Is the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East now deeper than the antagonism between Israel and the Arabs? You might think so given the response of some Arab governments to Hezbollah’s decision to attack Israel. Even as Israeli bombs fell on Beirut and Tyre, Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most conservative Arab Muslim state of all, openly condemned the actions of the Shia Hezbollah in instigating conflict with Israel. Never before in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has a state that considers itself a leader of the Arab Muslim peoples backed Israel so openly.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s breach with Hezbollah is not a one-time occurrence. Egypt and Jordan have also roundly condemned Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, for their adventurism.
What is behind this stunning development? Are we seeing a fundamental shift in relations between Arab nationalism and Islamic sectarianism? Is Saudi Arabia’s Sunni government more concerned and frightened by Shia Islam than it is committed to Arab unity and the Palestinian cause?
Arab denunciations of Hezbollah suggest that the Muslim sectarian divide, already evident in the daily violence in Iraq, is deepening and intensifying across the Middle East. President George W. Bush’s desire to shatter the Arab world’s frozen societies was meant to pit the forces of modernization against the traditional elements in Arab and Islamic societies. Instead, he appears to have unleashed the region’s most atavistic forces. Opening this Pandora’s Box may have ushered in a new and even uglier era of generalized violence, perhaps what can only be called a “Muslim Civil War.”