By Saeed qvi
Like Henry Kissinger, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman belongs to a growing tribe of strategists who insist that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by a much bigger, Shia-Sunni faultline.
Even though Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackers, Wahabism and Salafism are all traced to Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and the West in general have developed a high comfort level with Saudi Arabia regardless. In this framework, the West has placed the Shia world in opposition to it.
Was it always like this? Consider this recent historical perspective.
“As we approach the season of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would like to nomite the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for this year’s medal.” The recommendation came from NYT ace columnist, Friedman. For emphasis, he added: “I’m serious.”
This was in 2005. Friedman, was “in” with President George W. Bush. In ecstatic pieces for the world’s most powerful newspaper, the NYT, he repeatedly described the occupation of Iraq as history’s greatest effort at democratisation.
Americans had come against Saddam Hussain, a tough Baathist and atheist by belief, and a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction. Remember Saddam invoked “Allah” for political mobilisation only after the 1992 operation Desert Storm. He had “Allah o Akbar” inscribed on an otherwise secular emblem as an afterthought.
The eclipse of Saddam brought great relief to Shias in the South — around the holy cities of jaf, Karbala and oil-rich enclaves neighbouring Basra. For the first time, the world realised that Shias were an overwhelming majority in all of Iraq.
A triangular situation had emerged — the occupying Americans, Sunni (plus Kurdish) minority and the Shia majority. The Shias, led by Ayatollah Sistani, played a straight political hand. Once occupation had taken place, he encouraged the occupiers against his tormentor, Saddam Hussain.
That is when Friedman was moved to write: “If some kind of democracy takes root here (Iraq), it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the domint Iraqi Shiite commul leader, Ayatollah Sistani. It was Sistani who insisted that the elections be not postponed in the face of the Baathist-fascist insurgency. And it was Sistani who ordered Shiites not to retaliate for the Sunni Baathist and Jihadist attempts to drag them into civil war by attacking Shiite mosques and massacring Shiite civilians.”
Friedman proceeded to compare the Ayatollah with other icons who helped bring democracy to their respective countries — Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. The quality of democracy that obtains in Russia, Iraq and South Africa must be left for Friedman to applaud.
Rightly or wrongly, Friedman extrapolated from his experience in Iraq. This is at a variance from the fraud Dick Cheney sought to perpetrate on April 9, 2003, when he had the Marines pull down Saddam Hussain’s state at Firdous square and attributed the event to a popular uprising. Even thòugh Cheney was the Vice President he overrode Defence Secretary Dold Rumsfeld on Iraq.
Friedman zigzagged along shifting convictions until, by August 2015, he began to show the first signs of tolerating something so totally different from Sistani as to take one’s breath away. In a conversation with President Barack Obama he appeared to be nodding agreement on a kind of positive ambiguity about the ISIS.
Sudden and exponential growth of the Islamic State was something of a mystery. It is in the ture of the post-colonial media that the views of developing country elites, particularly in the Arab world (except allies like Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and Jordan), never get reflected in the media. How did the elites in Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries view the IS phenomenon? Without exception, they described it as an American, French, British, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperative effort. I know first hand. Ask the ambassadors in New Delhi.
Writing on US President Dold Trump’s proposed visit to the centres of semitic religions, Riyadh, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Fisk satirically speculates: “Trump will be able to ask (Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin) Netanyahu for help against the IS without — presumably — realising that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never — ever — bombed the IS in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al Nusra, which is part of Al Qaeda which attacked the US on 9/11.”
Lo and behold, in his recent column, Friedman is advising Trump to give up the pretence of fighting the IS — because that is not in the US (and presumably Israel’s) tiol interest. He wants “Trump to be Trump — utterly cynical and unpredictable. ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias.” “In Syria,” Friedman recommends, “Trump should let ISIS be (Syrian President Bashar-el) Assad’s, Iran’s Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In other words, let the IS be a Western asset.
A recent cartoon with a most succinct message shows one Saudi asking another: “We fince wars all around us, when shall we bomb the Jewish state?”
“When it becomes Shia.” (IANS)
(Saeed qvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are persol. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fair is foul and foul is fair in Syria
By Saeed qvi