Fair is foul and foul is fair in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

Like Henry Kissinger, New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, belongs to a growing tribe of strategists who insist that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by a much bigger, Shia-Sunni faultline.

Even though Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackers, Wahabism, Salafism, are all traced to Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and the West in general have developed a high comfort level with Saudi Arabia regardless. In this framework, the West has placed the Shia world in opposition to it.

Was it always like this? Consider this recent historical perspective.

“As we approach the season of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would like to nominate the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for this year’s medal.” The recommendation came from NYT ace columnist, Friedman. For emphasis, he added: “I’m serious.”

This was in 2005. Friedman, was “in” with George W. Bush. In ecstatic pieces for the world’s most powerful newspaper, the NYT, he repeatedly described the occupation of Iraq as history’s greatest effort at democratization.

Americans had come against Saddam Hussain, a tough Baathist and atheist by belief and a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction. Remember Saddam invoked “Allah” for political mobilization only after the 1992 operation Desert Storm. He had Allah o Akbar inscribed on an otherwise secular emblem as an afterthought.

The eclipse of Saddam brought great relief to Shias in the South – around the holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and oil rich enclaves neighbouring Basra. For the first time the world realized that Shias were an overwhelming majority in all of Iraq.

A triangular situation had emerged – the occupying Americans, Sunni (plus Kurdish) minority and the Shia majority. The Shias, led by Ayatollah Sistani, played a straight political hand. Once occupation had taken place, he encouraged the occupiers against his tormentor, Saddam Hussain.

That is when Friedman was moved to write:

“If some kind of democracy takes root here (Iraq), it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the dominant Iraqi Shiite communal leader, Ayatollah Sistani.”

“It was Sistani who insisted that the elections not be postponed in the face of the Baathist-fascist insurgency. And it was Sistani who ordered Shiites not to retaliate for the Sunni Baathist and Jihadist attempts to drag them into civil war by attacking Shiite mosques and massacring Shiite civilians.”

Friedman proceeded to compare the Ayatollah with other icons who helped bring democracy to their respective countries – Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. The quality of democracy that obtains in Russia, Iraq and South must be left for Friedman to applaud.

Rightly or wrongly, Friedman extrapolated from his experience in Iraq. This is at a variance from the fraud Bush’s Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney sought to perpetrate on April 9, 2003, when he had the marines pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdous square and attributed the event to a popular uprising.

Friedman zigzagged along shifting convictions, until by August 2015, he began to show the first signs of tolerating something so totally different from Sistani as to take one’s breath away. In a conversation with Barack Obama he appeared to be nodding agreement on a kind of positive ambiguity about the ISIS.

Sudden and exponential growth of the Islamic State was something of a mystery. It is in the nature of the post colonial media that the views of Developing country elites particularly in the Arab world (except allies like Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and Jordan) never get reflected in the media. How did the elites in Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries view the IS phenomenon. Without exception, they described it as an American, French, British, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperative effort. I know first hand. Ask the ambassadors in New Delhi.

If this is what they thought, why were they silent? They were not silent, but their protestations were ignored by the global networks. So hopelessly one sided is the global media, that even shining stars of independent journalism like Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk are killed by a simple trick of being ignored.

Writing on Donald Trump’s proposed visit to the centres of semitic religions, Riyadh, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Fisk satirically speculates: “Trump will be able to ask Netanyahu for help against the IS without – presumably – realizing that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never – ever – bombed IS in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al Nusra which is part of Al Qaeda which attacked the US on 9/11.”

By universal consent, Fisk is among the most knowledgeable journalist who has lived in West Asia for decades. But the Imperial Information order keeps him outside the ken.

Truth however has a way of surfacing. Let us revert to Friedman’s interview with Obama. Friedman asked Obama why he delayed taking action against the IS when it was in its nascent stages?

Obama replies: “That we did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.”

In other words, by the US President’s own admission, the IS at that stage worked as an asset to apply pressure on Maliki who was in bad adour with the US because he had refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the US ironically on the advice of exactly the person Friedman was recommending for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 – Sistani.

Lo and behold, in his recent column, Friedman is advising Trump to give up the pretense of fighting IS – because that is not in the US (and presumably Israel’s) national interest.

He wants “Trump to be Trump – utterly cynical and unpredictable. ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias.”

“In Syria” Friedman recommends, “Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In other words, let the IS be a Western asset.

