Juan Cole: Syria, Yemen Conflicts only seem to be about Sunni-Shiite from 30,000 Feet

David Speedie | (Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs) | –

David Speedie of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs interviewed me in New York on Monday. Below is an excerpt of the transcript, but the whole thing is at their web site. Also below is the video of the interview.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Juan, you have written so prolifically and so expertly on a range of interconnected topics. We have put up here “The Crisis of Europe’s Muslims” [as the title of the talk]. I do want to cover that in our opening 20 or 25 minutes before we go to the audience. But I also want to perhaps to start with the question of schisms within the Muslim world, which are, I think, imperfectly understood by an American audience, and especially with reference to the recent agreed framework with Iran and the P5 + 1 on April 2.

You wrote recently a thought-provokingly titled article, “Can the Arab World Live with the Iran Nuclear Deal?” I throw the question back to you in welcoming you. Can the Arab world live with the Iran nuclear deal?

JUAN COLE: I think the answer is that some parts of it can live with that deal very handily; others have some problems with it. When we think of the Arab world in the United States, we tend to think of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, the Gulf oil monarchies, who are often neighbors of Iran or just across the Gulf from them, and who have been more cautious—sometimes vocal—in being critical of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. But if you take the 22 states of the Arab League, it becomes clear that the Arab world is quite divided on these issues.

First of all—we don’t think of it this way—there are several countries in the Arab world that are allied with Iran. This is true of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, all of whom expressed delight at the program. I figure you are talking about on the order of 60 million people in the Arab world right there. Then the independent nationalist Arab states, ones who are not close to Saudi Arabia—sometimes they have a leftist Arab nationalist background—Algeria, for example, was optimistic, as was Tunisia, the only of the Arab Spring states that has had a relatively successful democratic transition.

If one means, “Can Saudi Arabia live with this deal?”—that is a very different question than the Arab world in general.

So I think the attitudes are quite diverse, even within the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the major members of the six is Oman, which has played a role in mediating between the United States and Iran, and which expressed itself very positively about this deal.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, some others issued communiqués saying that they welcomed that there was this framework and they are hopeful where it would go and so forth. They are obviously hedging their bets. But in the region in general—I think what Tunisia said was that any framework that allows for peace rather than war would be a great good thing for the Middle East.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Iran, of course, is the major Shia Muslim state in the extended region. Again, in terms of imperfect awareness of what exactly is going on, when one looks at what is happening in Yemen and with ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and so on, there is this sense that we are in some sort of existential struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam—Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the one hand and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Sunni coalition, on the other.

I think you have a somewhat more nuanced and qualified view of that as a defining theory.

JUAN COLE: I agree that from 30,000 feet, it looks as though Iran has put together a bloc of countries with significant Shiite populations and is using the Shiite form of Islam as a kind of soft-power wedge to establish a kind of bloc. But if you go down on the ground, then that way of looking at it becomes difficult to maintain.

Syria, for example, where Iran is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, is a Baathist state, which is irreligious. They actually persecuted religion. It is true that the upper echelons of the Baath Party in Syria are staffed by members of the Alawite minority, who are technically—at least scholars would consider them a form of Shiite Islam. But Alawite Islam is barely Islam. They don’t have mosques. They don’t pray five times a day. They have Neoplatonic and Gnostic philosophies coming from the pre-Islamic Greek world. There is a kind of mythology there that is very important in their thinking.

I went to Antakya one time, which is an Alawite city, and I asked someone—I was eager to meet an Alawite—I asked someone local, “Are you an Alawite?” He said, “No. Praise be to God, I’m a Muslim.”

The idea that Iran is supporting Syria because orthodox Twelver Shiite Islam feels any kind of kinship with the Alawites is crazy. The ayatollahs would issue fatwas of excommunication and heresy and so forth against Alawites.

