Arabs and Iran: Religion, Politics and Ethnicity


I came across this new poll made by YouGov and thought the results were interesting: Apparently most Arabs from the Gulf countries think Iran is a bigger threat than Israel. I knew this was the Gulf states’ opinion but it puzzles me coming from the population.
I couldn’t find the original poll data and have no figures per country, but anyway I wonder whether this feeling is caused by some political aspects or religious ones or both. And what role does the Arabic Nationalism play in it?

Shiite movements started as a political group during  the Ali/Muawiya conflict. They continued during the Omayyad period and also the Abbassid caliphate while getting an ideological background which was necessary for the movement’s perennity. Their historical foundation added to their clerical institution, and now Iran’s existence as an Islamic republic strengthened the religious and political ties.

As to the Arabs, I guess I can divide the Arab world into two parts, the usual ones:

On one side we have the Maghreb with its mostly Sunnite inhabitants. The region experienced a Shiite rule under the Fatimids when Shiite religious ideology was enforced on/adopted by the Berbers. But soon the Zirids revolted against the Fatimids, abandoned the Shiite path and went back to the original Sunnite group.
Closer to us, we regularly hear of Algerians (mainly in Algiers and Oran) or Moroccans who become Shiites. Morocco decided to cut its relations with Iran which she accused of encouraging the Moroccans to leave the Maliki Sunnite madhab. Of course, there were other reasons to the Moroccan reaction. Algeria on the other hand admits the existence of these “conversions” while minimising their importance, and it never accused Iran of being behind them. But Algeria had cut its relations with Iran after it accused it of supporting the FIS. Things improved afterwards and the two countries seem to enjoy a good relationship.

The North African people in most support the right of Iran to own nuclear technology for peaceful (and not so peaceful) goals. They don’t see it as a threat to their security. They also respect Iran for standing next to Hizbullah and Hamas. And despite what the Sunnites think of the Shiite creed, there is little animosity felt towards them.
Actually only a few North Africans, among those who claim to be salafis, hate the Iranians altogether with Hizbullah because they are Shiites, or non-Muslims in other words.

On the other side we have the Mashreq and more specifically the Gulf countries. Politically, there are so many conflicting points that I will mention only a few:

  • Yemen’s problems with the Shiite Houthis. Iran offered a mediation which was refused by Yemen. Some Yemeni officials think Iran supports the Houthis.
  • UAE’s conflict with Iran about the Abu Musa islands. Yet Iranians make important businesses in the UAE.
  • Iran’s declaration about Bahrain. Iran apologised and Bahrain now supports Iran in its attempts to get nuclear abilities.
  • Iraq’s situation and the internal divide between the Shiites (supposedly supported by Iran), the Sunnites and the Kurds.
  • KSA’s Wahhabi ideology which is by definition against Shiites. And KSA’s strategic influence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere which is facing Iran’s activities.
  • The existence of Shiite minorities and majorities under Sunnite minorities rule in the Gulf. And Shiite and Sunnite Arabs in Iran under Shiite Persian rule.

Having said this, one could understand the positions of these Arab states towards Iran and their lack of confidence in their neighbour. One could even understand the populations’ mistrust of Iran.
It could even be more understandable if you consider the Arab Nation concept which is competing with Persia, and the Sunnite versus Shiite aspect.

But how on earth could they think Iran is more dangerous and threatening than Israel? I still don’t know the answer. Any ideas?

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3 thoughts on “Arabs and Iran: Religion, Politics and Ethnicity

  1. This is a great topic MnarviDZ. I must admit that I find Iran a fascinating country on so many levels, it is very creative compared to other Sunni Muslim states especially on the political level.

    It must be pointed out that Shiism has never been regarded as a menace on religious grounds but more on political grounds. This is not to say that from a Sunni perspective, Shiism is considered rife with ‘innovations’ (bida3) and this is generally frowned upon.

    But to answer your question, I think that people perceive Iran as being more of a threat than Israel because of the religious discourse. As we all know, the masses are completely subjugated by religious figures in all Arab societies to the point where, if politicians want something, they resort to the religious figures to persuade the masses of it. I am not saying the entire religious establishment is corrupt, am just saying they have practically unchallenged power over the masses and this is worrying and far from the ideal situation.

    Even moderate Sunni scholars like Al Qaradawi have spoken about the Iranian threat in very strong language (see here and here). Al Qaradawi seems to be worried about the sectarian divisions which would risk to destabilize Arab societies and make them even more vulnerable than they are now. It is perceived that the US and Israel are more of a threat to Iran at this stage, whereas Iran is seen as a country with expansion and domination ambitions which emanate directly from the political and the religious motivations which historically gave rise to Shiism as we know it today in the first place (see this analysis for more details).

    To sum up, it would appear that states and religious scholars all agree that Iran is a threat politically and religiously. The masses can hardly have a different opinion. For them, Shiites are equivalent to atheists or Christians proselyting and eroding Islam itself. Israel can never be a threat in that sense.

  2. Your summary makes sense!
    Iran as any regional power seeks expansion, and I believe it did have the same ambitions under the Shah rule. Was the Arab opinion the same, or has it changed because of the Islamic regime implemented in today’s Iran? Also, imagine Iran was an Arab country, would the other Arab states/populations react in the same way?

    Regarding ElQaradawi, I didn’t find his words strong (I read only the second link). I actually share most of his opinions on this topic, and it’s because of these not so strong opinions that he is attacked by what he calls the extreme scholars.

  3. MnarviDZ, the Shah’s view of regional power was to listen to his masters (the US) and oblige. As such, he was much like all Arab leaders. The Islamic revolution and the Iranian people wanted to change that, this was not their view of what Iran’s role should be. The revolution succeeded in Iran because of or thanks to Khomeini’s genius and the very structure of Shia thought which made allowances for more structured hierarchies which would be compatible with modern political governance. I mean, Iran despite everything, is one of the most serious democracies in the Middle East.

    Iran is problematic to Arabs (the states) in the same way it is problematic to the US.

    As for your other question, I think that it has nothing to do with the fact that Iranians are not Arabs although historical rivalries are convenient to dig up by politicians in order to enflame the masses (what better than nonsense about identities which are a modern concept, I mean, nobody really bothered about their identity before the post-colonial entity which we call the Nation State).

    What motivates Arab states is their common interests tied up with their oil dealings with the West. That is why they all turned against Saddam and Iraq, despite it being the birth land of Arabism (the Baath Party).

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