A recent cartoon with a most succinct message shows one Saudi ask another: “We finance wars all around us, when shall we bomb the Jewish state?” “When it becomes Shia.”

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

But for Atal Behari Vajpayee, Kurdish Iraq was nearly ours

BY SAEED NAQVI

Hard to believe, but Mosul, currently in the news, would have been ours today had Atal Behari Vajpayee not played spoil sport.

After their invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Americans realized fairly early that a full fledged occupation for an unspecified period was not possible without allies taking responsibility to administer large swathes of the ancient land.

Seldom has a US ambassador been more effective than David Mulford was. It took very little persuasion for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandez, and Army Chief N.C. Vij to fall in line.

Ships were readied, battalions shortlisted, Generals chosen for India’s first imperialist adventure since the Cholas. We were going to rule a part of that country which alone of all the 52 Muslim states had stood by us at the UN, OIC and elsewhere on the Kashmir issue.

I suppose it must have been self interest which caused us to turn turtle on Iraq as soon as the Americans were in occupation of the country.

Our ambassador to Baghdad, B.B. Tyagi, even risked his life. Iraqi resistance had identified him as a diplomat who was supportive of the occupation. No wonder I was once ushered into his presence while he sat in bed, his legs outstretched, eyes wide open as in a daze, his hands on automatic weapons by both his sides. It was a frame for a possible Woody Allen war film.

Just as the first US representative, Paul Bremer, was convinced that the occupation would be a cakewalk, so was South Block and, indeed, Tyagi.

Bremer, a devout Roman Catholic, had turned up with a batch of Priests who smacked their lips at the prospect of saving souls in a post Saddam Iraq. It turned out that Antique smugglers did rather better, cleaning out the Baghdad museum on America’s watch.

South Block, like Bremer, had assumed that once Saddam’s yoke was lifted from their necks, Iraqis would turn up in droves to hug the Americans.

In anticipation of Iraq’s immediate future in American hands, South Block parked Tyagi in a three star hotel in Amman where he spent mornings, afternoons, evenings watching CNN and BBC for the American progress in Iraq. The irony was that Lyse Ducet of the BBC was herself in occupation of the terrace of Amman’s Intercontinental hotel watching her Arab staff count their worry beads, waiting for the American flag to be fluttering over all of Iraq.

Were this to happen, Tyagi would helicopter into Baghdad’s Green Zone and offer his credentials to Bremer or his Iraqi nominee.

Just imagine, New Delhi was all but ready to open its embassy with the American occupiers of a country which had given unstinted support to India always, particularly against Pakistani machinations at the UN.

This being the state of affairs, who could blame the US for being so confident of India’s enthusiastic willingness to partner them and take charge of Kurdish Iraq. It had very nearly happened, had Vajpayee not decided to show spine – just in the nick of time.

He kept his head while those around him were losing theirs. On April 9, American marines brought down Saddam Hussain’s statue and exactly the media which is lined up behind Hillary Clinton, attributed the statue’s fall to popular rage.

Vajpayee kept his counsel. On April 18 he turned up in Srinagar. Remember, Armies of India and Pakistan were in an eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Indian Parliament.

The fall of Saddam’s statue had registered differently with Vajpayee – this scale of western triumphalism was a source of anxiety for him. An “awesome” power has arisen. In the new situation, regional quarrels had to be composed, he said. Dramatically, he extended his hand of Peace to Pakistan.

This was the beginning of the process which led to India and Pakistan signing an agreement in Islamabad on January 4, 2004 that forbids the use of a country’s territory for cross border terrorism. The word was not kept by Pakistan, but that is another story.

The “shining India” campaign mounted by the BJP recoiled on it during the May 2004 elections. But for Indo-Pak relations, it was an unfortunate turn. When Vajpayee became External Affairs Minister in the 1977 Janata government, he had made up his mind on Pakistan: “we cannot change our neighbours.” Among his first foreign visits was to Pakistan in February 1978. The bus journey to Lahore in February 1999, and the January 2004 visit which resulted in the agreement against cross border terrorism, were audacious. But there were reverses.

He was able to cushion the reverses because of his cross party stature nationally and his standing with the RSS. But he persisted because he had grasped the triangle in which the country had trapped itself since 1947 – Srinagar-New Delhi, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim are one complex of issues. Unless a holistic view is taken of this triangle to outline suitable policy, eternal social strife would remain the nation’s lot.

