On the eve of President Bush’s historic visit to the Middle East, a question that Americans concerned with foreign policy should be asking themselves is: what Middle East?Irrespective of one’s past or present positions on the Iraq war and how the United States got there, the reality is that the war has transformed the political map of the Middle East in fundamental ways:

Islam – what Islam? Sunni or Shiite?

For the first time in more than 800 years, Shiites have come to power in an Arab country.

Background: the Fatimid dynasty was established by Ismaiili Shiites and ruled over Egypt, the Levant, and various parts of North Africa from 909 A.D. to 1171 A.D. and distinguished itself for its tolerance towards minorities, including Christians and Jews. Their capital was Cairo, Egypt. It was the first time in history that Shiites were able to rule over Arab Islamic countries, and for more than 250 years, the Islamic world was divided among Sunni and Shiite dynasties. The Crusades contributed greatly to the Fatmids’ loss of the Levant forcing the latter’s retreat into Egypt. The weakening of the Fatimids at the hands of the Crusaders enabled the Sunnis based in Damascus, Syria to overrun the Fatimids in about 1169. Two years later, Saladin, the Sunni ruler of Damascus but of Kurdish Iraqi origins consolidated Islamic power under Sunni rule.

Present: the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought the Shiites back to power in an Arab Moslem country thus changing the balance of power within Islam. Islamists have been advocating and quite forcefully in some places and instances the need for establishing Islamic states as a step towards the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the region. The question on people’s minds in the region today is: what type of Islamic state – Sunni or Shiite? Since the Shiites assumed power in Iraq, all Middle Eastern regimes, especially in the Gulf region, became inwardly focused on how to deal with their Shiite minorities (majorities in some cases like Bahrain, and pluralities in other places such as Lebanon).

Sunni Islam? What Sunni Islam?

Sunni Wahhabi Salafi visceral hatred of Shiism fueled Al-Qaeda’s violent campaign of suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings against the Shiites in Iraq accusing them of being “traitors” to Islam and collaborators with the “new crusaders” led by the United States. As time went by, Al-Qaeda started killing Sunni Moslems who were not supportive of their campaign. Throughout the Sunni Moslem world a question has come to the forefront of many people’s minds: if political Islam were indeed to be the answer to the ills of Arab Islamic societies, what form of Sunni Islam should people follow?

Background: Sunni Wahhabi Salafism, backed by Saudi money and influence, has been spreading quite effectively over the past several decades due to many factors, including the Islamic appeal to fight Soviet communist occupation of Afghanistan in the 80’s, the Islamist rebellion in Chechnya, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the conflict in Bosnia in the 90’s, etc. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Islamic extremism in Pakistan as well as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 can easily be attributed to Sunni Wahhabi Salafi teachings and ideology.

Present: the US invasion of Iraq became the lightning rod for all these Sunni extremists. They came to Iraq from various Arab Moslem countries to fight US troops under the banner of “Jihad”. Their anger and hatred, however, have gradually turned against fellow Iraqi Sunni Moslems and are increasingly backfiring throughout the Sunni Arab Moslem world:

  • Today, the major decrease in violence in Iraq can be attributed mainly to the fact that Iraqi Sunnis are turning away from the Wahhabi Salafi extremist form of Sunni Islam.
  • Even in Saudi Arabia, where the official religion of the kingdom is Sunni Wahhabism, some Saudis, including members of the ruling family have started “asking questions.” Throughout the Arab Sunni Islamic world, ordinary people are questioning the “value” of such form of extremism when they see television news reporting the destructiveness and devastation it is causing.
  • Palestinians are divided over the role of Hamas and its embrace of Sunni Islamic extremism.

The Rise of the Shiites? What Shiites?

We read about the rise of Iran’s power through the Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon, etc. The reality is much more complex.

Background: the Islamic Revolution in Iran established an Islamist government under its own banner of Shiism with the city of Qom as its religious center. Historically, the city of Qom had enjoyed a degree of status among Shiite Moslems for mainly two reasons: it is the site for the shrine of Fatema, wife of the Persian Imam Reza (late 8th and beginning of 9th centuries), and became for a short period in the 16th century an important center of Shiite theology. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the city became an important center for Shiite opposition to the ruling Pahlavi dynasty in modern day Iran and home to Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979. Ever since, Qom has achieved limited success in positioning itself as “the center of Shiite theology” by introducing the notion of “Wilayat El-Faqih” in an attempt to unify all Shiites around the world under Iranian leadership.

Present: the removal by the United States of Saddam Hussein and his regime freed oppressed Iraqi Shiites and enabled the city of Najaf to reclaim its rightful place as the center of Shiite theology independently of Qom. Qom’s success has been mainly due to the “eclipse” of Najaf, the holiest and most historical center of Shiite Islam. Najaf is site of the Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb whom the Shiites revere as the righteous Imam and the true successor to the Prophet. Najaf suffered greatly under the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein and lost its ability to influence Shiite Islam.

The “return” of Najaf to the Shiite scene is of great significance because the concept of the “Wilayat El-Faqih” had been historically rejected by Shiite theological leaderships in Najaf over the centuries as being alien to Shiite traditions and theology. Unlike the Wahhabi Salafi school of Sunni Islam, which is pan-national in scope and appeal, the Najaf-based schools of Shiite theology had historically been nation-centered. In other words, the Shiites of Iraq are Iraqi, and the Shiites of Lebanon are Lebanese and they reject an Iranian-led Shiite nation or axis. Ayatollah Sistani of Najaf has articulated that view so has Ayatollah Fadlallah, the prominent Najaf-schooled Lebanese Shiite cleric and founder of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In summary, this new reality of the Middle East presents new challenges to US foreign policy makers as they shape future US engagements and/or disengagements in part or parts of that region. On the other hand, this new reality gives the United States a larger degree of maneuverability unthinkable of few years ago. As intelligence is key to national security strategy-making, so is cultural intelligence essential to the development of foreign policy strategies.