Across the Arab world, terrifying sectarian dynamics are starting to emerge, essentially pitting Arab Sunnis versus all religious minorities. The elements of this have been obvious for quite a while, but the pattern has become so pronounced and almost pervasive that it demands to be recognized no matter how frightening the prospects.
Throughout the region, political forces are lining up time and again along this extremely dangerous binary divide. For instance, the ecumenism of the Egyptian revolution has given way to the most gruesome sectarian violence between the military and Islamist mobs on the one hand and Coptic protesters on the other hand. This was particularly evident over the weekend, with deadly clashes and sectarian incitement raging throughout Cairo.
The Syrian regime has done its best to cast the uprising in that country in a sectarian light, with a disturbing degree of success. Regional support for Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-minority rule is now almost entirely restricted to non-Sunni Arabs (as well as Iran), including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Shia-led Iraqi government, Shia parliamentarians and activists in Kuwait and other Gulf States, and a significant number of Christians in Lebanon and Syria.
By contrast, Assad’s alliance with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has collapsed largely along sectarian lines. Support for Assad among Arab Sunnis has dropped to virtually zero, including all Sunni-dominated governments. Support for his rule has also further exacerbated the already deeply-damaged reputation of Hezbollah among Arab Sunnis.
The Sunni Arab world, meanwhile, has been largely silent about the campaign of relentless persecution and repression against the Shia majority in Bahrain, implicitly backing the oppressive rule of the Sunni-minority royal family.
Sectarian tensions simmer in Kuwait but are held at bay by the country’s wealth and small population. In Saudi Arabia, however, they have been bubbling away for months, particularly in the country’s oil-rich eastern provinces. Last week they boiled over in Al-Awamiyah, as Shia rioters were fired on by security forces. Saudi spokespersons dismissed the incident as “nonsectarian” and merely criminal in nature, but immediately undermined their arguments by blaming Iran for the unrest...
The emerging sectarian narrative threatens to rip apart many Arab societies, and indeed the Arab world in general. More than military dictatorships or violent organizations that may seek to exploit these tensions, the illusions that Sunni Arabs across the region are seeking to impose a new and repressive order on non-Sunni Arabs, or that non-Sunni Arabs are subversive elements or disloyal agents of Iran or other foreign powers, pose the gravest threat to a better future in the Middle East.