Guest Editorial Sunni Anxieties And

Guest Editorial: Sunni Anxieties and the Rise of Shiite Power by Shahin M. Cole


Sunni Anxieties and the Rise of Shiite Power

Shahin M. Cole

Iraq after its elections is not out of the woods, and some severe dangers loom ahead. Iraq has had the form of elections, but will it have the substance of democracy? Can candidates who were afraid to reveal their identities before the election now be secure in doing so afterwards? Will not the members of the new parliament become immediate targets for kidnapping and assassination?

Moreover, now comes the hard part of drafting a permanent constitution in a way that meets the expectations of all the major groups in the country. Some substantial portion of them is likely to come away disappointed. What if controversial issues cause the negotiations to bog down? Will the third of the candidates who are women accept the likely attempt of the religious parties to impose religious codes in family law? Can a way be found to mollify the Sunni Arabs, who will be highly underrepresented in the parliament, and the legitimacy of which they are unlikely grant?

Far from seeing the elections as a good thing to be emulated, the Sunni Arab neighbors of Iraq are likely to be alarmed at the rise of Shiite dominance. They will also be disturbed at any close Shiite-American alliance. Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Salafi fundamentalists elsewhere in the Gulf (including Iraq itself), deeply disapprove of Shiite doctrine and practice.

The Sunni Arab Iraqis declined to vote in any numbers not just because of the poor security situation, but out of conviction. Many feel that you cannot have free and fair elections under foreign military occupation. They would also be within their rights to argue that voting procedures were stacked against them. The interim government allowed Iraqi expatriates who have taken citizenship in other countries to vote. Since most expatriates are Shiites, Kurds and Chaldeans, moreover, allowing expatriates to vote in this election might well be viewed as harming Sunni interests. The US has in the past forbidden its nationals (except, after 1967, those with dual citizenship) to vote in elections in other countries, and has threatened to strip them of their citizenship if they did. Were all Iraqi-Americans who voted actually dual citizens? Is this step a permanent change in US procedure?

The Gulf monarchies are afraid of the Khomeini-inspired trend in Shiism to say that “there can be no kings in Islam.” If these Sunni hardliners had an “axis of evil,” the Shiites of Iraq and Iran would be in it. Many Sunnis fear Shiite power more than they ever feared Saddam’s predations. Many of them also view the United States as an imperial power in the region. A Shiite-American alliance is their worst nightmare, and many of them will see the Iraqi Shiites as puppets of the US. The elections, which the Bush administration sees as the solution to a whole host of problems, have upset the sectarian balance of power in the Middle East, and may well bring new kinds of instability in their train.

The differences and conflicts between the Wahhabi branch of Islam (prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and Sunnis (who account for ninety percent of the world’s Muslims) are not widely appreciated. Sunnis and Wahhabis have often been at odds. The rise of a Shiite-dominated Iraq supported by American power could well create new alliances between Sunnis and Wahhabis that will radicalize both. The US CIA is already predicting that Iraq is becoming the new training ground for international terrorism.