He had the vision to pull India back from the brink on Iraq. Just imagine what would have been our fate had ships carrying Indian troops actually set sail.

The troop build up against Pakistan after the Parliament attack was also a calculated move. The Sole super power was in place to pull the protagonists back from the brink. It is just as well that neither Russia, and China (nor the US) paid much credence to the “surgical strikes”. In the absence of an overarching super power, real “surgical strikes” may cause the situation to spiral out of control.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Changing American views on Israel may determine peace outcome

BY SAEED NAQVI

To win the March 17 Israeli elections or to postpone them (because he may lose), Benjamin Netanyahu is turning heaven and earth. Last month’s Israeli air strikes killed six Hezbullah commanders and an Iranian General in the Syrian town of Quneitra.

The purpose was to invite retaliation. Warlike atmosphere would block Secretary of State John Kerry with his skates on towards a nuclear deal with Iran.

What will be his next gambit? Some big skirmish in Gaza or Southern Lebanon or further afield. But after his March 3 meeting with Obama?

One may be forgiven for asking what came of the meeting of 21 world leaders in London, who swore to fight the ISIS? Those fighting the ISIS on the ground are Iran, Syria, Hezbullah, precisely last month’s Israeli targets. And now Jordan has been dragged in. At what possible cost? American public see the ISIS is the biggest threat to US interests, not Iran as Netanyahu does.

Whether Netanyahu wins or loses, Israel for the time being looks the most secure real estate in the region. But how long does a nation look safe when everything around it is falling apart?

Israel was once a softer place, with gentle Kibbutz and, in the shadow of Mount Hermon, Fa Giladi seemed a wonderful place to read, reflect, write. Peace was broken occasionally by shelling from Habbariya in Southern Lebanon. Both, Palestinian resistance and Israeli determination, seemed reconcilable – at some future date.

Then, suddenly, everything began to look irreconcilable once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Even before that date, Ariel Sharon had moved into Lebanon. That was the beginning of the gradual decline of the world’s most elegant city – Beirut. Nabi Beri’s Shia Amal gave way to the religious, militarized Hezbullah. So, Israeli action splintered Lebanon into its religious components.

A decade later when Bosnian brutalities were daily fare in the global media, a senior French official told me in Paris: “The balance of power had shifted against the Christians in Lebanon; it was now shifting against the Muslims in Bosnia.”

At the time that Sharon was in Lebanon, the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Began the biggest manufacture in history of Islamist Jihadists on a scale that would match Pope Urban’s crusades beginning 1095. Zbigniew Brzezinski said he would not worry about some “stirred up Muslims” so long as the West won the Cold War.

That may have been Brzezinski’s perspective. But various world capitals, New Delhi included, were gripped by deep anxiety. The Indian Foreign office, like the rest of the establishment, was split down the middle. The Foreign Secretary was waiting for the coup to succeed in Moscow, while his colleagues celebrated when Boris Yeltsin appeared atop a tank in Moscow.

The inauguration of bandit capitalism in Russia was a benign act, we were told. The other day I saw Bill Clinton sharing his deep understanding of Russia with Fareed Zakaria. “Yeltsin was a much better President than Vladimir Putin”. The entire New York Times reading public of the free world would agree.

Was it Western triumphalism or pique, I cannot be sure, but one by one targets were picked from among the Arab states once in the Soviet bloc. Saddam Hussain’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine as Hitler. He may have been worse than Hitler, but the thousand mile road he laid from Amman to Baghdad was like a continuous billiard table. Hospitals, schools, colleges, universities thrived.

The best fish in the world, Masgouf, caught from the Dajlah (Tigris) and roasted on open fires along the river is now a delicacy lost. When I looked for my favourite Masgouf hut two years ago, I was told they now get their fish from a nearby lake because the river fish had turned scavenger. This was discovered by a customer who found a baby’s finger in the stomach of the fish.

I would not miss my delicacies if there were other compensations. But no. Totally secular Baath socialism was replaced by acute Shia-Sunni divisions.

After a decade of what Obama thought was a pointless involvement in Iraq, he was, at work again, this time in Damascus and then in Tripoli, destroying a secular and a moderate society to be replaced by rampaging Islam.

Nothing will ever measure upto Beirut, but Damascus too was quite a “markaz” for gracious living. Tripoli would not be boring if it had bistros and bars lining up the splendid boulevard. But it could boast being a city without Mullahs; the most educated in the neighbourhood could lead the Friday prayers. Its military academics for women, an efficient cradle to grave welfare system were not to be sniffed at.

