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The Muslim Cold War

by Richard BullietReleased: 07 Jan 2016

In December 2005, a Shi‘ite political party won a majority in Iraq’s first post-Saddam parliament. For the first time since Saladin, the Crusaders’ nemesis, put an end to the Shi‘ite Fatimid caliphate in Cairo in 1172, Shi‘ites gained dominion over a large number of Sunni Arabs.

Sunni Arabs had taken it for granted that Shi‘ism was, and always would be, an odious minority interpretation of Islam. But now, thanks to American “nation building,” this despised minority was flexing its wings. Then when civil war broke out in Syria, pitting Bashir al-Assad’s ideologically secular but Shi‘ite dominated Baath regime against a ragtag assortment of feckless Sunni freedom fighters, a Muslim Cold War emerged from the regional chaos of the Middle East.

The Muslim Cold War pits the arch-conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Bashir’s chief ally, and supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.

Not a rehash of the leadership quarrel that followed the Prophet Muhammad’s the death in 632, nor an age-old ethnic clash between Arabs and Persians, the Muslim Cold War is a twenty-first century, globe-spanning power struggle. It resembles more the superpower confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States than it does a Muslim sectarian dispute.

Shi‘ite Muslims believe that Muhammad designated Ali b. Abi Talib, his first cousin and son-in-law, as his successor as leader of the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims disagree, but have generally let power decide the question of leadership: centuries of rule by caliphs, further centuries under sultans, and the century just past an era of military dictators. Shi‘ism sparked sporadic revolts, but the “Party of Ali” rarely prevailed over its Sunni adversaries.

Shi‘ites see themselves as religiously righteous, but they have constantly fractured into small, ineffective sects. Sunnis make less rigid claims on religious authority, but for centuries they had their political act together. Sunnis looked with disdain upon Shi‘ites, while Shi‘ites lambasted themselves for political ineffectiveness.

Until now.

Over the past century, positions have reversed. The Shi‘ites managed to resolve most of their internal doctrinal disputes and forge an impressive degree of political discipline. The Iranian Revolution and the cohesiveness of the Islamic Republic of Iran bear witness.

Meanwhile, the Sunnis have fallen apart. Most political leaders, kowtowing to the West, replaced a religious rationale for governing with versions of secular nationalism that quickly degenerated into military rule. The rest, with the West’s blessing, disguised authoritarian rule in the outworn trappings of absolute monarchy.

As for the Sunni religious leaders, most meekly endorsed the venal, ineffective leadership of the kings and generalissimos. But others, lacking anything resembling doctrinal self-discipline, dreamt of overthrowing not just the generals and the kings, but also the Western governments that supported them. What began at the end of the nineteenth century as Sunni liberalism degenerated into terrorism and jihadism.

As a sardonic Muslim Mao might say: “They let a hundred nettles bloom.”

Sunni Islam entered a quagmire of sectarian discord just as the Shi‘ites figured out how to get what they wanted. That is why the Sunnis are so frightened of the Shi‘ites they have historically despised.

Ironically, the Shi‘ites who built the Islamic Republic of Iran were initially lauded as a revolutionary vanguard, just like the Bolsheviks who combined revolutionary fervor with totalitarian control.

Confronting them, Sunni regimes beset by, if not secretly supporting, jihadist zealots and religious criminals appeared to their Western friends to be bulwarks of stability. America’s Cold War deployment of anti-Communist proxy dictators in defense of freedom offers an analogy.

Furious with America for liberating Iraq’s Shi‘ites, and fearful of full American acceptance of the hated Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia, the self-declared leader of the Sunni world, is eager for a showdown. Yet it is unwilling to disown Sunni jihadists and criminals.

The original Cold War showed how hard it is to be unaligned. Powers locked in ideological battle need allies and proxies. Russia may already have chosen the Iranian side. Does this mean the United States will rally to Saudi Arabia’s side?

Big mistake.


Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.

Copyright ©2016 Richard W. Bulliet -- distributed by Agence Global

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Released: 07 January 2016
Word Count: 670
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