The Arab World is at war with itself

An eventual break-up of the Arab world into sectarian splinters is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

A Syrian vendor arranging pins displaying portraits of Assad with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah [Getty]
A Syrian vendor arranging pins displaying portraits of Assad with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah [Getty]

As if the severe damage inflicted by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine were not enough, the Arab world is now engaged in a self-destructive process of sectarian polarisation and violence.

While it is true that the 2003 Iraq War triggered the rise of sectarian groups, many Arab political leaders, religious preachers and even some intellectuals have been fanning sectarian hatred and bigotry to serve what is essentially a struggle for power and influence.

What we are witnessing is an ugly sectarianisation of Arab societies that is affecting people’s outlook, terminology and attitude as people get trapped in superficial trenches that cloud minds and close hearts.

UpFront – Reality Check : The myth of a Sunni-Shia War

The ensuing state of confusion and fear compel many to accept “sectarian-wrapped” myths that demonise one sect or another, and even condone, in the case of ISIL, horrific crimes against Christian minorities and Iraq’s Yazidis.

Sectarian language

Sectarian language is no longer the specialty of openly sectarian parties, but is steadily penetrating the mainstream lingo – expressed either in specific terminology or in supposedly neutral “analyses” of political developments in the region and beyond.

For example, some now see Iran as behind all catastrophes – this was recently evident when Iranian pilgrims were accused of having deliberately caused the stampede in Mecca last September and in the enduring claim that the Iran-Iraq war was sparked by a sinister Shia plan to control the Sunnis in the Arab World.

Also read: Shattering the myths about Kuwaiti Shia

The fact that more than 450 Iranians were killed in the stampede or the fact that the 1981 war started when the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein abrogated the 1975 Algiers agreement over border disputes are conveniently overlooked.

A sectarian anti-Shia language was not dominant in the Arab collective psyche which was more shaped by the legacy of the anti-colonialist struggle and commitment to the Palestinian cause.


Strangely enough, such sectarian language was not prevalent during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, even though it was pro-Western Arab governments – ie, those with Sunni majority countries – that instigated Saddam to provoke the war.

Certainly, chauvinist propaganda was strongly present but as ugly as it was, it was not sectarian but an attempt to rally the masses behind a pan-Arabist Iraqi defence of the Arab world against a supposed historic Persian conspiracy to conquer the Arab world.                                   

To be sure, Iran did its part in fuelling anti-Arabism – I experienced it first hand during my stint as reporter from Tehran in 1995 – but it engaged in this enterprise more seriously, in its nurturing and training of a sectarian Iraqi Shia groups who returned to Iraq after the US invasion of the country.

Anti-colonialism and Palestine

Prior to this, a sectarian anti-Shia language was not dominant in the Arab collective psyche which was more shaped by the legacy of the anti-colonialist struggle and commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Therefore, a majority of Arabs, unlike the pro-Western Arab governments, openly supported and celebrated the Iranian revolution in 1979 that overthrew Reza Pahlavi’s regime, seen as the region’s “gendarmerie” protecting US and Israeli interests.

It was the pro-Western Arab regimes, who feared and incited against post-revolution Iran, not on a sectarian basis, but out of fierce rivalry over influence and control.

Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, circa 1955 [Getty]
Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, circa 1955 [Getty]

It was not until more than a decade later that fear of exaggerated Iranian influence over Shia Muslims in the Gulf states became an overwhelming concern for these regimes – a claim that was also used as pretext to suppress domestic opposition.

The rallying against “the Shia threat” that started in full swing in 2004, was part of the US-backed formation of an axis of so-called “moderate” Arab states versus the Iranian-led Shia axis, aimed at undermining support for Hezbollah and Hamas, as resisters against Israel.

It was King Abdullah of Jordan who in 2004, and again in 2007, made the anti-Shia sentiment more acceptable by advocating the urgency of countering the expansion of a Shia crescent in the region.

Also read: Did Arab uprisings deepen the Sunni-Shia divide?

The Jordanian monarch was talking about the expansion of an Iranian-sponsored political-ideological crescent, rather than a religious confrontation, but his words fed the rising beast of sectarianism and polarisation.

The catchphrases ‘Shia expansion’ and ‘Shia threat’ have seeped into the spoken and written Arabic language…


The catchphrases “Shia expansion” and “Shia threat” have seeped into the spoken and written Arabic language, in addition to intentional descriptions of Shia as “Khawarij” (those who left Islam), and Safawis (a reference to the Safavid dynasty that ruled Iran in the 16th century).

Prejudiced preachers

It is shocking to find many in the Arab intelligentsia not only using such derogatory language but seem duped to prejudiced preachers such as the Saudi preacher Mohammad al-Arifi who has been fomenting flames of hostility against the Shia.

The suppression of the predominantly Sunni resistance against the US military in Iraq, by Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-led government, is touted as proof of an eternal Shia hatred for Sunnis, and not as a functional alliance of power.

The Alawite-led Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on Syria’s popular uprising, eventually leading to the emergence of extremist Sunni groups is yet another chapter written in a gloomy script.

But it was ISIL that was the first to declare “war on the Shia” in, a letter by its founder the Jordanian Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, to deputy commander of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri who immediately rejected the idea as leading to “Muslims killing Muslims”.

Anti-Shia propaganda, however, did not affect the popularity of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement until the group sent forces to Syria to aid the regime. Hassan Nasrallah justified the action as a necessary protection of the shrine of historic Shia hero Sayeda Zeinab located in Southern Damascus.


Hezbollah’s slide into the Syrian quagmire fell perfectly into the “Shia threat” narrative. The movement was no longer seen by many of its admirers as a resistance movement but as an Iranian-controlled sectarian actor.

Divisive slogan

The shift in attitudes towards Hezbollah marked a dangerous turn wherein the divisive slogan of “resisting the Shia” replaced the unifying slogans of “resisting Israel” and “Bread, liberation and social justice” of the Arab revolutions.

Deflecting Arab people’s attention from the struggle for Palestinian rights and from socioeconomic grievances suits the purposes of Arab regimes to justify their alliances with the US and the oppression of Arab dissent.

Tearing apart Arab societies in the process, is not that relevant for most Arab regimes as sectarianism has become another tool to divide people, dominate them and justify wars and repression.

In the end, the US neo-cons, who have pushed for such narratives since the 1990s, can now retire and rest – many Arabs for various reasons and purposes, are implementing the prophesy of an eventual break-up of the Arab world into sectarian splinters.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.