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Splitting Islam

The United States now faces a widespread, long-term, and potentially catastrophic threat from Islamism, and the terrorist bombings since 9/11 indicate that this threat is becoming global in scope. Moreover, as the earlier U.S. struggle with communism, another hostile global ideology, suggests, the threat may persist for several generations. And as the accelerating spread of nuclear technology portends, the stakes of this threat may involve the nuclear destruction of one or more of America’s great cities and perhaps even the very functioning of American society itself.

The current insurgency in Iraq, largely drawn from or supported by the Sunni population, is providing inspiration and training for Islamist insurgents elsewhere. Conversely, the global network of Islamist terrorists, which is also largely composed of extremist Sunnis, has been energized and legitimized by the insurgency in Iraq. The result is a global Islamist insurgency directed at the United States, its allies, and the West more generally. The folly of recent U.S. administrations, and most especially that of President George W. Bush, has placed us in this dangerous condition. But now that we are there, the central question is how can we get out?

Proposed solutions vary in a way that is familiar and predictable, that is, according to the different ideological positions of their proponents, with the usual suspects being liberals, traditional conservatives, and neoconservatives.

Liberals are most numerous in public-policy discussions, and so the most common proposed solutions are theirs. They usually involve some sort of technical—really tactical—measure, such as improved intelligence, enhanced inspections in airports and seaports, and, recently, bag checks in subways and monitoring of fuel trucks. These measures do not require any changes in something as important as U.S. foreign policy or as fundamental as the presence in America of alienated and hostile immigrants from Muslim countries. Liberals commonly think that deep social and political conflicts can be solved by quick and superficial policies designed and implemented by sophisticated experts and officials (the liberals themselves). Of course, with Islamist terrorism a quick fix can always be out-waited by the terrorists, and a superficial one can always be outflanked by them.

Other proposed solutions seek to change American foreign policies that have so antagonized many Muslims, be it U.S. support of Israel and authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world or now military operations in Iraq. Such proposals for changing foreign policy are often put forward by traditional conservatives. They are also put forward by career officials and professionals in foreign policy—especially those who are safely retired. Indeed, the Bush administration and the neoconservatives themselves have embraced the idea, although not the actual practice, that the United States should stop supporting dictators in the Muslim world. Of course, they are not about to change the other U.S. foreign policies at issue—support of Israel and military operations in Iraq.

Even if U.S. foreign policies were changed, however, the global Islamist insurgency very likely would continue. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups would certainly take credit for driving the U.S. to abandon its course, and they would probably be encouraged and energized to go on to new and more radical objectives, such as eliminating any Western presence in the Muslim world while enhancing and expanding the Muslim presence in the West.

Of course, the solution offered by the Bush administration and the neoconservatives is, in its own way, also a radical one. They sought not just to change U.S. foreign policy, but to change the nature, or at least the culture, of the Middle East and the Muslim world more generally. They wanted to “drain the swamp” that sustained Islamist terrorists by bringing liberal democracy, free markets, open societies, and human rights to Muslim countries. Neoconservatives claim that theirs is a universalist project. Most of the Muslim world views it, however, as merely another imperialist one like so many that they have seen in the past.

In any event, it is the neoconservative agenda that has propelled us into Iraq, adding fuel to the global Islamist insurgency while achieving virtually none of its proclaimed aims and driving the United States straight toward a giant debacle and failure.
Neither the liberal, the traditional conservative, nor the neoconservative solutions offer much hope for a way out of our dangerous condition vis-à-vis the global Islamist insurgency. The time has come to think about this threat in a new way—or perhaps in a way that is actually rather old—similar to the way that the United States dealt with the last global ideological threat, the international communist movement of half a century ago.

By analogy with strategies used by the United States against the global communist threat during the Cold War, we may be able to discern some possible strategies to divide and diminish the global Islamist threat of today. These splitting strategies are based upon different divisions that are found within the Muslim world, particularly (1) moderate Muslims versus extremist Islamists and (2) Sunni Muslims versus Shi’ite Muslims.

