ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – When trying to make sense of the Middle East, one of the most important rules to keep in mind is this: What politicians here tell you in private is usually irrelevant. What matters most, and what explains their behavior more times than not, is what they say in public in their own language to their own people. As President Barack Obama dispatches more U.S. advisers to help Iraqis defeat the Islamic State it is vital that we listen carefully to what the key players are saying in public in their own language about each other and their own aspirations.
For instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, recently posted an excerpt from an interview given by Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, a former adviser to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, which aired on Mayadeen TV on Sept. 24, in which he pointed out that Shiite Iran, through its surrogates, has taken de facto control over four Arab capitals: Beirut, through the Shiite militia Hezbollah; Damascus, through the Shiite/Alawite regime of Bashar Assad; Baghdad, through the Shiite-led government there; and – while few in the West were paying attention – Sanaa, where the pro-Iranian-Yemeni-Shiite offshoot sect, the Houthi, recently swept into the capital of Yemen and are now dominating the Sunnis.
As Hosseini said of Iran and its allies: “We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. We in Tehran, Damascus, [Hezbollah’s] southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa will shape the map of the region. We are the new sultans of the Red Sea as well.” And he also said, for good measure, that Saudi Arabia was “a tribe on the verge of extinction.”
We might not hear this stuff, but Sunni Arabs do, especially now when the United States and Iran might end their 35-year-old Cold War and reach a deal that would allow Iran a “peaceful” nuclear energy program. It helps explain something else you might have missed: Sunni militants burst into a Saudi Shiite village, al-Dalwah, on Nov. 3 and gunned down five Saudi Shiites at a religious event.
Well, at least Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in the modern world. No, wait, what is the name that Erdogan insists be put on the newest bridge he’s building across the Bosporus? Answer: the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge. Selim I was the Sunni Turkish sultan who, in 1514, beat back the Persian Shiite empire of his day, called the Safavids. Turkey’s Alevi minority, a Shiite offshoot sect whose ancestors faced Selim’s wrath, have protested the name of the bridge.
They know it didn’t come out of a hat. According to Britannica, Selim I was the Ottoman sultan (1512-20) who extended the empire to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “and raised the Ottomans to leadership of the Muslim world.” He then turned eastward and took on the Safavid Shiite dynasty in Iran, which posed a “political and ideological threat” to the hegemony of Ottoman Sunni Islam. Selim was the first Turkish leader to claim to be both sultan of the Ottoman Empire and caliph of all Muslims.
Vice President Joe Biden did not misspeak when he accused Turkey of facilitating the entry of Islamic State fighters into Syria. Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni. Some Turkish analysts suspect Erdogan does not dream of building pluralistic democracy in Iraq and Syria, but rather a modern Sunni caliphate - not led by the Islamic State but by himself. Until then, he clearly prefers the Islamic State on his border than an independent Kurdistan.
As Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, put it in an Atlantic article entitled “The Roots of the Islamic State’s Appeal”: “ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’ interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of a caliphate - the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition - is a powerful one.”
In fact, though, notes the Middle East scholar Joseph Braude, most Arab Sunnis in Egypt, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula in the late 19th century “were quite opposed to the [Turkish-run] caliphate they had experienced, which they saw as a kind of occupying force.” It was the 20th-century Sunni Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, that revived the idea, idealizing the caliphate as a response to their region’s weakness and decline “and inserting it into mainstream religious discourse.”
In sum, there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on the Islamic State that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight. If you listen closely, of those dreams, ours – “pluralistic democracy” – is not high on the list.
We need to protect the islands of decency out here – Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman – from the Islamic State, in hopes that their best examples might one day spread. But I am skeptical that our fractious allies, with all their different dreams, can agree on new power-sharing arrangements for Iraq or Syria, even if the Islamic State is defeated.