The Myth of the Shiite Crescent

Sunni powers are increasingly propagating rumors of a rising "Shiite Crescent" they say threatens the regional status quo, writes Talal Salman.

al-monitor Supporters of the Shiite al-Houthi rebel group march during a demonstration in Sanaa against the deportation of Yemeni laborers from Saudi Arabia, April 5, 2013. .

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shiite, king abdullah ii

Apr 25, 2013

King Abdullah II of Jordan is not known for his depth of strategic analysis, or for the eloquence with which he expresses his ideas (particularly in Arabic), or even for the breadth of his imagination in deploying metaphor for political sloganeering. For all those reasons, those following regional affairs were fairly surprised when he coined the term “the Shiite Crescent” to express his forecast of regional developments. In his telling, it was a storm that would fill the horizon of the eastern Arab world, but which no one thought would be linked to this extent to sects and denominations.

Observers were primarily interpreting the course of political events, such as the chronic suppression of freedoms and the snuffing out of protest movements. This even included those that appeared in cultural garb (but carried political content): These “movements” consisted of declarations, articles, poetic and literary creations, novels and short stories, etc.

For all those reasons, the Hashemite king’s public confrontation — made despite that his level of Arabic does not take him very far in expressing the complexity of the political-sectarian conflict raging with particular ferocity in the Arab East and its surrounding regions — was a noteworthy event. It indicated that, behind the king’s surprising words, lay something that merited attention and examination.

Many said that Abdullah II said the words, but that the content is larger than he is, and that it suggests something planned long in advance.

Quickly enough, this “new language” became commonly used to describe the course of events and the scenarios for their development, coupled with the unearthing of layers of memories of centuries-old sectarian conflicts. These memories can be (and were) easily exploited to be used yet again to shape the future of political entities in the Arab East in particular. They do so by obscuring the fact that the [real] conflict is over the nature of the existing regimes, and by asserting the primacy of confessional — nay, sectarian — identity in politics.

With the wave of a magician’s wand, the Gulf satellite channels — and, to a certain extent, the Egyptian ones as well — scrambled to define the identities of the parties to this conflict on a confessional and sectarian basis. The political columnists, media commentators, researchers and academics all discovered fertile material in their quest to obscure “politics” and lend primacy to everything with an open sectarian tinge in the region’s regimes and political forces, including its parties and associations. Hezbollah has borne the brunt of this campaign, which has reached such dimensions that it is now being referred to as “the party of Satan” and as “an Iranian puppet.” It also finds expression in the focus on Sunnis converting to Shiism in the Arab region, beginning in Syria, moving through Egypt, and concluding in North Africa, in gross contravention of historical facts and the character of the local peoples, where past conflicts ended in the establishment of identity and belonging in all of these countries. Their Islamic identity has never, for a single day, been under threat except by colonialist-settlement campaigns (such as, for example, in Algeria).

The most dangerous result has been the obscuring [of the centrality] of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even the conferring of “certain legitimacy” upon the Zionist entity that justifies its existence by [citing] the religious persecution of Jews in the Western world. This of course, had nothing to do with the situation in the Arab lands, which continued to care for [local Jews] as their own people. Indeed, Arab states preserved most of the local Jewish comunities’ rights even after the establishment of the Israeli entity, even after most of them subsequently enlisted with Israel, confronting their [former] Arab compatriots and guardians by force of arms.

While the characteristics of [Shiite] jihad and valor have come under fire, these characteristics led the resistance to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon until its withdrawal on May 25, 2000, and subsequently in the Israeli war on Lebanon in July-August 2006.

What we can draw from this digression, dictated by the royal designation of this era of political upheaval as a result of the popular wave confronting repressive Arab regimes, is to return to the context. Let us begin with Lebanon.

It is well known that this tiny, beautiful country has been subjected from time to time to dangerous shocks, but recently these have accelerated tremendously, almost coming to resemble seasonal waves of violent strife.

And now the consequences of the grave, bloody crisis raging in Syria have begun to cast a black pall over Lebanon, particularly as there are those attempting to exploit it in order to alter political ties and switch political allegiances. In this respect, Lebanon’s electoral deadlines, both parliamentary and presidential, constitute an opportunity to challenge and reorganize the political balance of forces. Now they are almost at “a meeting with fate” given the necessities of a repositioning suitable with the developments taking place in Syria. All parties are looking at the issue from the vantage point of their own political interest. Now that Syrian protection, sponsorship, or mandate has collapsed (or been made to collapse — it makes no difference), other centers of influence (primarily foreign) have returned to carve up the central decision-making circles within Lebanon. They are focusing upon its sectarian diversity in order to do so, re-formulating the “guardianships” on the basis of a new sectarianism: Those who are with Iran or those against it, those with the West or those against it (and this includes Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and the new Islamist governments).

