While President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia preached partnership with Muslim leaders to end terrorism, critics say his alignment with one side of the Middle East’s sectarian divide could do more harm than good.
Trump’s criticizing of Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim nation, and his move to align with majority Sunni Muslim countries could further isolate Shiites and escalate conflict between the groups, said Gerald Feierstein, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Gulf Affairs.
“This does have the effect of making dialogue and problem-solving in the region more difficult,” said Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “To a certain extent, the visit isolated and eliminated the potential for peaceful resolution.”
After previously denouncing Islam and accusing Saudi Arabia of wanting “women as slaves and to kill gays,” Trump received a warm welcome upon his arrival last Sunday at the Arab-Islamic-U.S. Summit. Surrounded by 55 Muslim rulers, he delivered a speech about driving out terrorism, placing the blame on Iran for global extremism.
To a certain extent, the visit isolated and eliminated the potential for peaceful resolution.
Gerald Feierstein, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen
“Responsible nations must work together to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria, eradicate ISIS and restore stability to the region,” Trump said in his speech. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
But Trump’s actions demonstrate that he “has stepped into one of deepest sectarian divides in the world and taken a side,” said Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“President Trump’s entire foreign policy in the Middle East is based on creating a new coalition of conservative Sunni regimes, and that effectively takes sides,” she said, “geographically, politically, diplomatically and in the sectarian divide. And that’s dangerous on each count.”
Shiites make up about 10 to 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population – which totaled about 1.8 billion in 2015 – and have long faced persecution from Sunnis, who compose the remaining 85 to 90 percent.
President Trump’s entire foreign policy in the Middle East is based on creating a new coalition of conservative Sunni regimes, and that effectively takes sides.
Robin Wright, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
A majority of the world’s Shiite Muslims live in Iran, Iraq, India or Pakistan, with more than a third of the community settled in Iran, according to the Pew Research Center. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have predominantly Sunni Muslims in their populations.
“What he’s doing is not recognizing the big Sunni-Shiite schism out there, and aligning himself with one part of it,” Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said to McClatchy. “And I think that’s not where we ought to be.”
This schism dates to the seventh century, after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632. While Sunni Muslims believed the next leader should be chosen based on consensus, Shiites thought the successor should be related to the former prophet, and specifically Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. An aide assumed the title, and after Sunni troops killed Ali’s son, the two groups split.
Today, hostilities between Shiites and Sunnis take place across the Middle East. Iraq has widespread human rights issues, such as “sectarian hostility, widespread corruption and lack of transparency at all levels of government,” with attacks geared mainly toward Shiites, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016.
Today, hostilities between Shiites and Sunnis take place across the Middle East.
The Islamic State was responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing, among other crimes, targeted toward groups including Shiite Muslims in Syria, the report said.
In Bahrain, a Shiite-majority nation, Sunnis dominate political life. Two days after Trump’s speech, five people died and hundreds were detained after Bahraini police raided the village of Duraz, where the country’s leading Shiite cleric lives. Members of Bahrain’s population have previously complained about mistreatment by the Sunni monarchy.
Many Sunnis use the term “Safavids,” a group that rivaled the Sunni Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, to insult Shiite people by implying they want to convert all Sunni Muslims to the Shiite sect. The defeat of the Safavids led to the formation of today’s border between Iran and Turkey and Iraq, as well as the Safavids’ decision to promote Shiite Islam in their territories, separating themselves from their Sunni neighbors.
As of last July, the Islamic State had directed or inspired at least 143 terrorist attacks around the world, killing at least 2,043 people, CNN reported. The group massacred at least 1,500 Shiite Iraqi air force cadets at Camp Speicher in Tikrit in June 2014. Al Qaida was responsible for 31 attacks from 1992 to 2008 that killed more than 4,400, according to the Nonproliferation for Global Security Foundation.
Despite these attacks, Trump’s anti-terrorist rhetoric focused solely on Iran, which has been targeted by the Islamic State and has engaged in efforts to rid parts of the region of ISIS’ influence.
For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.
President Donald Trump, speaking in Riyadh
“For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” Trump told officials in Riyadh. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who sits on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said he didn’t think Trump would say anything to isolate Shiites.
“Obviously, I don’t think he said anything during the trip that was sectarian,” Rubio said. “He talked about the Muslim world in general.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump’s speech “wasn’t about taking sides; it’s about defining the enemies.”
“He’s trying to get the Sunni Islamic world to join in the fight against radical Islam,” Graham said. “The enemies are radical Islam vs. the world.”
Extremism exists among parts of the Shiite and Sunni populations, not one group entirely, Graham pointed out. The Islamic State and al Qaida are Sunni Muslim groups, while Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamist militant group. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabians.
He’s trying to get the Sunni Islamic world to join in the fight against radical Islam. The enemies are radical Islam vs. the world.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Instead of aligning with one group, the United States should attempt to reconcile the Shiites and Sunnis, Feinstein said.
“There are two ways of handling things. One, you can try and put things together and try to understand. You can try and see if you can resolve differences. Or you could grow further and further apart . . . (which) can lead to devastation,” she said. “We need to be reaching out our hand to both sides and try to stop what’s evolving into a major Sunni-Shiite war.”
Hassan Mneimneh, who specializes in Middle East and North Africa at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said that as “the only superpower in this world,” the United States has a responsibility to engage both parties in maintaining global stability.
While it’s too early to tell what might happen in the Trump administration, Mneimneh said, it “might not be wise to exclude Iran in its totality in the way Trump has appeared to do.”
“No side will ever win in order for terrorism to be defeated. Both Sunnis and Shiites have to be brought into the fold of an anti-terrorism campaign,” Mneimneh said. “Iran is a problem, but is not the only problem, and Iran can be part of the solution.”