The history of the Cold War shows that, when dealing with an opposing political ideology, a strategy of separating its moderate adherents from its extremist adherents can sometimes be successful. In Europe in particular, the United States was very successful in separating moderate Marxists—socialists and social democrats—from extremist Marxists—communists—during the 1950s, and this division largely persisted for the rest of the Cold War. This splitting strategy was not very effective in the Third World, however. There, moderate Marxists—the “Third Way”—rarely existed or, if they did, they were soon marginalized by the extremist Marxists or repressed by the authoritarian, anticommunist regimes that were the allies of the United States.

Today’s counterpart would be separating moderate Muslims from extremist Islamists. Once again, there are plausible reasons to think that a strategy of separating the moderates from the extremists might work in Europe, with its political democracies, developed economies, and open societies. European governments have many means available for striking bargains with moderate members of the Muslim communities residing in their nations, at the expense of the extremists. The prospects for a successful splitting strategy seem less promising in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. There, the features of authoritarian regimes, widespread poverty, and polarized societies combine to nurture extremist Islamism along with extremist political actions.

During the Cold War, the most consequential splitting strategy used by the United States was that directed at the Sino-Soviet bloc, which was initiated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s. Of course, the Sino-Soviet bloc had already been split by a serious conflict by the time the United States got around to recognizing and exploiting that momentous reality, but the Nixon administration did take advantage of it between 1971-73 in its efforts to bring about an end to the Vietnam War. Later administrations also made the Sino-Soviet split a major basis for their strategies toward the communist powers, and it was a major factor in the ultimate victory of the United States over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

The contemporary analogy is the division between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Islamic world. The ongoing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq provides a daily reminder of the intensity of the division in that country, but the division, suspicion, and conflict between the two versions of Islam is a feature of many other Muslim countries as well, especially Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Sunnis normally regard Shi’ites as heretics and inferiors; Shi’ites normally regard Sunnis as hypocrites and oppressors.

Within the Muslim world as a whole, the Sunnis constitute a very large majority—about 83 percent; Shi’ites are 16 percent, with smaller sects providing the rest. Sunnis also make up the majority population in most Muslim states, but Shi’ites form a concentrated mass in a crucial expanse of the Muslim world, stretching from Lebanon through the Persian Gulf to Iran and even beyond. Shi’ites are a majority in Iran and Iraq and the largest single minority in Lebanon. They are also a majority in the vital, oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

In almost all Muslim states, the regime is comprised of persons who are, in some sense, identified as Sunnis. Among major Muslim states in recent years, only Iran has been ruled by a Shi’ite regime, but of course the potential for Shi’ite rule is now a looming issue in Iraq. (The regime in Syria is dominated by Alewites, a sect that split off from Shi’ites.) Given Sunni demographic and political dominance in the Muslim world, it is not surprising that Shi’ites regard Sunnis as oppressors.
Extremists among the Sunnis dream of the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, which would rule by Islamic law the entire Muslim umma, or community, around the world. When the last Islamic caliphate, that of the Ottoman sultan, was abolished along with the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the Muslim world broke into a plethora of separate and competing states. These states and their apostate or heretical regimes would in turn be abolished with the establishment of the new caliphate. But since the Sunnis regard the Shi’ites as heretics, a true caliphate over the entire Muslim umma would have to do the right and just thing: subordinate and marginalize the Shi’ites as much as possible. Accordingly, the closer that the caliphate dream comes to being realized, the more the Shi’ites will have to resist the Sunni extremists. The project to restore the caliphate amounts, therefore, to an inherent fault line within the Islamist movement, a time bomb with the potential to blow it apart.

Iraq represents a test case and potential crucible for the Sunni-Shi’ite split. It is easy to imagine the current sectarian suspicion and violence in Iraq descending into an actual civil war between the Sunni and the Shi’ite communities—more accurately, between the Sunni Arabs and the Shi’ite Arabs, since the Sunni Kurds are trying to separate themselves from both Arab groups. What would the global Islamist movement look like then? It would have a rather different meaning and attraction than it does today. An Islamist identity might still appeal to some Muslims, but it might well become less salient than the warring Sunni and Shi’ite identities. This would be even more likely to be the case if the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in Iraq spread to its neighbors. Indeed, if the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict became not only intense and widespread but also prolonged, perhaps as much so as the Sino-Soviet conflict during the last three decades of the Cold War, the global Islamist movement might have almost no meaning or attraction at all. In the Muslim world there might be Sunni Islamists and Shi’ite Islamists, but each might consider their greatest enemy to be not the United States, but each other.

