Misreading the Sunni-Shia Divide

The deepening crisis in Lebanon initially generated a flurry of commentary claiming that Israel had become engaged in a conflict against Shia Islamist radicalism, and that its intent to defeat (Iran-backed) Hezbollah had the full support of the Sunni Arab world. The initial criticism of Hezbollah by the Sunni Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan fueled this analysis, and one op-ed piece from a U.S. newspaper published a week after hostilities broke out was titled "Iran against the Arabs."

Furthermore, an advisor to Israel's defense minister recently said: "We are finally going to fight Hezbollah on the ground. The Israeli people are ready for this, and the Sunni Muslim world also expects us to fight Shia fundamentalism. We are going to deliver." But the hastily drawn conclusion that Israel's strikes in Lebanon had exposed the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East -- to the strategic benefit of Israel and the United States -- was incorrect. Resentment in the Arab world about the worsening situation in Lebanon is growing among both Sunni and Shia Arabs.

Nevertheless, the rush to assign "good guy" and "bad guy" labels to Sunni and Shia Muslims has characterized a lot of punditry about Middle East politics for at least the last 25 years. Not only has this commentary been flawed but it has also been contradictory. As soon as geopolitical circumstances change, the positive or negative labels attributed to Sunnis and Shia are immediately reversed.

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