It’s Always Sunni: Patterns of Persistent Western Anti-Shiite Policy in the Middle East

Western countries routinely and almost systematically regard the Middle East as a historically conflict-ridden region, and the sectarianism that is at the root of much of the conflict is seen as the lasting legacy of a distant past. In fact, President Obama has claimed that the Middle East is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” But statements like this ignore the central role the West has played in perpetuating these divides. Moreover, such blanket statements distract from the fact that the West, particularly the post-World War I powers of the United States, Great Britain, and France, have practiced decidedly anti-Shiite policy in the Middle East throughout the last century and continue to do so today, exacerbating sectarian divides that lead to persistent conflicts.

Western policy towards the Middle East and the Islamic world is already highly contentious. Particularly in the recent presidential election, biases that reflect an unfavorable view of the region and its people have been exposed. The Pew Research Center found that Islam is, on average, the most negatively-perceived religion in the United States. And this data does not even consider the divides within Islam itself — between Sunnis and Shi’as. This divide generates a different, but no less important, set of biases. In practice, the US has taken a distinctly anti-Shiite stance in its foreign policy interactions, emulating in the steps of Sunnis and Sunni states worldwide whose official view is that Shi’as are not Muslim.

After World War I, with an ever-weakening Ottoman Empire whose borders spanned most of what is considered the modern-day Middle East and Iran, whose borders had been defined by the long-enduring Persian Empire, the Middle East was due for significant change. With the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, Great Britain and France officially dissolved the Ottoman Empire as a state and established their own spheres of influence. Over the next four years, they divided it into many smaller states, blatantly ignoring pre-existing provinces, ethnic and religious divisions, and cultural differences to serve their own interests. In doing so, they displayed a pro-Sunni bias, constructing governing systems with Sunni leaders at the top, even in situations where, given demographic data, Shi’a individuals ought to have been put in power.

Iraq, for example, was created by stringing together the formerly separate provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra—an ambiguous arrangement built around British interests: linking oil-rich Mosul with Persian-Gulf adjacent Basra (guaranteeing a route to India) and including the state of Baghdad which lay in between. What resulted was a new state with a majority Shi’a population and minority Sunni and Kurdish groups. The British, however, placed power in the hands of Faisal, a Sunni Arab—not even from the region but from the Hijaz — with whom they had cooperated throughout the Arab Revolt. This power structure that not only delineated state borders arbitrarily, but also denied power to the resulting majority population demonstrates an innate lack of trust in the Shi’a people by Western nations. This power structure unfortunately continued through Saddam Hussein’s rule, where he removed Shi’ite members of his Ba’ath Party and notoriously had a renowned Shi’a cleric killed. Though the United States, along with European nations, opposed Hussein’s rule, his deposition during the Iraq War created a power vacuum and a civil war that saw Sunni-Shi’a tensions at their worst. Since Iraq first held free elections again in 2005, both of its presidents have been Kurds, and therefore Sunni.

By practically creating sectarianism in the Levant by partitioning Syria and establishing the state of Lebanon, the French similarly created a power structure that completely disregarded the majority Shia population. They promoted a constitution that required a Maronite Christian President and Sunni Prime Minister, leaving the comparatively measly job of Speaker of National Assembly to a Shi’a Muslim. This has been standard protocol in Lebanon, even since independence. Plagued by sectarianism and civil war, Lebanon has recently seen the reactionary rise of Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group and political party with minimal representation in parliament. Its development was largely seen as a response to decades of oppression and underrepresentation. The Beirut Barracks Bombings in 1983, which killed 241 Americans and 58 French officers during the Lebanese civil war, is often seen as the legitimizing reason for anti-Shiite policies in the West. Though no group was ever officially credited with the attack, it is widely suspected that Hezbollah and other Shi’a militant groups were behind it due to Iran’s celebration of the event. Today, the West considers Hezbollah a terrorist group but fails to acknowledge its own responsibility in its creation. Moreover, this staunchly anti-Shiite stance fails to recognize that the vast majority of terrorism by Islamic militants in the West has been at the hands of Sunnis. The Brookings Institution describes Shi’a militant groups as “much more low-key” than their Sunni counterparts, a characterization resulting from an analysis of each groups’ tactics, including the categorization of mass killings as a Sunni phenomenon. Perhaps the most relevant and threatening terror organization today, the Islamic State (ISIS), is an entirely Sunni effort and, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, has been “responsible for genocide against…Shiite Muslims,” largely brushed over by the media in favor of more popularly-condemned murders of Christians.

