‘Middle East situation like pre-Independence India’ (IANS interview)

New Delhi, Feb 8 (IANS) The current turmoil in the Middle East is due as much to sectarianism as the legacies of colonial rule, and the situation is quite like the Indian subcontinent in the decade prior to Independence, says regional expert Vali Nasr.

“Colonialism not only decided maps of the modern Middle East, but also fostered sectarianism in the internal structures it set up – the Alawites in Syria, the Christians in Lebanon under the French, and so on.

“Colonialism and sectarianism conflicted with secular nationalism… sectarianism in the Middle East was like communalism in India during its freedom struggle and can be understood the same way… the issue of majority and minority rights,” Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at US’ Johns Hopkins University, spoke to IANS in an interview during his India visit for the Jaipur Literature Festival.

“The violence in Iraq is similar to the violence seen during the Partition of India,” he said.

Nasr, a foreign policy advisor to the Barack Obama regime (2009-11) and a scholar on politics and Islamic activism in the Arab world, as well as Iran and Pakistan, and sectarian identity in Middle East politics, notes sectarianism, between Sunnis and Shias, was not on points of theology but on distribution of power.

This was especially relevant in countries like Iraq and Bahrain which had Shia majorities but without any power, he noted, adding the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the Arab Spring further opened the door to sectarianism.

“The Arab Spring began a demand for democracy but what after that? That is the key issue,” said Nasr, citing another parallel with the Indian subcontinent’s example where the struggle against British rule also saw a bitter contest between the Congress and the Muslim League on the shape and nature of the political dispensation to follow.

The author of “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future” (2006) when the community seemed to be on an upswing with huge political gains in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Nasr contends rise of groups like the Islamic State is among attempts by Sunni hardliners to reverse Shia Iran’s gains in Iraq. But this comes at a time when Iran, long seen by the western world as the source of instability in the Middle East, is now being needed to manage the same instability, he said.

This image of Iran stemmed from the historic Shia-Sunni conflict, which however took shape of a proxy war after the 1979 Iranian Revolution raised a Shia threat for Sunni powers, especially Saudi Arabia which has had a relationship with the US, predating the US-Israel alliance.

“This proxy war between Shias and Sunnis, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, even extended to south Asia and is still going on in Pakistan,” said Nasr, who also spent some time in the sub-continent in the late 1970s and experienced the sectarian hostility as far away in Lucknow, considered a bastion of Shia culture and faith.

Nasr, who also wrote “Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism” (1996), noted the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami and a proponent of propagating “true” Islam was not violent himself, but his “children have become more intolerant”.

On Iraq, he noted Shias and Sunnis look on its post-2003 politics differently – the former see it as the first modern Shia Arab state, but the latter were disturbed at the loss of a country that contained the Shia “threat” – and through the US, seen as their reliable ally against Khomeini’s Iran.

Matters were further complicated by the Arab Spring “which did to several Arab states what the US Army had done to Iraq – broke down the state”, he said, noting the implosion in several authoritarian Sunni states, taken to its logical conclusion — of democracy and elections — would have disturbing consequences for Sunnis, especially in places like Bahrain given Iraq’s example.

“That is why the IS, which is trying to roll back Iranian gains in Iraq, and wrest Syria for the Sunnis, has struck a political resonance with its goal of a Sunni caliphate,” said Nasr.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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