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Shiism’s Waxing Crescent

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
June 15, 2006

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Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a Jordanian jihadi, fresh from fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, entered the Kurdish no-fly zone in northern Iraq. At the time of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's arrival, Shiite-Sunni relations in the region—explained in this new Backgrounder—were relatively undisturbed. Intermarriage was not uncommon among urban Arabs. Sectarian violence was isolated. If anything, pan-Arabism appeared on the rise, not Shiism.

Five years later, Iraq has become the center of a Sunni-Shiite divide, thanks largely to the thousands slaughtered—many of them Shiites—by Zarqawi's band of extremists. But Zarqawi was not solely responsible for the rift in Shiite-Sunni relations. Another crucial factor, however counterintuitive, is democracy. "Participatory politics drive people to look for new identities," CFR Adjunct Fellow Noah Feldman said at a June 5 symposium on Shiism. "There are identity entrepreneurs out there who present themselves and say: Here's an identity, latch on to this one." Nowhere is this ethno-religious identity split more pervasive than in Iraq, says Phebe Marr of the United States Institute of Peace. "Political leaders played on ethnic and sectarian identities to get elected," she told CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman.

The result has been a sharply divided Iraqi government, a sectarian conflict teetering on the brink of a civil war, and mounting pressure for Iraq to splinter into three separate states drawn around ethnic and sectarian identities. Another risk: the establishment of a Shiite-run Islamic Republic, not unlike Iran's, writes the University of Michigan's Juan Cole in the Boston Review of Books. Worse, Feldman says, as sectarian tensions grow more entrenched in Iraq and Shiites increasingly assert themselves politically, the risk of sectarian conflict spreading to other parts of the Middle East grows.

Is there, as the leaders of Egypt and Jordan say, a "Shiite crescent" emerging in the Middle East? While experts agree the Iraq War was a profound event—altering the region's ethno-religious landscape and coinciding with the rise of Iran's nuclear aspirations—they disagree on the significance of the Shiite revival in the region. Some say it is a fear tactic by Sunni autocrats to cement Washington's support—political and financial—for their regimes. "What does it mean when King Abdullah says 'the Shiite crescent?' asked Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University at the recent CFR symposium. "It means, 'Help me. Invest in me, and I will be the praetorian guard of the Sunni order.'" Others, including Tehran University's Kamran Taremi, say "this concept [of a Shiite crescent] is a figment of the imagination of those inside and outside Iraq whose interests require them to present Iran as a threat to the Arab world."

Yet a recent report by the Stimson Center says a Shiite ascendancy, coupled with the prospects of a nuclear Iran, "has the potential to heighten regional tensions and pit Iraq's powerful neighbors against each other." Others point to Tehran's growing influence—and the Iranophobia backlash—among restless minority Shiites in the region (Newsweek).

With the death of Zarqawi, it’s unclear whether his successors will continue their targeting of Shiites, journalist Mary Anne Weaver tells Gwertzman, or target U.S. forces instead. Therein lies one of the main rifts between Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islamism and Zarqawi’s, she says: “Bin Laden has never advocated sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites.”   

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