

In both cases, what talking about the differences, doctrinal or otherwise, leaves to be explained is why the differences suddenly, at a specific time, becomes important. In other words, its politics. Stupid.

Of course, looking for the political nuances underneath the instrumentalisation of religion doesn't make for snappy journalism (just look at this sentence), and in an atmosphere where the religious and the political are constantly conflated, Shi'a religious activity is made equivalent to political identity, and, almost implicitly, to Iranian influence. That this is done without blinking in the Middle East in a way that would not be tolerated in Europe can be indicated by a simple thought experiment.

Following the fall of the Iraqi regime, thousands of Shi'a pilgrims began flocking to Karbala. Commentators interpreted this as part of a new resurgence of Shi'a identity, and linked it to the Iranian presence in Iraq. Could we talk about people flocking to see the Pope in the same way? Can you imagine the headline: Resurgent Catholicism threatens European Nation-State. And while it is of course true to say that Iraqi nationalism is at present much more of an unfinished project than European nationalism, it is its very unfinished nature that should make us wary of assuming a simple equation between religion and politics.

This scepticism about simple meanings should even be applied to the one area where Sunni animosity towards the Shi'a seems undeniable: jihadi discourse. In February 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who was supposedly the chief of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, released an open letter describing his thoughts on the Iraqi insurgency. His views on the Shi'a seem pretty self-explanatory...

The Shi'a are the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and

malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom. We here are

entering a battle on two levels. One, evident and open, is with an attacking enemy

and patent infidelity. [Another is] a difficult, fierce battle with a crafty enemy who

wears the garb of a friend .xiv

The situation in Saudi Arabia tells a different story. While the rhetoric is equally hostile to the Shi'a, jihadi attacks in Saudi Arabia have been against foreigners and government institutions rather than in the Shi'a Eastern Province. So while attacks against the Shi'a in Iraq are unrelenting (surge or no surge), it remains to be seen to what extent this is a political strategyxv that will change when the Americans leave. By taking people like Al-Zarqawi at their word, and assuming their actions are due to deeply felt religious conviction rather than the political exigencies of the moment, we are preventing ourselves understanding the real roots of the situation in Iraq. In all this, it is worrying to note that the only two groups who really seem to accept essentialist sectarian thinking are those aligned to Al-Zarqawi and those aligned to the American government.

While deep religious divisions and anti-Shi'a sentiment are more complicated than they appear, Shi'a political unity, of the type suggested by those solid blocks of colour on the maps, is even less in evidence. When commentators talk of Shi'a political unity, what they really mean is Iranian leadership, but it is by no means assured that the Shi'a of the Middle East follow the Iranians lead. In an excellent recent article, Toby Craig Jonesxvi points out the extent to which the 1979 uprising in Saudi Arabia was not a question of Iranian influence as it was a reaction to very local concernsxvii.

Inspiration is surely taken from Iran: the renewal of Shi'a political thought and the leadership of Imam Khomeini must still seem very appealing, especially when contrasted to Saudi dependence on American support. The latter point is as true of Sunni Muslims as it is of Shi'a. However, the differing traditions of political authority that sees Iraq and Bahrain not following the Iranian model, and the different situations of the Shi'a populations of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, make the idea that Shi'a Islam will simply follow the dictates of Iran a laughable notion.

The creation of a problem

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration, recently warned Seymour Hersh that "the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War." For many, this simply betrays a lack of historical understanding, a sort of poverty of presentism. For such commentators, what is desperately needed is a full understanding of the region, and the, hey presto, the policy of the Global North will suddenly change.

What this doesn't explain is the degree to which the binary thinking that has split the Middle East into Sunni and Shi'a is itself historical, a point emphasised by Martin Indyk's comparison of the cold war with the Middle East. Put another way, it takes a remarkable degree of good faith in the American government to believe that if America did understand the region's religious history they would change their policy, and it requires a seriously flawed caricature of intelligent people to believe that at present the American government isn't aware of that history.

Given the emphasis commentators have put on eternal differences between Sunni and Shi'a, the question we should be asking is: when and why did these differences suddenly present themselves as a problem?

It serves a whole series of different interest groups, not all of them complimentary, to believe and act as if there is a Sunni-Shi'a cold war in the Middle East. Whipping up fear about Iranian influence on a resurgent Shi'a Islam serves as a justification to keep American troops in Iraq. It also allows them to justify continuing to ostracise Hezbollah in Lebanon. Dick Cheney made the point explicitly on January 14. "If you go and talk to the Gulf states, or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried... the threat Iran represents is growing."

All the states Cheney mentions above are also well served by the fiction of a Sunni-Shi'a divide. In the use of the Sunni-Shi'a discourse by countries by Saudi Arabia, what we can see is the way a religious discourse has been co-opted to justify a policy born out of a conflictxviii between states that has nothing to do with religion. For example, take the statement made by Prince Saud al-Faisal in September 2005.

The Iranians now go into this... area that the American forces have pacified, and they go into every government of Iraq, pay money, install their own people, put their own... even establish police forces for them, arms and militias that are there and reinforce their presence in these areas. And they are being protected in doing this by the British and the American forces in the area… To us it seems out of this world that you do this. We fought a war together to keep Iran from occupying Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reasonxix.