Every ally of the United States in the Middle East, whether through NATO or not, is a country that is either majority-Sunni or in which Sunnis are the ruling power in government—this partly explains why the US tends to see Middle Eastern conflicts through a pro-Sunni lens.

Iran’s relationship with the West has been a hot topic since the 1979 Revolution, and last year’s nuclear deal is emblematic of the fraught ties. However, it is the history leading up to the current state of affairs that is more telling of the West’s role in Sunni-Shia divisions. Up until the Revolution, the United States heavily backed the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Less commonly known, though, is that in 1953, the CIA, along with the British Mi6, orchestrated a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, sentencing him to death, and allowing the Shah — a monarch — to consolidate his power. Even after the Islamic Revolution, the US immediately condemned 1979’s popularly-led democratic movement in favor of the monarch, perhaps a consequence of it being based around Shi’a theology.

In the case of Iran, a claim that religious radicalism or human rights abuses invalidate strained diplomatic relations would be viable if it were applied equally across US foreign policy, without regard for the Sunni-Shia divide. However, the US enjoys cozy relations with multiple nations that do not respect democratic processes and are notorious for human rights violations. Saudi Arabia, the antagonistic Sunni power in the region to Shia Iran, is a country frequently cited as an important US ally. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are known for their abominable human rights records, especially towards women and minorities, and execute hundreds of individuals annually. And yet, while the US declares Iran a state-sponsor of terror for its previous possession of nuclear weaponry (now curtailed as a result of the Iran Nuclear Deal), Saudi Arabia proudly boasts of its own nuclear arsenal to no cries of condemnation from the West.

As far as systems of rule are concerned, Iran’s revolution was popularly led and the country now boasts its own democratic theocracy; based on its own history of popular-led efforts to sever ties with ruthless monarchs, the US should, to a certain extent, encourage the will of the people. Instead, however, the US has chosen to become “close” (as the Washington Post phrases it) with an absolute monarchy: a system of government that directly contradicts Western ideals. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoys a glittering embassy just blocks from the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, DC. King Salman visited President Obama in 2015, renting out the entire Four Seasons hotel and hiring a 10-car motorcade along with 400 Mercedes vehicles to guide his entourage from Joint Base Andrews to Washington. The West doesn’t just tolerate Saudi Arabia, they indulge the country. Especially alarming is the fact that the United States government, as well as major US media organizations, have not directly condemned Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses outside of required annual congressional reports. Meanwhile, President-Elect Donald Trump has stated that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” despite the fact that Iran currently has followed through with its promises and neither has nuclear weapons nor the materials to build them.

On the Arabian Peninsula, the case of modern Yemen offers an interesting perspective on the West’s incongruity. An example of a sectarian society, with a 65% Sunni and 35% Shi’a population, the country has been in the midst of a crisis since March 2015 with the Houthi rebel group fighting the government of Yemen’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthi movement is Shi’a and was initially formed in the 1960s after the Shiite Imamate in North Yemen was overthrown by republican revolutionaries. They now control Sana’a and have forced the Yemeni president to flee the country, and, most recently, formed a new government on November 28th. Yet the nation continues to be devastated by US and Saudi-backed airstrikes aimed against the Houthis. Moreover, despite being the Middle East’s most impoverished country, Yemen has received considerably less US foreign aid than its neighbors as the West prefers to view Yemen as a terrorist hotbed rather than a people in dire need of aid. The irony, in fact, is that the Houthis have been key actors in fighting al-Qaeda within Yemen, yet the West has seemed to turn a blind eye to this fact in favor of supporting the Sunni cause in what is widely considered a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni hostility towards Shi’a populations in the Middle East seems to have permeated into the minds of Western rulers throughout the past century. Whether this policy stance is intentional or developed through specific socializations in the Middle East is unclear. However, the fact of the matter is that every ally of the United States in the Middle East, whether through NATO or not, is a country that is either majority-Sunni or in which Sunnis are the ruling power in government—this partly explains why the US tends to see Middle Eastern conflicts through a pro-Sunni lens. It is a vicious cycle: while complaining about Iran’s sponsorship of Shi’a groups in nations such as Lebanon and Iraq, the West fails to realize that the existence of these organizations all goes back to the mandate system’s inability and refusal to include Shi’a groups in rule. The West must realize that sectarian conflicts in the Middle East exist consequentially, and perhaps try to rectify past actions that aggravated such societal divisions. Especially given the plethora of conflicts plaguing the Middle East at the moment, reaching across the religious divide for greater support against groups such as the Islamic State and the Assad regime is of utmost importance. Now, with the luxury of hindsight, is the time for the West to change its course. Tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness should be stressed as much in foreign policy as they are in domestic concerns.