The explosion of the bloody Syrian crisis has voided Syria’s role beyond its borders generally, and in Lebanon especially. Indeed, it has raised anew the question of the Syrian state in its geographic area, borders, and identity at the most basic level. Syria wallows in the fatal wound that is wearing down its people, taking the causes for the political crisis back toward the sectarian makeup of the regime that, in turn, has placed it within the bounds of the “Shiite Crescent,” and has roused a sense of outrage among a majority of Sunnis. The purveyors of this indictment then go on to expound on the alliance between the Syrian regime and the Velayat-e Faqih in Iran which then, necessarily, extends to the Shiites of Lebanon via Hezbollah. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with tying in Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq to complete the Shiite Crescent.

On the way to attempting to complete the Shiite Crescent, there’s nothing wrong with accounting for the crisis between the regime in Bahrain and its people as just part of the map of this conflict.

Indeed, one might even blot out sectarian identity in the political conflict in Yemen, regardless of the sectarian identity of its parties, and regardless of the fact that this identity is still outside the conflict in which geographic identity (particularly North and South) is intertwined with tribal loyalties and the fraught legacy of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year reign. The latter exploited every possible cause of [Yemen’s] backwardness and contrived reasons for the conflict between the different constituencies of this impoverished and downtrodden people. Indeed, Yemen is now persecuted by its wealthy Saudi neighbor. The latest example has been the expulsion of tens of thousands of Yemenis working in the golden kingdom without prior warning, and without allowing them to make arrangements with those for whom they had been employed.

Yemen’s open wound is a likely reason it will continue to bleed well into the long term, especially in the shadow of multiple regional and tribal conflicts, both of which have found suppliers of money and arms to continue. This is to say nothing of the separatist conflicts rooted in the possibility of locating oil in multiple districts of the south.

The oil map forms a dangerous component of the conflict map between the “Shiite Crescent” and the Sunni majority in the region, especially if the kingdom of Saudi Arabia enters the fray. It has inflated the Shiite danger in both Bahrain and Yemen to establish its dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf in partnership (of course) with its American friends. The Saudis are attempting to portray the Americans as a party to the conflict that is, at the very least, opposed to Iran. They conveniently forget America’s key role in reinforcing Israel’s military superiority over all the Arabs combined.

This Shiite Crescent — first identified and addressed by the Jordanian King Abdullah II — extends from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. It goes all the way to Khamenei's Iran which “does not conceal its ambition to dominate the Arab East, taking its sectarian identity with pseudo-revolutionary and heretical Islamic garb a means to achieve its goals,” in the words of those who fear this “crescent.” In this way, the arrival of a group of Iranian tourists to Luxor in Egypt, in keeping with an agreement between the two countries, becomes cause for sounding a general alarm, warning of an impending Shiite assault on Egypt. Egypt! A land of 90 million souls, 80 million of them Sunni Muslims.

On the other hand, the massacres in Syria continue and the clashes that have spread throughout the country — north, south, east and west — have opened deep wounds in the body of “the beating heart of Arabism” [as Syrians often described themselves]. If the Kurds find Turkish-Western patronage to act, demanding a sort of “autonomy” (so as to avoid the word “secession”) that will serve as an expression to cover what has become recognized as a fait accompli in northern Iraq: a regional government.

Is it necessary to emphasize that these separate sectarian and ethnic entities [might] offer up “friendship” to the Israeli entity at the expense of the Palestinian people’s right to their land, which has been their home throughout history?

One must recall that maps of the region were hastily established in the 1920s at the whim of the colonialists and according to their calculations. The region was divided into political entities in accordance with their interests, and through open bargains between the British and the French, openly agreeing to clear a future place for the Israeli entity. All this is now being threatened by the possibility of a [popular] re-evaluation of a status quo that has enabled international powers supporting the myth of a “Shiite Crescent” to carry on implementing their plans in accordance with the principle of a new partition along confessional and sectarian lines — far removed from religion and especially nationality, which has always been the identity binding the peoples of this region together.  

It remains necessary to point out that Israel is now clearly, due to its image of being “the only strong country,” fortified in its religious identity as “the state of world Jewry,” beyond the reach of the “Royal Crescent” heralded by the Hashemite King Abdullah II.

More from  Talal Salman