For the Saudis, just as the cold war anti-communist rhetoric provided the justification for both exporting jihad to Afghanistanxx and gaining American support, so the cold war Sunni-Shi'a conflict rhetoric provides a justification for maintaining pressure on Iran, ensuring the Shi'a Eastern province does not break away from the Saudi Kingdom. To achieve this, the Saudi strategy has been multi-faceted. At the same time as it is making minor (social, not political) concessions to the Shi'a within the Kingdom, sheikhs associated with the regime has been making anti-Shi'a fatwas, possibly to keep on side the more radical Sunni sentiment that is alarmed at the rise of the Shi'a in Iraq. The Saudis are now also trying to act as regional brokersxxi, and including the Iranians at the negotiating table, at the same time as they threaten to arm Sunni insurgents in Iraq if America withdrawsxxii. These strategies betray a complex set of political goals, and the Saudi regime will make use of the Sunni-Shi'a rhetoric whenever it is necessary to achieve them. The really worrying element of the discourse is not the governments who pick up and drop discourses to justify the contingencies of the moment, it is the groups and mentalities that are produced by, or gain strength from, the Sunni-Shi'a cold-war discourse.

The revenge of the fantasy

Jacques Lacan once noted that the fact a man's wife is having an affair has nothing to do with his jealousy, which is pathological. The man feels jealous for reasons entirely unrelated to to his wife's affair. America's construction of a Shi'a-Sunni cold war is equally unrelated to the facts on the ground. However, like the man whose jealousy drives his wife into having an affair, America's inability to think in terms unrelated to sectarianism could create precisely the truth of their fantasy.

The situation in Iraq was well summed up in a recent article by Zaid Al-Alixxiii, where he describes a wall the US military is building in the centre of Baghdad so as to separate it from its Shi'a neighbours. The military are pressing on with the plan despite protests by both Shi'a and Sunni, and a direct instruction from Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, to halt the construction. It is difficult to disagree with Al-Ali when he states: "The US occupation has brought untold horrors to Iraq, including sectarian violence and international terrorism, and it now maintains that its continued presence is necessary in order to fight these evils." The situation in Lebanon, where the US government are now funding Sunni jihadi groups, threatens to plunge yet another country in the Middle East into a conflict produced by a cold-war discourse.

The irony of all this is that we only went into Iraq because of another pink-blue map; this one called "terrorists and the free world"; the irony of all this is that it is still Sunni groups that are doing the most damage to American forces in Iraq - despite absurd attempts to accuse Iran of being behind Sunni violence.

Perhaps we are being unfair. Every political action could be subtitled "the politics of unintended consequences." The unintended consequence of Iranian influence in Iraq, for instance. But we should not simply hold that the simplistic binaries (Shi'a-Sunni, terrorist-free) that produce these unintended consequences are the results of an uninformed administration making decisions without any historical knowledge. These binaries are themselves a product of history, made as a result of the demands of contemporary politics, and, fantasy or not, they threaten to return as reality, even if they are never entirely intended.

iYou can see the map on the University of San Diego website ( I first came across it at the excellent blog strangemaps (

iiAvailable here:, it was brought to my attention by (

iiiWhich has traditionally been divided on regional, and not sectarian lines. See Reidar Visser & Gareth Stansfield (eds). 2007 (forthcoming). An Iraq of its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? London: Hurst & Co.

iv, is a classic example. It does not show what percentage of Shi'a live in each country, but simply represent Shi'a Islam as a single block of colour. Map reproduced from The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. Copyright (c) 2006 by Vali Nasr

vFor instance, Yitzhak Nakash, Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, Vali Nasr, The Shi'a Revival, both books released in 2006.

viSee Fred Halliday, Sunni, Shi’a and the “Trotskyists of Islam”:

viiHazem Saghieh, Sunni and Shi’a: coexistence and conflict:

viiiSee, inter alia, Andrew Tabler, Catalytic Converters:

ixSeymour Hersh, The Redirection: Is the Administrations new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?

xSee the Human Rights Watch report on the massacre.

xi Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi. 1999: Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the

Islamic Republic of Iran. New York: New York University Press. p.80.

xiiFor instance, the extent to which sectarian division would be unprecedented in Iraqi history has been argued in two recent articles. See Reidar Visser. 2007: Other People's Maps. The Wilson Quarterly, and F.S Naiden's article in the same issue.

xiiiTord Bringa. 1995: Being Muslim the Bosnian Way. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

xivExtract from Vali Nasr. 2006: Iraq: The first Arab Shia State. In The Missouri Review, Summer 2006. pp.148-149.

xvThe complexities of the aims of the insurgent groups are laid out in a recent USAWC Strategy Research Project: Colonel Jabbar Naeemah Karam. 2006: Post-Transition Violence in Iraq (2004-5): the Military Perspective of an Insider.

xviToby Craig Jones. 2006: Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization and the Shi'a Uprising of 1979. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 38 (213-233).

xviiA point Fouad Ibrahim makes on this website in a recent interview, when he asserts that the IRO was not financed by Iran. See:

xviiiThe importance of understanding the Sunni-Shi'a 'problem' in terms of Iran's trajectory as a revolutionary state is well explained by Fred Halliday: The Matter with Iran. openDemocracy:

xixPrince Saud al-Faisal, “The Fight against Extremism and the Search for Peace” (address to Council on Foreign Relations, New York, September 20, 2005). Available online at

xxSee Madawi, Al-Rasheed. 2007: Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 106-112.

xxiSee, inter alia, Tareq Y Ismael. 2007: Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States. openDemocracy., and Rachel Bronson. 2007: What Saudi Arabia Wants. The New Republic Online:

xxiiToby Harnden, We'll arm Sunni Insurgents in Iraq, say Saudis. Daily Telegraph 14/12/2006.

xxiiiZaid Al-Ali, Iraq: a wall to conquer us. openDemocracy: