BOB GARFIELD: If the sectarian divide ‘til now has been lost on American policymakers, it's also true that it has only recently become a major flashpoint in much of the Middle East. And as violent as the Shia/Sunni struggle has become in Iraq, says political science professor and blogger Marc Lynch, sectarian rivalry only now has become a media preoccupation throughout the region. MARC LYNCH: During the eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran, there was a very concerted effort, I think, on the part of a number of Arab governments to demonize the Shia as a way of building up support for Iraq in its war with Iran. So a lot of what we're hearing right now is repeating the history of the 1980s. BOB GARFIELD: How are they doing so?
MARC LYNCH: One example is that in mosques in Egypt, where the imams are approved by the government and there's considerable oversight, there have been a lot of really kind of nasty anti-Shia sermons being given. You're seeing a lot of it in government media, in newspapers, on TV, little video clips that are being circulated over email showing Shia political figures saying inflammatory things. BOB GARFIELD: Is there a single piece, either in the print press or on some satellite channel, that for you is quintessential in demonstrating how a kind of simmering tension has begun to boil over? MARC LYNCH: I think two pieces really jump out at me. One was by an Egypt intellectual named Fahmy Howeidy, who has long called for Shia/Sunni reconciliation. And he wrote in a piece in the newspaper Asharq al-Aswat that after Sadddam's execution he suddenly for the first time found himself feeling his Sunni identity and having real doubts about the political intentions of the Shia. The other piece was a sermon that was given by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Al-Jazeera very influential Sunni Islamist preacher, who in his sermon went on at some length about Shia proselytization and their attempts to convert the Sunnis to Shiism.
And this is an exceptionally widely-held belief. It seems to be a matter of utmost conviction across the region right now. I've seen explains of this from Algeria through Syria through the Gulf, not to mention Egypt and Jordan, that people are absolutely convinced that large numbers of Sunnis are converting to Shiism, and yet there's almost no evidence of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Like the protocols of the elders of Zion, a historical canard, entirely fabricated, only this time it's a Muslim-on-Muslim fabrication.
MARC LYNCH: I think there's a certain segment of Americans who might say that this is a good thing because it's helping to build support for a confrontation against Iran. But I think you're right. It's the same kind of process of the easy demonization based on rumors and these allegations, which I think we should be very worried about. BOB GARFIELD: Now, what about satellite TV? Last time you were on, we were talking about a confrontation in a debate on Al-Jazeera between a firebrand Sunni and a debating opponent whom he described as a Persian shoe – in other words, an apologist for the Shiite theocracy in Iran. Tell me how that has spread throughout the Muslim world. MARC LYNCH: That program had a huge impact and generated a huge amount of debate. It's interesting, the host of the program, Dr. Faisal Al Qasim, just published an op-ed a few days ago in which he pleaded with people not to fall for the deception of an Iranian conspiracy. He compared it to the whipping up of the fear of Communism during the Cold War. So it's interesting that even though his program certainly helped contribute to some of this increasingly tense atmosphere, he's now calling on people, like the Muslim Brotherhood is, like al-Qaradawi is and a lot of these other populist figures, now they're calling on people to take a step back and don't fall into this, what they consider to be a trap being set by the United States and by American allies and kind of preparing way towards war with Iran.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what about the United States position in all of this? It, after all, did just overthrow a Sunni/Baathist regime in Iraq. There is now a Shiite-dominated government there, and yet the United States is saber-rattling towards Iran and saying, in the most public of ways, you know, keep out of Iraq or there will be very serious consequences. How is this strategy playing on the Arab street?
MARC LYNCH: I've heard a number of people talking about how Iran is overplaying its hand in Iraq; that this has turned some people against Iran and against the Shia because they feel like Iran is going too far in trying to exert its hegemony over Iraq. But it doesn't lead, I think, to actually wanting to see war with Iran or confrontation with Iran, and I think that's going to be a big issue over the next few months.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Marc. Well, thank you once again.
MARC LYNCH: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Williams College. You can read his ongoing analysis of Arab media at abuaardvark.com.