Then the Alawites are only one part of a coalition of Syrians that involves Christians, Druze, and very substantial numbers of Sunnis. The regime still has about two-thirds of the country, which it cannot have unless a large number of Sunnis in Damascus continue to support it, because the business class has benefited from that regime and so forth.

So, yes, Iran is supporting the Alawites of Syria, but you have to have an extremely narrow lens to make this look as though it’s about Shias.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The other, perhaps even more contemporary context in which this being played out in the minds of some Western commentators, of course, is in Yemen, which is a very, very perilous situation, it seems to many of us. Obviously, al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for many terror attacks, including Charlie Hebdo at one point. It is regarded as one of the most virulent and violent of the extremist movements. They, of course, are extremist Sunni. Then this dichotomy, Shia-Sunni, comes into play with, “Oh, Iran is supporting”—now, I read somewhere that they should not technically to be called Houthi, but Ansarullah, the Shia insurgent forces in Yemen.

What’s going on there? What should our response be, for example, to the Saudi-led military action? Is this offering comfort and succor to the extremist elements in Yemen? Or is that again too simplistic?

JUAN COLE: In my own view, Yemen is, of course, a complete mess. It is an ecological mess above all. It is running out of water. The capital may go dry within five years. We can expect vast displacement of people just on, surely, ecological grounds. For it to be bombed is the last thing that it needed. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United States has joined in this effort and is giving logistical support, it says, to the Saudis and others who are engaged in this bombing campaign. The bombing campaign is being conducted against a grassroots tribal movement and seems very unsuited to produce a military victory of any sort. I think it can succeed in knocking out electricity and making it difficult to distribute petroleum and, again, making people’s lives miserable. I’m not sure it can succeed in changing the politics simply by bombing from a distance.

I really think the United States is poorly advised to get involved in this thing. I don’t think that the lines are at all clear. The Houthi movement is named for the family that led it. Of course, it is not what it calls itself. (The Quakers don’t call themselves that either. It’s the Society of Friends. People don’t get to choose.) But they have become known as the Houthis.

They are a movement of the Zaidi Shiite community in Northern Yemen. The Zaidis are known as a form of Shi’ism, again, very unlike what is in Iran and Iraq what is in Iran and Iraq, what Americans are more used to, as being quite close to the Sunnis. They don’t, for instance, curse the Sunni caliphs. They don’t have that kind of animosity towards Sunnism. And they don’t have ayatollahs. They shade over at some level into Sunnism. They are not that different. People in Yemen, anyway, make alliances by clan and tribe, and not so much by which sect the clan or tribe belongs to. There are substantial Sunni tribes that are allied with the Houthis.

Seeing this as Shiite or Iran—maybe it looks like that from a very great distance, but down on the ground, it is a real exaggeration.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, it is superficial to see this as strictly a religious divide. Many of the tribal entities are probably not that religious at all.

JUAN COLE: Many of the tribal entities are not religious at all, and then the ones that are can be united. For instance, most Sunnis in Yemen, in North Yemen at least, are Shafi’i Sunnis, who differ dramatically with the Sunni Wahabi branch of Islam and might well make common cause with Zaidis against the Wahabis.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you for clearing this up. [Laughter] It obviously is a fraught and complex thing.

Let’s move to Europe, if we may, just a couple of questions there. On Europe, specifically in France, you use a very interesting term, a phenomenon you called “sharpening the contradictions,” saying that attacks such as Charlie Hebdo—and presumably, later the incident in Belgium and then in Copenhagen—are actually contrived by al-Qaeda to create a backlash that will bring politically unengaged Muslims into the fold. Explain that a little bit.

JUAN COLE: I see evidence of al-Qaeda thinkers, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was the number-two man for a long time, before bin Laden was killed, being influenced by Marxist thought, and radical Marxism. This is very clear in the technical terms that the Muslim far-right uses. They talk about a vanguard. This was a Leninist term. In some radical forms of Marxism, activists were impatient with the working class, which seemed not to want to fulfill its historical duty by rising up against the business classes, and so it engaged in sabotage—not everywhere all the time, but there were some groups that did that kind of thing in hopes of provoking a class war, because they knew the business classes would call upon their agents, the police, to crack down hard on sabotage and workers’ activism and so forth.