The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have always comprised a minority of that country’s population (now about 15-20 percent). Because of their long history of oppression of the Shi’ite Arabs and the Sunni Kurds and because of their current support of the Islamist insurgency—an insurgency that includes Shi’ites and Kurds among its targets—the Sunni Arabs have much to answer for, and they have laid the groundwork for a terrible civil war.

Whatever the current public pronouncements of their leaders might be, the Sunni Arabs really want minority rule of Iraq by themselves. That is, they want an authoritarian system like that which served their interests under every regime since Iraq was created by the British, and indeed even before that under the Ottoman Empire. Since the Sunni Arab minority was in fact a rather small one, any regime composed by the Sunnis was especially authoritarian; the Sunni regime compensated for its especially small base by employing unusually brutal methods against the Shi’ite and Kurdish communities. As Iraqi society underwent progressive modernization in the course of the 20th century, the Shi’ites and the Kurds steadily acquired more of the economic and educational resources that enabled their political mobilization and organization. This largely explains why successive Sunni regimes had to become steadily more severe, leading to the brutal rule of the Ba’ath Party and culminating in the ferocious regime of Saddam Hussein. Only by increasing pressure from above could the regime keep down the pressure from below, the increasingly mobilized Shi’ites and Kurds.

Saddam Hussein’s regime was often compared to the Soviet regime or the Nazi one. The outer organizational forms often followed a Soviet model, while the inner ideologist spirit had much in common with a Nazi mentality. In the latter comparison, Saddam Hussein was said to play the role of Hitler, the Ba’ath Party that of the Nazi Party, and the Iraqi people that of the German people. A more accurate comparison, however, would have been between the Ba’ath Party and the elite Nazi party unit, the S.S., and between the Sunni Arab community and the Nazi Party as a whole, which eventually comprised as much as 15 percent of the population of Nazi Germany.

By the late 1990s, the Sunnis were not merely the only beneficiaries of their authoritarian regime, they could not even imagine an acceptable political alternative—and certainly not any kind of democracy. They also knew that if their regime were to be overthrown and its elaborate security apparatus dismantled, total anarchy—indeed a Hobbesian state of war—very likely would ensue, and the long-suppressed Shi’ites and Kurds very likely would take their revenge.

From the Sunni perspective, it was bad enough when the United States destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. Yet they still had a measure of protection left in what remained of the Iraqi army and the Ba’ath Party. But in May 2003, the head of the U.S. occupation authority, the imperious but incompetent Paul Bremer, decreed the abolition of both the army and the party, and he also authorized a deep purge of Ba’ath Party members from all Iraqi institutions, including the health services and the public utilities. Bremer’s orders meant that several hundred thousand Sunnis were immediately thrown out of work.

The Sunnis were thus suddenly plunged into an economic condition equivalent to the Great Depression. Much worse, they saw themselves with the prospect of a massacre similar to others that have occurred in the Middle East, for example, the Armenian genocide of 1915-18, the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, and of course the all-too-relevant Kurdish genocide implemented by Saddam Hussein in 1987-89. It should have been no surprise that the Sunnis would become desperate, even desperadoes, and that they would flee into any form of organized resistance to the U.S. occupation that they could find. This was soon provided by the underground elements that remained from the Ba’ath security apparatus and by the insurgent units that quickly grew out of Sunni Islamist organizations. It was not long before there was a fully developed insurgency in the notorious Sunni Triangle. And it was also not long before the Sunni insurgents began extensive and persistent attacks upon the Shi’ite population, which they now feared and which they had long despised.

