HOW HE SEES IT Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Gulf runs deep

Last week U.S. authorities in Iraq revealed the contents of a memo purportedly written by Abu Musab Zarqawi, an Al-Qaida operative. This remarkable document calls for sparking a sectarian war in Iraq to wake sleepy Sunni Muslims to the threat of destruction and death at the hands of Shiites. The letter, even if it is a forgery, faithfully expresses Al-Qaida's attitude toward sectarianism, and it should help convince Americans of how deep the Sunni-Shiite conflict is in the Persian Gulf.
Many Sunnis, especially religious extremists, hate Shiites more than they hate Israel. Al-Qaida's basic credo puts the matter bluntly: "We believe that the Shiites are ... the most evil creatures under the heavens." Sectarian tension is woven into day-to-day life in a number of Gulf societies. It's a well-known fact that in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Shiites, though a numerical majority, were second-class citizens. But few Americans know that a similar imbalance exists in Bahrain, where the Sunni-dominated state rules a society that is 75 percent Shiite. Next door in Saudi Arabia, the Shiites make up a much smaller percentage of the total population (10 to 15 percent), but they are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. This sectarian geography has prompted at least one prominent Saudi cleric to call for the "ethnic cleansing" of the Shiites.
Optimists in Washington have argued that the establishment of representative government in Iraq will have a kind of democratic domino effect. Zarqawi's war plan, however, forces us to recognize another possibility: a successful U.S. policy could also lead to sectarian conflict. Democracy in Baghdad would spell Shiite domination over the Iraqi system. This prospect is a bitter one for some Sunnis in surrounding countries, and Al-Qaida is working to exploit the resentment. We can already read the writing on the wall in Saudi Arabia, which must be considered -- after Iraq itself -- as Al-Qaida's primary target.
Intimate enemy
When it comes to Shiites and their aspirations, the radicals of Al-Qaida and the Saudi religious establishment have identical views: Shiites are the intimate enemy. They dwell among the Sunnis and outwardly make a show of friendship and brotherhood.
The current international crisis, many Saudis believe, is providing the Shiites with an opportunity to do just that. Even before Hussein's regime fell, the story of Ibn Alqami was circulating in Saudi religious circles. A Shiite minister to the last Abbasid caliph, Alqami betrayed his ruler by conspiring with Hulagu, the Mongol leader who in 1258 sacked Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid Empire, the flower of Islamic civilization. Over the past year, Sunni religious conservatives have habitually referred to George Bush as Hulagu II. The moment that U.S.-led forces turned their guns toward Iraq, Sunnis began to ask in reference to the Iraqi Shiites, "Will the grandchildren of Ibn Alqami follow in their grandfather's footsteps?" When the Iraqi Shiites erupted in joy at the fall of Hussein's regime, their Sunni detractors lamented that once again Baghdad was toppled from within.
The Shiites of Saudi Arabia are also viewed as exploiting the crisis to extract concessions from embattled Sunnis. Thus, three weeks after Hussein fell, they petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah for equal rights. (Saudi Shiites do not enjoy basic religious freedoms.) That the crown prince would even so much as read the petition aroused deep feelings of resentment among traditionalists. It fell to Safar Hawali, an influential cleric, to vent the feelings of indignation. In an indirect rebuke to the crown prince, Hawali wrote that God's law requires suppressing the Shiite heresy. Were the government to grant such a request, he wrote, "it would lose its legitimacy, place the majority under a tyranny in the interest of the minority, and contravene the constitution of the country."
So far, the crown prince has not bowed to Safar Hawali's demands. Abdullah continues to entertain the Shiite proposals within the framework of his "National Dialogue," a series of political discussions that may yet grow into a serious reform movement. Al-Qaida condemns the crown prince's project, precisely because it includes blasphemous groups such as the Shiites. For its part, the Saudi religious establishment refrains from directly criticizing either Abdullah or his National Dialogue. But it does not shrink from launching indirect attacks along the lines of Hawali's rebuke.
Saudi textbooks
For instance, in early January, 156 clerics signed a petition decrying the editing of Saudi textbooks. The government has already deleted passages attesting to the eternal enmity of Christians and Jews toward Islam, and reformers are calling for even more changes to bring the country in harmony with the West. In language identical to Al-Qaida denunciations of the National Dialogue, the petition depicts the proposals for a new curriculum as an anti-Islamic plot orchestrated by Crusaders, Jews and Shiites.
Several weeks ago Al-Qaida published an article that discussed the likelihood of a violent blow to the United States that would also destabilize Saudi Arabia. Zarqawi's sectarian bloodbath is undoubtedly the kind of event that the author had in mind.
X The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.