I think that al-Qaeda picked up this kind of thinking from the Marxist fringe in places like Egypt and so forth. I think that it is a deliberate strategy on their part, the sharpening of contradictions, or the heightening of contradictions, as it’s called. I think it explains everything that happened in Iraq.

I remember reading a New York Times piece in 2005 or so that al-Qaeda in Iraq had blown up a pet shop. There were pieces of rabbits and snakes wiggling on the ground. This author in The New York Times expressed himself with amazement. He said, “We should get out of Iraq now, because we can’t understand why you would do that. And if you don’t understand what your enemy is doing, then you should not be there.”

I understood exactly what they were doing. They were hitting soft targets. They were hitting businesses. It was a Shiite-owned pet shop. What they were trying to do was to get the Shiites’ goat in Iraq. They were trying to provoke a civil war, because they hoped that the Shiite clans who were being hit would go and attack Sunnis, and if they went and attacked the Sunnis, then al-Qaeda could go to the Sunnis and say, “Gee, you seem to be being attacked. We could protect you.”

So by provoking attacks on their own community, they actually could parlay that into power.

At the time, I was skeptical that they could succeed in this, but you come to last June, and they took over Mosul, the second-largest city in the country, in exactly this way—by continually provoking the Shia, getting reprisals going, and then going to the Sunnis against whom the reprisals were waged and saying, “You need protection.” By that time, the Mosulites said, “Yes, we do. Would you please come in,” even though Mosulites are cosmopolitan, secular-minded people. But they were willing to bring in this radical fundamentalist group just because they were tired of being targeted by the Shiite government.

Read the whole thing

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16 Responses

  1. Great article! Worth passing on to anyone susceptible to sound-bites and MSM oversimplification.

    Is there a link to the post/article you wrote noted early in this interview, “Could the Arab World live with the Iran Nuclear Deal”?

  2. The tyrannical element in many groups uses this provocation-of-opposition method to generate support for power within their own group. Aristotle describes this strategy of tyranny over democracy in his Politics. They may limit themselves to inventing foreign monsters and causes of war, or may try to strengthen foreign right wingers by provocations to ensure a supply of incidents to rationalize demands for power, as the US did deliberately in the Mideast, Ukraine and Iraq, and “accidentally” around the world in SE Asia and Latin America.

    Even where the provocation strategy is not official policy, it is the policy of the right wing. Would N Korea have remained hostile if the US had not secretly killed two million villagers in fire bombings after being pushed south? If the US did not continue military exercises to demonstrate superior force? The reluctant are told that the foreign enemy must be restrained by shows of force, as the USSR had to be “restrained” by our ICBMs to create its own, always trumped up as a threat requiring more arms, although theirs were always fewer and less capable than our own. The founders knew that the only way to prevent this is to prohibit a standing army and military class and foreign wars, except for technical and other readiness against invasion.

    • You’re oversimplifying too. The Soviet Union actually invented the ICBM, Sergei Korolev’s magnificent SS-6. It was no angel in the days after World War II. The most pro-Soviet Communist Party in Western Europe was in France and was working hard to deliver the country – and its colonial empire – to Stalin. That’s why the French party supported the war against Ho Chi Minh for some years. Tito and DeGaulle were the ones who understood that a hegemony by either superpower was bad, but I guarantee you that their militaries were training to fight an invasion by the USSR, not the US, and it would have been a hopeless fight without some kind of alliance with the US – or France using its nukes against Moscow.