The Bush administration persists in trying to construct—or conjure up—a democratic, unified Iraq, but this objective will probably prove to be unrealistic and unattainable. Instead, Iraq could well become an arena for a splitting strategy, and in any event for a splitting reality, with Sunnis versus Shi’ites and Kurdish militias versus Sunni terrorist groups. Shi’ite and Kurdish militias, if well trained and well armed by the United States, would be fully capable of destroying Sunni insurgents in the Shi’ite and Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq. (Indeed, even now many of the fledging units of the American-supervised “Iraqi” security forces are largely Shi’ite or Kurdish in composition. It would be natural enough for them to develop into units of a Shi’ite army and a Kurdish army.) The methods of these Shi’ite and Kurdish militias or armies would indeed be ruthless and would probably reach the point of expelling many of the Sunni inhabitants from the Shi’ite and Kurdish regions in a way reminiscent of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. The Sunni population might be reduced to a rump territory in central and western Iraq, along with sections of Baghdad and Mosul.

Even if the United States does not adopt a strategy of using Shi’ite and Kurdish militias to defeat the Sunni insurgents, the Shi’ites and Kurds, driven to exasperation by Sunni support of the insurgent attacks upon their communities, may bring about this outcome through their own efforts alone. Iran is already providing aid to Shi’ite militias, and the Kurdish militia is already near the capability of an army. In the end, Iraq, like Yugoslavia, is likely to split into several hostile ethnic states. But the Islamist insurgency in the Shi’ite and Kurdish regions would have been eliminated.

It might seem obvious that an Iraqi civil war, or a war between separating Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish states, would be bad for U.S. interests. At the very least, it would put the United States in a very difficult and embarrassing position. If, however, American military forces were no longer in Iraq, the major enemies of each Iraqi ethnic community or state would be each other. The United States would remain an enemy in the memory of many of the people living in Iraq, certainly the Sunnis, probably the Shi’ites, and potentially the Kurds (because the U.S. might have abandoned them once again), but for each ethnic community, the immediate and operational enemy would be the other communities now engaged in killing them.

The current insurgency against U.S. military forces in Iraq is doing much to increase the appeal and strength of Islamism and indeed of transnational networks of Islamic terrorists. In contrast, a war between the states in Iraq might do much to render Islamism irrelevant, at least in Iraq if not other countries of the Middle East. What meaning will Islamism have if Sunni Arab Muslims are killing Shi’ite Arab Muslims (along with Sunni Kurdish Muslims), and vice versa?

This kind of war could well drive the Sunni Arabs of Iraq into embracing the most extreme versions of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism or Salafism. But it could also drive the Shi’ites and the Kurds to go on to invading the remaining Sunni areas, the Sunni Triangle and the Sunni districts of Baghdad and Mosul, in response. If a war between the states should expand and persist in Iraq, the Sunnis will be in grave danger of being ground to powder between the two millstones of the Shi’ites and the Kurds.

In their current desperate state, the Sunnis seem to be heedless of this potential danger to their community and their very survival. Described in the past as the Prussians of the Arab world because of their high degree of organization, their ruthless methods, and their effective rule over other peoples within the state, the Sunnis are still too close to their recent ascendancy and invulnerability to imagine the catastrophe that could befall them. Even today, prominent Sunnis make the delusional claim that the Sunni Arabs comprise a majority in Iraq.

In any event, the Sunni Arabs think of themselves as the only truly warrior people, with an inherent right to rule the feckless and supine Shi’ites. They would do well, however, to recall what happened to the original Prussians in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Three million died, 8 million had to flee their ancestral homeland forever, and the remaining 9 million were subjected by the Soviets to 40 years of communist rule in East Germany. Indeed, as a distinct people, the Prussians were never heard of again.

Any discussion of the Shi’ites must take into account Iran, which is by far the largest Shi’ite country and whose Islamic regime has been hostile to the United States ever since 1979. As a result, the U.S. has long viewed the Shi’ite version of Islam as an even greater threat than the Sunni one, rather as the U.S. once (particularly in the 1960s) viewed the Chinese version of communism as an even greater threat than the Soviet one. The threat from Iran is now greatly compounded by Iran’s steady pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability—similar to China’s nuclear pursuit in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which culminated in its successful nuclear test in 1964.

The Shi’ites of Iran, and indeed of any place else, continue to regard the United States with deep suspicion, resentment, and even contempt. They will never be true allies, but they could become co-belligerents with the United States against this or that extremist Sunni movement or state that is the enemy of them both. This is the case with al-Qaeda and its terrorist associates, and it could become the case if a radical Wahhabist or Salafist regime should take power in Saudi Arabia.

