Rayyan Al-Shawaf / Oct 22, 2006

It is a truism that, in order for a tottering Iraq to have any hope of achieving stability, it must wean the Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and coax them into participating in their country’s democracy. Much has been written about Sunni Arabs as a valuable counterweight to Shiite revolutionary Iran, mass-killings of Shiites that aim at provoking an anti-Sunni backlash, Shiite death squads that target Sunnis, and the very real possibility that the Shiite majority could become the oppressor of the Sunni minority. For these reasons, it is imperative to convince the Sunni Arabs that they have a guaranteed place in the new political dispensation.


Yet there is another reason why the Shiites and Kurds should strive mightily to bring Sunni Arabs into the fold. Only by winning over the Sunnis can Shiites and Kurds force a deeply suspicious Sunni Arab world to accept the legitimacy of the new Iraq. In the eyes of the Arab world, it is the extent of Sunni involvement in any Arab endeavor that serves as the barometer of its legitimacy. If Iraq’s Sunnis oppose their country’s political process, the Arab world will duly follow suit and attempt to strangle embryonic Iraqi democracy.


Of course, it is somewhat ironic that Iraq's non-Sunni particularity—a rarity in the Arab world—can win recognition only if Iraqi Sunnis become a part of it. In order for the Arab world not to cry "conspiracy" when confronted with Kurdish cultural assertiveness and Shiite political ascendancy, Iraqi Sunni Arabs must be seen to support such phenomena. That's why it was so important that Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi stood alongside then Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, when Jaafari dismissed Egyptian President Mubarak's charges that Shiites are loyal to Iran. Similarly, it is imperative that the Iraqi Arabs provide an "Arab cover" for the Kurds, without which Kurdish aspirations will continue to be lambasted as nefarious and anti-Arab.


Iraq and Lebanon, two countries in which Sunnis constitute a minority, are similar in this regard. Maronite timidity in steering pre-civil war Lebanon out of the Arab-Islamic orbit must be understood within the context of domestic Sunni opposition. More recently, the cause of Lebanon’s independence from Syria attained legitimacy only when Sunnis came aboard en masse after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. From 1990 until 2005, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese Christians opposed the Syrian occupation of Lebanon barely made a dent in Arab—and even international—opinion. It was the widespread Sunni conviction that Syria stood behind the assassination of Hariri, and the subsequent calls by Sunnis for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, that toppled the political order overnight. So long as Lebanese particularity was perceived as a Christian cause, the Arabs wouldn’t touch it, but the situation changed drastically when Lebanese Sunnis added their weighty voice to that of the Christians.


Where Sunnis form a majority, the picture comes into even clearer focus. Even as it stifles Sunni political expression, the ruling Alawi minority in Syria remains fearful of antagonizing majority Sunni Arab public opinion. This is why ostensibly secular Alawi baathists have never dared uncouple Islam and state, or make peace with Israel. Without robust Sunni participation, any attempt at breaking with Arab political conventions will remain forever paralyzed.


The cause, whether just or outrageous, is rarely considered on its own merits. Today, the success of Hizbullah’s reckless adventurism depends in large part on whether Lebanese Sunnis take to it, which would automatically conciliate Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. An earlier episode of anti-Israel warmongering effectively highlights this rule. Whereas predominantly Sunni Jordan crushed the Palestine “revolution” in a matter of months in 1970-71, Palestinian militants in 1975 Lebanon, who were opposed by Christians but enjoyed Sunni—and therefore regional—support, plunged the country into fifteen years of civil war. Peace with Israel is no different. Twenty-seven years after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, the Coptic Pope continues to prohibit his flock from visiting Christian holy sites in Israel, fearing the reaction from his (Sunni) Muslim compatriots, among whom the peace treaty has always been unpopular.


Minority or majority, non-Sunni groups arguably amenable to secularism, friendly ties with the US, or peace with Israel, often end up opposing these ideas precisely because they lack Sunni support, thereby invalidating the notion that these groups are any different from Sunnis. Indeed, there is a tendency to be "more royalist than the king" on the part of anti-Israel Shiites in Lebanon (many of whom welcomed the 1982 Israeli invasion as deliverance from Palestinian domination), anti-civil society Alawis in Syria (for whom secularism would be a great boon), and anti-American Shiites in Iraq (who owe their emancipation to the US).


The question would seem to be how heretofore marginalized groups, wary of losing newfound power to their historical oppressors, could involve Sunnis in the decision-making process without ceding the country to Sunni Islam, which would quickly turn on them. The answer lies in legally constraining political Islam while simultaneously involving popular Sunni parties. Buoyed by Sunni participation, regional minorities would easily fend off charges of sectarianism, and may no longer feel obliged to adopt virulently anti-secular, anti-American, and anti-Israeli positions, as though on trial before skeptical Sunnis.

And so it is in Iraq. Without relinquishing the country to jihadists and baathists, the Shiites and Kurds must involve the Sunnis in the political process. Again, regional Arab acceptance of the non-Sunni particularity of Iraq hinges on the backing this idea musters among Iraqi Sunnis. Ultimately, this rule holds for the entire region. Groups that view themselves as religiously or ethnically distinct nevertheless need their Sunni Arab compatriots if they are to achieve a coherent national identity in their various countries, and keep an often meddlesome Sunni Arab world at bay.


Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer in Beirut, Lebanon. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2006 edition of the Beirut-based Daily Star. 

Disclaimer: The articles published on this site represent the view of their writers.