Sects and Death in the Middle East

Mon Jun 19, 6:39 AM ET

Washington (The Weekly Standard) Vol. 011, Issue 39 - 6/26/2006 - Beirut
It's unclear how damaging the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi will be to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq (http://search.news.yahoo.com/search/news/?p=Iraq). But the admiration of sympathizers like Hamas, which called him a "brother-fighter," reminds us that he was not just a blood-drenched killer and lowlife. He was also the product of his region. The impact of his career on his extremist peers and the Middle East's Sunni mainstream will therefore bear close watching.

Even happier than the White House at his demise are Middle Eastern minorities, especially the Shiites, for they, rather than the Americans, were at the core of his exterminationist program. For Sunnis, the Shiites have always been barely tolerable heretics, but Zarqawi took this traditional loathing to new heights. Shortly before his death, he called Lebanon's fanatical Islamist militia Hezbollah a cover for Israel (http://search.news.yahoo.com/search/news/?p=Israel)--because, after all, they were Shiites who stood between the Zionists and the wrath of the Sunni resistance.

Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah and supporters were most certainly appalled and quite possibly terrified. After all, one reason for waging the "resistance" against Israel is to prove that the minority Shiites are Arabs in good standing just as much as the majority Sunnis. Indeed, since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has been bragging that it was the first Arab group to make the Zionists taste defeat, and thus that the Shiites had managed to out-Sunni the Sunnis.

In effect, Zarqawi said he saw through the charade, and that Hezbollah should disarm--a demand that reminds us why it is probably going to be impossible to convince Nasrallah to give up his weapons peacefully. Hezbollah may well believe its own rhetoric--that only its militia can protect Lebanon from Israel. But the Shiites also have to worry that, if they put down their guns, they are vulnerable to Sunni violence, a threat that Zarqawi's spectacular Iraq campaign made very real to Shiites across the region. Thus, in response to the insult that he was doing the work of the Zionists, Nasrallah described Zarqawi in similar terms: "The killers in Iraq, no matter what sect they belong to, are Americans and Zionists and CIA (http://search.news.yahoo.com/search/news/?p=CIA) and Mossad agents."

This Arab habit of blaming everything on the United States, or Israel, or the West in general, strikes many observers as evidence of faulty logical processes, or an abdication of basic political responsibility. But it is also part of an unspoken ceasefire pact--a reminder among Arabs that they have agreed not to attack each other and will focus their energies on external enemies in order to keep the peace at home.

For over half a century, Arab leaders from Nasser to Nasrallah have all sounded the same note--we Arabs are in a battle to the death against Israel, the United States, the West, colonialism, etc. Zarqawi broke that pact. We Sunnis are Arabs, said Zarqawi, but you lot are Shia and we will kill you.

And so Ayman al-Zawahiri's letter last year urging Zarqawi to leave the Shiites alone and focus on the Americans indicates that, at least compared with the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the al Qaeda home office is staffed by rather mainstream Arab demagogues. Many Arabs believe that Israel would be lost without U.S. support. The same holds true in the bin Laden-Zawahiri worldview, where Washington is the only thing protecting weak Arab regimes from jihadist takeovers. Zarqawi believed, for whatever combination of religious, political, criminal, and sociopathic rationales, that to truly set the region in flames and bring down the established order, you get the people to fight each other.

Zarqawi tapped into the id of the region, the violent subterranean intra-Arab hatreds that no one wants to look at very closely, neither locals nor foreigners, because the picture it paints is so dauntingly gruesome that it suggests the Middle East will be a basket case for decades to come.