A nuclear Iran would not be the first Muslim nuclear state. Pakistan also has Islamist elements, and it already has its own nuclear weapons. In some ways, Iran and Pakistan are mirror images of each other. In Iran, the government is hostile to the United States, while the people are more friendly to it. Conversely, in Pakistan the government is often co-operative with the United States, while the people are often hostile to it. In addition, in Iran the large majority of the population is Shi’ite, but there is a significant Sunni minority (about 10 percent). Conversely, in Pakistan the large majority of the population is Sunni, but there is a significant Shi’ite minority (about 15 percent).

The United States does not have any good strategic options with respect to these two dangerous Islamic bombs. Despite public bluster coming out of the Bush administration, there is no practical military operation by which the U.S. can completely and permanently destroy the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, and the military option is even less practical with respect to Pakistan. As for the splitting strategies, the first (moderates versus extremists) will probably not be effective with respect to either Iran’s or Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In both countries, the moderates and the extremists want their nations to be nuclear powers. The second splitting strategy (Sunnis versus Shi’ites) has potential, but for both good and ill. With Iran being mostly Shi’ite and Pakistan being mostly Sunni, in each country the majority engages in abusive practices against the minority, which is affiliated with the majority in the other country. This provides ample potential for conflict between Iran and Pakistan. In addition, the two countries share a contested border, which divides Baluchistan.

If both countries are nuclear powers, there will also be ample potential for nuclear threats and crises between them. The likelihood of conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iran and Pakistan will be heightened if the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq descends into an intense and prolonged civil war. This would likely accentuate and energize Sunni and Shi’ite identities and hostilities in Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan. A widespread Sunni-Shi’ite split could issue in a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Pakistan confronting each other in a very dangerous and destructive way. No reasonable U.S. foreign-policy professional would want to bring about this situation.

Nevertheless, whatever the United States does, there will eventually be an Iranian bomb neighboring a Pakistani bomb, just as there is now a Pakistani bomb neighboring an Indian one. There will, in other words, be three new and unseasoned nuclear powers spaced out on a line in one of the most volatile and violent regions on the planet. As with most three-body problems, the dynamics of this three-bomb problem cannot now be predicted. But when these dynamics get underway, they are likely to overshadow and cast into the past many of the current obsessions of global Islamism. A nuclear and Sunni Pakistan, sandwiched in between a nuclear and Shi’ite Iran and a nuclear and Hindu India, might be in as grave a danger of being destroyed as the Sunnis of Iraq.

The United States did not create the Sunni-Shi’ite split in Islamism, just as it did not create the earlier Sino-Soviet split in communism. It can, however, put itself in a position to take advantage of the divide as it very likely will develop, as it did with the analogous split during the Cold War.

When the United States got out of Vietnam, it had to abandon its project of maintaining noncommunist regimes in Indochina. Within a half decade, however, communist Vietnam, a Soviet ally, invaded communist Cambodia, a Chinese ally, and then communist China invaded communist Vietnam. With the United States out of the picture, the communist states naturally fell into fighting among themselves. The United States, under the Reagan administration, was able to take advantage of these and other conflicts within the communist world. Similarly, if the United States gets out of Iraq, it will have to abandon its delusional project of establishing democratic regimes in the Middle East. Within a short time, however, the central conflict within the Muslim world will be that between Sunnis and Shi’ites. It will be the fate of the Sunnis of Iraq, and in the longer run perhaps the fate of the Sunnis of Pakistan, that will wonderfully concentrate the Sunni mind. In that context, the current focus of Sunni Islamists upon the United States will appear misplaced and indeed mindless.
The United States should never have invaded Iraq in its vain effort to impose an external and alien development upon the Muslim world. The best course it can now take is to get out of Iraq and to allow the internal and natural contradictions within the Muslim world to take their course. The wise strategy of any truly great power in extending its influence to other countries is not to try to erect utterly new and bizarre constructions that have no foundation in the local realities. It is rather to try to turn to its own advantage those local realities and the inherent tensions within and between them. _______________________________________________

James Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, where he teaches American foreign policy, defense policy, and international politics.

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