Iraq, Syria, Libya, possibly because of their earlier Soviet affiliations, needed to be cleansed more thoroughly. In the new landscaping of the region, Israel looks fine. But, is it really? Surrounded by dysfunctional societies which were once the region’s most efficient states. Dictatorships, yes, but functional, unlike Afghan democracy where the winner is declared CEO and the loser, President.

Israel must know that a sort of fatigue is setting in all around at its persistent intransigence. I commend to my Israeli friends that they read Shibley Telhami’s opinion poll on shifting ideas in the US about Israel, something even Thomas Friedman is worried about. There may be a shaft of light.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Collapsing credibility of Western media: An opportunity for India

BY SAEED NAQVI

Even the skeptics now agree that India shall be a power in the Asian century. To insure this rise to the top India must maximize all its assets. One asset for which it has a reputation is a lively media, a function of a relatively stable democratic order since Independence.

If information is power, it must follow that we start taking steps towards some minimal control over the sources of information. The liveliness of our media, bordering on license, exhausts itself primarily on issues of a local nature. BJP, Congress, dalits, minorities, rape, riots, corruption inflation and so on.

Major powers have to be seen regionally and globally too. This does not mean that we change our style of diplomacy, have ready-made statements on ISIS, the battle for Kobane, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Beijing, Ukraine, SAARC, the sharp right turn in European elections, the dream and reality of shale gas.

New Delhi must not make pronouncements each day, but the country must appear to be engaged in these developments. The impression that these are games only for the Imperial, big league, stultifies us under the colonial canopy. It is interesting that countries without a tradition for a free press – Russia, China, Iran – are making efforts to put across their points of view on International affairs. Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV and Russia’s RTV and a host of others are building up a reputation as credible sources of information. They tend to break the monopoly of the global electronic media. Fortunately for these new networks, this precisely is the time when the world is looking for alternative sources of news.

This quest is because of a straightforward reason: diminishing credibility of the Western media barring exceptions. Ironically, their credibility was higher during the cold war.

When war breaks out, the first casualty is always the truth. Since the West has been perpetually involved in conflict beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the media has had to do so much of drum beating that it has lost credit in the information market place.

The Emir of Qatar has always been contrary to Saudi interests. During Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October-November 2001 and the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Qatari owned Al Jazeera channel was bombed in Kabul and Baghdad for speaking the truth inimical to the House of Saud. Al Jazeera’s viewership grew exponentially.

Neither the West nor the Saudis had a media with sufficient credibility to mobilize the region during the Libyan operation. “The Arab Spring will blow away all the monarchies in the region unless we hang together”, screamed the Saudi King Abdullah. Qatar fell in line. But Al Jazeera had to tell so many lies during the Syrian civil war that Al Jazeera’s stock also sank.

This is the state of affairs in the global media when the world is riveted on ISIS, Ukraine, Boko Haram, Afghanistan and Ebola. These issues appear more incomprehensible by the day. The field is wide open for alternative channels.

Last week I received a puzzling call from Baghdad. The caller, whom I had met during my visit to Iraq two years ago, wanted my insights on the ISIS. He had read my syndicated column which had the sort of information the Iraqi media did not have.

Neither the government sources in Baghdad nor the resourceful clerics in Karbala and Najaf had any idea of what was happening in the ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. The local media was the government’s doormat. CNN and BBC could not be trusted.

In this state of affairs, independent news is a priceless commodity.

Western and Arab sources suffer from lack of credibility on any West Asian story. The West has vested interests protecting its version on Ukraine and Hong Kong. These versions are challenged by Russian and Chinese sources which, in their turn, are not free from angularities either.

It quite beats me that New Delhi has never recognized the enormous respect in which it is held globally. This is not because of its economic or military clout. It is because of its democratic institutions like the Election Commission. Its early commitment to non-alignment may have gone down badly with Josh Foster Dulles, but among the world’s intelligentsia, its image has been of neutrality. In my interaction with the world’s media, I have always found a ready acceptability for an Indian point of view.

Doordarshan had for a few months organized a comprehensive coverage of the occupation of Iraq in April, 2003. Its credibility had won record TRP ratings. Ministry of External Affairs had received word that Secretary of State Colin Powell had expressed a desire to appear on the programme.