  3. Juan, I see you are doubling down on this business about al-Qaeda being influenced by Karl Marx. I have deep respect for you as an expert on the Middle East but I think you are in over your head when it comes to Marxism. You are describing something much more akin to Blanquism. The idea that sabotage was used to “provoke” the workers by inciting police repression is simply wrong. Sabotage has been used by socialists in guerrilla warfare such as in Cuba when pro-Batista sugar mills were burned but it was not and is not a tactic for “sparking” worker resistance. They burned sugar mills in Cuba in order to weaken the social base of a dictatorship and not in order to bring about police repression. The Cuban people did not need lessons on how repressive the capitalist state could be, after all.

  4. Thanks, Juan.

    This was magnificently illuminating; a great foil to the hysterical, shallow misinformation that the –largely News Corp– mainstream media puts out here in Australia.

    Such murky, complex situations! Enough to make any pacifist into a ‘pacifist, but…’

  5. Awesome. Thank You.
    I’m Brazilian and although living rather far, I must say that I really appreciate your work. You contribute a lot for our understanding of the Middle East. It’s good to see people who are honest about what they talk, instead of defending an agenda.

  6. Setting this group against that for purposes of your own is as old as records. It was a passtime on Mount Olympus, basic to the shifting tides of medieval politics, and kept Elizabethan England afloat. One of its neatest assertions is in Tacitus’ Germania:

    Maneat, quaeso, duretque gentibus, si non amor nostri, at certe odium sui: quando, urgentibus imperii fatis, nihil jam praestare fortuna majus potest, quam hostium discordiam.

    or, from ‘Agricola and Germany’ (OUP) trs. A R Birley

    Long may the barbarians continue, I pray, if not to love us, at least to hate one and other, seeing that, as fate bears remorselessly on the empire, fortune can offer no greater boon than discord among our enemies.

  7. Can you explain why the US is aiding the Saudis in bombing a movement of the Zaidi Shiite community in Northern Yemen in their civil war?

    • The KSA has become dangerously powerful, and perhaps too independent? Some think this messy Yemeni adventure may prove a bridge too far for the Al Saud family and produce an outcome not altogether regretted in the US. Bear in mind it is coincident with moves towards Iranian rehabilitation. (See Tacitus above.)

  8. I believe the theory of ‘hightning contradictions’ in the way Prof. Cole used it, is actually based in anarchist thought, not Marxism. Lenin fought against this trend in Russian beginning with Bukarin, as an illusion-filled doctrine of the ‘petite bourgeoisie’ represented by impatient Russian intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century, and contrasted it with the painstaking building of a revolutionary mass movement led by a Party.

    Politically, Al Queda is an anarchist to the bone, with smaller, disparate ‘cells’ carrying out terrorist attacks. They also believe that individual and/or spectacular terrorist events can mobilize people either by example or by triggering a backlash by the state – which was supposed to (almost like magic) turn the public revolutionary. However, anarchists like Al Queda dont have a mass base, use religion instead of political ideology as a cover and end up getting isolated from their targeted supporters, whereas, Mandela, Lumumba and some other of the African independence leaders knew overthrowing colonialism would take years,even decades and followed, like Ho Chi Ming, the ‘Chinese model’.

    ISIL differs from Al Queda in immediately seizing territory- But they rule brutally and mostly with foreign forces. They won’t last long.

    • The concept of “vanguardism” has been associated chiefly with Marxist-Leninism, however Theodor Hirzl used it as a principle of Zionism and it has been also utilized by the ideological forerunners of al-Qaeda.

      Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, does not appear “isolated” or “anarchist” without a “mass base” as that group rules over considerable areas and has won a limited degree of popularity among Syrians due to their battlefield prowess – they control more area than the “democratic” Free Syrian Army at this point – although Alawites and Christian minorities within Syria obviously fear – quite reasonably – coming under al-Nusra Front control.

  9. Great interview. Professor Cole is one of the few Americans who understand what is happening in the Middle East and who can articulate it. Thanks professor for all your work.

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