Many people will have seen the excerpt from an al-Jazeera discussion programme in which Iraqi MP Mish’an al-Jabouri and Iraqi journalist Sadeq Musawi threaten and scream at each other. The occasion is Saddam Hussain’s execution, and the cleavage is sectarian (al-Jabouri is Sunni and Musawi is Shia). Al-Jabouri calls on the audience to read the fatiha for the soul of the ‘martyred president.’ When Musawi objects and points out that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, al-Jabouri says he will do ‘unimaginable things’ to Musawi, and calls him an Iranian, a Persian, and a Persian shoe. After Musawi has walked off, al-Jabouri demonstrates what looks to me like mental illness. He tells us that his own brother and brother-in-law were killed by Saddam, but that he nevertheless considers the martyr president to be the master of Iraq, and specifically the master of Musawi and Musawi’s parents. He regrets that Saddam was killed by “the same people who killed our master Umar and our master Abu Bakr.” Then he seems to remember that Abu Bakr wasn’t killed, and says “Sorry. The people who hate Abu Bakr and all the companions of the Prophet.”
I found al-Jabouri’s ranting tragic to watch. For people like him, sectarian hatred supercedes even family loyalty. And as far as he is concerned, anyone who disagrees with Baathist tyranny or Sunni dominance of Iraq is not Iraqi and not Arab, but Persian.
As the American campaign against Iran intensifies, there is a corresponding chorus of paranoid voices in the Arab world howling about Persian imperialism and Shia infiltration. The chorus includes pro-American ‘liberals’ and anti-American Baathists and Wahhabi fundamentalists. The interests these Arabs ultimately serve are neither liberal nor anti-American.
Some Arabs wonder why Iran is involved in the Arab Levant. I see nothing particularly sinister in this engagement. Iran is an important regional power. If it is engaged in the area, so are America, Israel and France, and to a lesser extent Russia and Turkey. I would go so far as to say that Iran is a lot less ‘foreign’ than these other interventionists. And I greatly admire Iran for providing political, financial and military help to resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. It’s not as if Hamas and Hizbullah turned down Arab aid in favour of the Iranians. Arab states have not only failed to help, they have actively conspired against the resistance and against the democratically elected government of occupied Palestine.
Some Arabs worry that Iran has become a regional superpower after the fall of the Iraqi Baath and the Afghan Taliban. But surely Iran can’t be blamed if it has become stronger as a result of American wars against erstwhile American clients. Although Iran had suffered horribly at the hands of Saddam Hussain, it didn’t help America to invade Iraq. The Saudis, however, provided land and airspace for the American campaign. True, Iran has relationships with some of the Iraqi Shia militia, just as the Saudis have relationships with Sunni militia, but some of the most important Shia militia – such as Sadr’s Mahdi Army – are Iraqi and Arab nationalists who oppose Iranian influence. The Iranian leadership more than Arab leaderships has called on Iraqis to avoid sectarian warfare, and has more to lose from Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq than the Sunni Arab client regimes.
Most absurdly, Yusuf Qaradawi, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian newspaper columnists have recently fulminated against supposed Shia-Iranian efforts to convert Sunnis to ‘the Shia heresy’ in Sunni-majority countries. There are two responses to this. The first is that there is absolutely no evidence that it is happening. In his Ashura speech in Beirut Hassan Nasrallah addressed this issue, calling on the Saudis to establish an investigation into such allegations. The second response is that, even if Shia were trying to convince Sunnis that their brand of belief is best, so what? What’s wrong with theological debate, so long as it doesn’t become coercion? Anyway, is it not obvious (and regrettable) that the best organised and funded Islamic evangelists in the world are Wahhabis?
What else is there for Arabs to fear from Iran? Some condemn Iran as a tyranny. It would be overly optimistic to call the Islamic Republic a democracy, but it is certainly more democratic than any Arab state. There are real, if controlled, elections, in which real issues are debated. There is a vibrant, if besieged, press and student movement. The hijab is imposed on Iranian women (many of them wear it slipping off the back of their heads), but Saudi women are forced to wear niqab, and are forbidden from driving. Iran makes wonderful films. Iranian high streets are full of bookshops, and the bookshops stock titles on Buddhism, yoga, contemporary European philosophy, quantum physics, Russian literature. The most popular language for internet blogs after English is Farsi. I wish the Arab world was more like Iran.
I don’t pretend that Iran doesn’t have serious problems. When I visited I was surprised by just how many people complain about the government. Not only young, Westernised English speakers. I can speak guidebook Farsi, and even working-class and middle-aged people would quickly express to me their hatred of the regime. But I took some heart from the fact that people would shout their opinions in Farsi in the middle of crowded teahouses. In no Arab country would people have so little fear.
The key conflict in the area is between the ruling class, which is both a money class and a client to imperialism, and the ordinary, impoverished people, who now have more information about the links between their rulers and Zionist and imperialist forces. The rulers of the region and of the world don’t want this conflict to be revealed in the light of day, so they seek to mask it by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. The classic divide and rule strategy. So Abdullah of Jordan, that shining hero of Islam, warns of the Shia crescent. Mubarak of Egypt, the gallant knight of Arabism, points out darkly that Arab Shia are always more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. Tony Blair recently referred to an ‘arc of moderation.’ Meaning, I suppose, the moderate anal rape tactics of the Egyptian police, and the moderate public beheadings in Saudi Arabia. It’s a shame to see so many Arabs, for reasons of sectarian prejudice, siding despite themselves with Blair and the Arab puppets. Some liberal Arabs who claim to be in favour of peace and moderation, dazzled by Western media, are falling into the same trap.