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Beyond the myth of Sunni-Shia wars in the Middle East

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The Middle East is going through another round of protests, from Lebanon to Iran, fueled by a variety of factors. One issue that has not been in the forefront is the usual Sunni-Shi’ite divide, which has characterized some of the conflicts in the region in past decades. 

The reduction in religious-sectarian conflict — reminiscent of other conflicts such as Northern Ireland or the Thirty Years’ War — shows how dividing the Middle East into religious blocks is a much too simplistic viewpoint. A leaked, 700-page intelligence report from Iran now provides shocking evidence of how political and religious Shi’ite and Sunni groups actually work together against common enemies. 

The Iranian intelligence reports, published by The Intercept and The New York Times on Nov. 18, reveal a meeting between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Quds Force represents the world’s most powerful Shia-dominated nation, while the Muslim Brotherhood is a stateless but influential political and religious force in the Sunni Muslim world,” noted The Intercept

So why did representatives of both organizations sit down in a Turkish hotel in 2014 to plot regional strategy and see how they could work together? Because they realized they have common enemies — among them, Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and Israel. They also have common enemies in the West, where Iran views the U.S. as its main rival in the world.

More than a decade ago, as Iraq sank into a vicious cycle of killings between al Qaeda-backed insurgents and Shi’ite militias, it was easy to look at Middle East conflicts as being between this “ancient religious schism.” But was it really an ancient schism that naturally inclines Sunni states, such as Turkey, to fight Shi’ite theocracies such as Iran? Or, is it a “modern conflict in failed or failing states fueled by a political, nationalist and geostrategic rivalry,” as a Brookings Institution article argued in 2018? 

There is no doubt that the brutality of ISIS — which attacked Shi’ites in Iraq when invading the country in 2014, murdering more than a thousand of Shi’ite cadets at Camp Speicher — represents the worst of Sunni extremism. Some policymakers suggested creating a “Sunni state” in Iraq, an idea for which even former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton argued in 2015.

But regional powers in the Middle East are not as Manichaean as some want them to be. The Taliban persecuted Shi’ites in Afghanistan, but recently has been meeting with Iran. Turkey and Qatar are allies, and both work with Iran against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Persian Gulf. Turkey works with Hamas because Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, and Hamas both view the Muslim Brotherhood positively. Iran also funds Hamas in Gaza. Recent fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group in Gaza also is linked to Iran’s support for PIJ.

In the past, Hamas members have spent time in Damascus, Syria, and Qatar. Damascus reportedly is a key conduit for Iran to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Unsurprisingly, the PIJ also has agents in Damascus.

The leaked document showing that the Brotherhood considered working with the IRGC reveals that not everything in the Middle East can be put into a simple binary. In the old days, it was the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and Arab states generally were divided between pro-Soviet Union or pro-United States. Later, there were discussions about dividing the Middle East into “tribal politics,” and then Shia-Sunni divides. The reality is that all of these things, like a layered cake, play a role: Tribe, religion, monarchy, nationalism, religion are all parts of identity. 

In some cases, the Shi’ite identity might come first, such as when confronting ISIS. Other times, relationships of convenience may make more sense. Today, Turkey and Iran, once adversaries when they were the Ottoman and Persian empires, work together on some issues and because both are hostile toward Saudi Arabia and Israel. One day that may change, but there is not always a simple religious explanation for these changes or alliances. 

Iran has worked to create a swath of IRGC-linked, mostly Shi’ite, groups stretching from Lebanon to Iraq. But it also wants to work with other countries, without regard to religion. This will mean that political Islamic groups, such as the IRGC or Brotherhood, will find themselves to be strange bedfellows against common adversaries.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags Islamic fundamentalism Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps John Bolton Muslim Brotherhood Shia–Sunni relations Terrorism

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