In his first six months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown considerable interest in foreign affairs. A multimedia outfit with a strong foreign affairs team, would raise Indian prestige enormously. And this, surely is the right time to start.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

The difficult task of finding friends and foes in West Asia

BY SAEED NAQVI

It is widely known that New Delhi tilts towards Israel in its dealings with West Asia, particularly since the 1999 Kargil war when the Jewish state provided the ammunition required for India’s field guns. Other mutual interests have since multiplied.

It therefore made practical sense that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj restored the balance somewhat when she dwelt at length on traditional ties with the Arab world while opening an India-Arab media conference organized by the MEA and attended by media managers from the Arab world. The media link is a tenuous one because an independent media is not the Arab world’s strongest feature, Al Jazeera’s inexplicable credibility notwithstanding. It is an enigma: an independent channel owned by a Sheikhdom which hosts the US Central Command.

Even during India’s non-aligned phase, there were groups and individuals who saw Israel as a model for the wrong reasons. The late M.L. Sondhi, for instance, sketched a grand design in my presence in the conference room of Jerusalem’s King David hotel: two non-Muslim countries surrounded by problematic Muslim neighbours. Both also had “problematic” Muslims within.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it seemed a dream scenario for these “two” countries to clasp the hand of the world’s sole superpower and live happily ever after.

It would be useful for Sushma Swaraj to recall the goings on in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet. L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh had agreed to send Indian troops to govern the Kurdish North of Iraq, exactly the region the Americans have now returned to in military formation. Why was India willing to subserve US occupation of a friendly country? In fact possibly the friendliest country India ever had. In every UN debate Iraq was the only Muslim country that stood with India on Kashmir.

In 2003 there was great faith in the durability of the sole superpower. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Indian ambassador to Baghdad was not asked to return to New Delhi. He was asked to mark time in a three star hotel in neighbouring Amman, and wait for Americans to take charge in Baghdad whence he would rush to present his credentials.

The person who read the future right was Vajpayee. On April 9, Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down at Baghdad’s Firdous Square by US marines. The global media gave it a different spin. Angry Iraqis had pulled down the statue, the world was told. Vajpayee described the US as an “awesome” power on the move. From Srinagar he called off the eye ball to eye ball confrontation with Pakistan.

I have inserted this piece of history the world knows little about, deliberately at a time when a handful of Arab media representatives are present in New Delhi. The Arab media itself had been pushed beyond the margins during the occupation of Iraq. The show was being largely controlled by BBC and CNN. It is worth mentioning that Doordarshan was the only non-Western media to have comprehensively covered that piece of history. Sushma Swaraj was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, even more than Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was keen to declare victory on global TV. Obstructing celebrations was a singular problem. There was no demonstrable public enthusiasm for Saddam’s ouster. The entire choreography of the war had been designed for TV. How could the US declare victory if there were no street celebrations?

The only people willing to celebrate Saddam’s downfall were Shias in the south and east of the country. They could not be magically produced in Baghdad. In any case Shias would be ultra cautious coming out on an American invitation because after Operation Desert Storm in 1992 they had mounted an uprising in the South against Saddam Hussein. They mistakenly thought they had US protection. But Washington looked the other way. Saddam Hussein brutally crushed the uprising.

Cheney’s men did some quick thinking. After the 1992 uprising, Saddam Hussein had settled rebellious Shias from the south in a ghetto outside Baghdad called Saddam city. These Shias could be commandeered if their leaders, Ayatullah Baqar al Hakeem and Muqtada Sadr could be persuaded. They agreed. That is when Shias came out of their ghetto slapping Saddam Hussein’s photographs with heir sandals. Saddam city was overnight renamed Sadr city by an American edict.

Only after operation Desert Storm did Saddam Hussein place “Allah O Akbar” on the Iraqi flag. His message was simple: the “agnostic” and “atheistic” Baath Sunnis would from now on not be averse to the easier, more emotional, religious mobilization. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a subsequent creature of this duality. Baathist education with a religious edge. An ability to organize, administer, hold territory, derives from his Baathist training. Macabre actions like James Foley’s beheading and suicide bombing are a specialization of recent Sunni Jehadism. The two can be alternately stoked against the American infidel in Iraq and the Shia exclusivism of Baghdad. Now the US, Baghdad and Iran are laying traps to catch this animal.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Caliphate opposed to Shia apostasy and, eventually to Sunni monarchies

BY SAEED NAQVI

The expanding Shia-Sunni conflict in the Muslim world is exposing vast gaps in popular understanding of the schism.

