Reports from the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Egypt this Sunday were, in equal measure, horrifying and unsurprising. A mob attack by enraged Sunni extremists on the Shiite minority, left four dead and at least 30 badly injured. The lynching was prompted by months of relentless anti-Shiite incitement by Salafist preachers, with virtually no repudiation from the Muslim Brotherhood or President Mohammed Morsi.
From the early days of the Arab uprisings, I was concerned that sectarian tensions were now going to define both local and regional relations far more than any other factor. For well over a year, I had an ongoing dispute about this with George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch, who argued that sectarianism had been more palpable and damaging in the previous decade.
I’ve never had a long-standing disagreement with anyone in which I wished more fervently to have been wrong.
But I wasn’t.
Back in April, I noted the attack on the main Coptic Cathedral in Egypt, and warned, “If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”
Throughout the Middle East they have, with increasing ferocity. Even in Egypt, the tiny Shiite minority has found itself assaulted and lynched after cynical hate-mongers targeted them in the media.
Throughout the Middle East, Sunni-Shiite tensions are boiling over, prompted (but certainly not created) by the war in Syria, the conflict in Bahrain, and Arab rivalry with Iran and so forth.
Indeed, the problem has become so acute that the Associated Press last week published a kind of “beginner’s guide” for Westerners to the explosion of Sunni-Shiite hatred throughout the region. It drew on the work of no less than 10 of its regional correspondents, and yet it barely scratched the surface. And, of course, beneath Sunni-Shiite tensions bubble dozens of other fault lines in the shuddering Middle Eastern landscape.
Obviously we’re not really seeing the revival of religious and political arguments more than 1,000 years old. If the hatreds were really this deep, endemic and theological, no amount of dictatorship could have suppressed them in the past.
No. This is power-politics pure and simple, in its most savage and bestial form.
The proof lies in Libya.
Libya, which has virtually no religious heterogeneity, is as unstable and wracked with violence, power struggles, and brutality as any Arab country (with the exception of Syria). So, this isn’t to do with sectarian differences, because in Libya that’s not a significant factor. Yet the post-dictatorship power struggle rages ferociously.
It’s about authority, and the battle for social and political dominance in the context and opportunity of a sudden and yawning vacuum.
The formula is simple enough. People are most powerfully motivated by fear and hatred, which relentlessly feed off of each other. So, political legitimacy and the development of a constituency for power is most quickly and easily acquired and consolidated by promoting fear and hatred of the other. And it doesn’t matter whom.
‘They are out to get us, so we had better get them first. Follow me, to victory,’ is probably the most ancient and crudest expression of political demagoguery. Under the right conditions, it’s virtually infallible. And it’s exactly what’s motivating so much of the sectarian and ethnic paranoia and chauvinism that is engulfing the region.
It’s easy to point to the Salafists, because they are often the most obnoxious and vicious in their rhetoric and well-funded by their official and private Gulf backers.
But there are no clean hands.
The Muslim Brothers agree with them on many matters of intolerance, especially against Shiites.
Some Iranian and other Shiite leaders in the region return the affection in full, with catalogues of anti-Sunni calumnies. Many backers of Bashar al-Assad, often themselves sectarians, paint all Syrian rebels as flesh-eating al-Qaeda Sunni monsters.
Disaffected Christian communities, particularly in exile, seethe with undisguised and irrational rage. Israel is seeing a rapid rise to prominence of racist, annexationist Jewish chauvinists, unabashed backers of a separate and distinctly unequal “Greater Israel,” and practitioners of “price tag” violence.
In the absence of local, national and regional order, hate-mongers deliberately set in motion the process of demonization in their own narrow, parochial interests.
And then, like monstrous fishes of the deepest sea where no plant life grows, people devour each other up ravenously in order, they believe, to survive.
In the long run, perhaps, the real division will prove to be between Islamists and other chauvinists versus pluralists with a more tolerant, inclusive vision. There is strong evidence of that pattern emerging as well. But sectarian tensions are so dominating the landscape that a Sunni-Shiite broader regional conflict, either directly and/or by proxy, now seems entirely plausible.
This is going to get a whole lot worse before it starts to get better.