Iran’s courting of Arab Christians is nasty politics

Jordanians light candles for Nahed Hattar, who was shot dead the previous day outside an Amman court. / AFP / Khalil Mazraawi / AFP
Jordanians light candles for Nahed Hattar, who was shot dead the previous day outside an Amman court. / AFP / Khalil Mazraawi / AFP

There was a revealing subtext to the assassination in Amman of Nahed Hattar last weekend. Hattar, a Jordanian Christian, was killed after posting a blasphemous and satirical cartoon on his Facebook page.

Hattar happened to be a contributor to the Lebanese pro-Hizbollah newspaper Al Akhbar, and his murder was played up in the publication, not unnaturally, as a victory of obscurantism over cultural openness. The paper’s cultural editor Pierre Abu Saab, himself a Christian, penned an article on the crime under the headline: “Thought in the age of takfir”. This was a play on words as “thought” and “takfir”, or declaring someone to be an apostate, sound very similar in Arabic.

Al Akhbar’s reaction was normal from a publication reacting to the death of one of its contributors. However, by highlighting the religious fanaticism angle, it was feeding into a larger theme adopted by Iran and its allies in the region since the start of the war in Syria, and that has been pursued amid the ongoing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Even as Iran and Hizbollah have perpetrated the most horrific crimes in Syria, mainly against civilians, they have portrayed their defence of Bashar Al Assad’s regime as a fight against “takfiris” and Islamist extremism. This has been combined with routine denunciations of Wahhabism, the interpretation of Islam practised in certain Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This was most prominently shown in the decision of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to publish an opinion piece in The New York Times in mid-September, in which he wrote: “Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, militant Wahhabism has undergone a series of face-lifts, but underneath, the ideology remains the same – whether it’s the Taliban, the various incarnations of Al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state.”

Mr Zarif’s article was a transparent attempt to put his foes on the defensive, with a sympathetic American public no less. Given fears in the West of the effect of Muslim extremism on Europe and the United States, this was astute. It was also dishonest, as Mr Zarif’s allies, from Mr Al Assad to Hizbollah, have behaved in highly sectarian ways, empowering extremists.

But one facet of this, which Hattar’s death brought to the forefront, is that in their regional ambitions, Iran and its allies have consciously sought to draw the region’s minorities to their side. By depicting themselves as a bulwark against religious fanaticism, they have rendered more natural the idea of an alliance of minorities against the Sunni majority.

Mr Zarif would deny such an intention, arguing that in his article he wrote that it was fellow Sunnis who were most “beleaguered” by Wahhabism. Yet since it is the extremists who have the momentum these days, and since Iran’s allies have actively marginalised moderate Sunnis in places such as Iraq and Lebanon, the argument loses some resonance.

The project of an alliance of minorities may seem fanciful today. However, the idea was very effective in Syria, where the Assad regime and Iran played on the fears of Christians and, in a different way, Kurds to push them to align with the regime, or at least against the rebels. In Lebanon, similar anxieties have led Christian followers of Michel Aoun to endorse his alliance with Hizbollah, directed largely against the Sunni leadership.

That this has been ably manipulated by Iran and Hizbollah is irrelevant. What both know is that most minorities in the region, even Sunni non-Arab minorities, have generations of uncertainty with regard to the Sunni Arab majority. This opening allows them to advance Iran’s agenda in the region by building on ties with regional minorities, all under the shaky rubric that minorities must unify to protect themselves.

That is not necessarily to suggest that Al Akhbar played up the Hattar assassination in the context of a regional plot to heighten minority worries. Things are rarely as clear- cut. But the newspaper has systematically taken an “anti-Wahhabi” line on Syria and has been highly attuned to its Aounist readership when it comes to Lebanese affairs, helping to isolate Saad Hariri, the former prime minister.

However, the reality is that most of the Middle East’s minorities have no stake in taking a position against the region’s majority population. The wheel of fortune invariably turns, and when it does, minorities will gain the most by having remained on good terms with everyone, even in the face of polarising conflicts.

With the region today divided between Iran and Saudi Arabia, this argument is even stronger. Iran is as vulnerable to hubris as anyone else. For an alliance of minorities to become an alliance against the majority is potentially suicidal, particularly when this is being encouraged only to bolster a project for regional domination.

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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