For example when Zaine El Abedine Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman was ousted, people thought a Shia dictator had fallen. From this they extrapolated that the Arab Spring was an anti-Shia plot.

Why would such a misunderstanding arise? Because Zaine El Abedine happens to be a very typical Shia name in large parts of the world. The suffix to his name, Ben Ali, makes the name sound that much more Shia because the basic division between the sects centres on the personality of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Shias are “partisans” of Ali in this dispute.

A Sunni, with a Shia ring to his name is explained by a simple historical detail: the Fatimids ruled large parts of North Africa and Mediterranean enclaves from 909 AD to 1171 AD. They even ruled Sicily. The main church in Palermo, capital of Sicily, has a column with Quranic inscriptions which have been preserved as a tourist attraction. For two hundred years Moharram processions, a patently Shia observance, were mandatory on Palermo’s main roads.

Al Azhar University in Cairo derives its name from Fatima Zehra, the Prophet’s daughter. The late Sid Ahmad one of the left leaning intellectuals in Cairo with a regular Salon on the Nile described sophisticated Egyptians with a telling phrase: “Sunna bil Deen; Shia bil Hawa.” Which means: “Our faith is Sunni but our hearts are Shia” all traced to the Fatimid spell.

This kind of cultural confusion is widespread. There are a large number of Muslims who are born Sunni but respect “ahle bait” or members of the Prophet’s family a notch above others. All the Sufi schools in India, for instance, fall in this category. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri’s famous quartrain in praise of Imam Hussain is cited as evidence of this streak.

“Shah ast Husain; Badshahast Hussain Deen ast Hussain; deen panch ast Hussain” (Hussain is my spiritual and temporal Master Hussain is my faith and the protector of my faith)

The Sufis came to India from Central Asia which had retained cultural and spiritual strands from the days of the Persian Empire.

They had spread out so wide in India that as early as the 15th century the great Sufi Malik Mohammad Jaisi was writing his great allegory Padmavat near Rae Bareli, making him the first great poet in Awadhi, preceding Tulsidas by decades.

Shia-Sunni equations remained blurred in many parts of the world because of the confluence of the streams with rapidly advancing Sufi mysticism. For instance the Fatimids left behind an ambiguous Islamic culture on this count in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and the Levant.

For decades Syrian and Iraqi Islam had a heavy overlay of atheistic Baathism. Religion surfaced in a big way only after the US occupation of Iraq in April 2003. It became almost necessary for the US to encourage Shia power because they needed televised images of Iraqis celebrating Saddam Hussain’s fall.

Habitual Baathists could not overnight appear on the streets as pious Sunnis, denouncing the man they lived in awe of. During the 1992 Shia uprising in Karabla, brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussain, hundreds of thousands of “troublesome” Shias had been settled in a ghetto named Saddam city on the outskirts of Baghdad.

When crowds did not materialize on the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the televised pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdaus Square on April 9, 2003, a request was placed with Shia leaders like Muqtada Sadr to mobilize celebrations. That is when the streets were filled with Shias from Saddam city to provide visual support to US success. Promptly Saddam city was renamed Sadr city. Does it make sense that in ten years of US occupation, Baathists first reverted to being devout Sunnis and have now mutated into the likes of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leading the faithful into the Sunni Caliphate, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Baghdadi belong to the virulent school of Ikhwan ul Muslimeen opposed to “Shia apostasy” as well as to “Sunni monarchies”.

The Caliphate appears to be a more recent idea which gestated during the brutal campaign in Syria which failed to affect a regime change in Damascus. The embarrassment of those who funneled support to the opposition against Bashar al Assad in Damascus is now enhanced by the durability of Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad. He tried and ousted the Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi who was something of a Western favourite and for that reason suspected by the Iranians.

There are interests in the Syria-Iraq corridor who are under the control of their Western and Saudi sponsors. Aggravating the current situation is the fact that, with time, these controls are loosening. Additionally, a wide range of other Sunni groups who have suffered considerable status reversal, are clustering around an Abu Bakr al Baghdadi like figure, not because they want a Caliphate, but because they wish to weaken and oust Maliki in Baghdad and, if possible, Assad in Damascus.

It is worth noting that while mounting the brutal air and naval attacks against the Palestinians in Gaza, the Israelis are citing the “Caliphate” as the menace they fear Palestinians will eventually gang up with. There is no mention of Hezbullah and Iran.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)