Despite their rivalries, major players share one important goal: maintaining disunity

JERUSALEM – For decades to come, the story of the Middle East will feature two forces with diametrically opposed goals. One camp is battling for the hegemony of Sunni Islam, especially in the Arab world. The other camp, uniting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims, wants to ensure that no dominant Sunni power capable of uniting the Sunni Arab world, and ultimately the Sunni world more broadly, ever emerges.

A world in ruins

The Sunni world in general, and the Arab Sunni world in particular, lies in ruins. In some cases, quite literally.

However, the current malaise of the Sunni Arab world shouldn’t cover the simple fact that Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims around the world — and that the Arab world is almost exclusively Sunni.

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, due to the intervention of the conquering British and French powers, Sunni Arabs had little to say about their political organization.

Now that they are emerging from a century-long political hiatus, a united Sunni Arab world constitutes one of the biggest, but still contestable, geopolitical prizes.

Meaningless borders

Whatever the meaning of previous borders in the Middle East, those borders have effectively been erased by the political sandstorm that was the Arab Spring.

Structures and alliances have been broken, but no natural hegemon has yet emerged. Yet, this was a region that was united in the past and therefore has the potential to be united again.

Should a united Sunni Arab polity emerge, especially if it unites under the banner of the most extreme interpretation of Islam, it could constitute an existential threat to the non-Sunni, non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities of the Middle East.

Britain as role model?

The policies of the Middle East’s non-Sunni and non-Muslim minorities echo the famous description of British foreign policy toward Europe, as put forth in the legendary comedy “Yes, Minister”: “Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians.”

In the Middle East, the role of Britain in that scenario is played by Iran, Israel and Russia. They all share the goal of maintaining a disunited Middle East. They are willing to form whatever alliances are necessary to that end.

Sunni goals

Sunni actors, for their part, seek to consolidate their position as viable contenders for hegemony of the Sunni world in general and the Sunni Arab world in particular.

It goes without saying that they also, at the very least, want to prevent any other serious contender from emerging.

Other grand narratives usually put forward for understanding the Middle East, such as “the battle between Sunni and Shiite Islam,” fall short.

For starters, they all fail to take note of the vast disparity in area and numbers between Sunni and Shiite Islam, as well as the near impossibility of Shiite Islam dominating the peoples and lands of Sunni Islam.

Too small to dominate

At 10 to 15 percent, Shiites are the minority in Islam. Outside of Iran, Azerbaijan and certain sections of Iraq, they remain a beleaguered minority, with Iran as their only protector.

This is also the case for Shiites in diaspora communities around the world. Shiite Islam, as led by Iran, struggles not so much for domination of the Middle East, which a Shiite Persian power can hardly expect to achieve, as much as to prevent the emergence of a united Sunni Arab force that would threaten it.

Properly understanding Iran

Iran’s Islamist revolution of 1979 might have served to bolster Iran’s regional credibility as a Muslim republic. However, it also showed that its brand of Islam remains contested and even denied and denigrated in the region.

For that reason alone, Iran’s claim to Islamic leadership can at most be understood as a defense against the notion, frequently promulgated by Sunni Muslims, that it’s an illegitimate and heretical nation.

The nuclear dimension

Iran’s nuclear policies are also better understood in this light. Iran is not only influenced by the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, but is also a minority power seeking to defend itself against the threat of an emerging hegemon.

Iran has walked the fine line between pursuing nuclear capabilities and becoming an actual nuclear weapons power.

Walking that fine line has been a carefully crafted policy designed to convey deterrence through the projection of Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, while not going so far as to develop weapons that would drive its opponents to also seek full nuclear capabilities that would in turn threaten it.

The wider world’s interest

The world has an enormous stake in the outcome of the battle for hegemony in the Sunni world in general and the Arab world, in particular.

That outcome might determine whether citizens around the world will be safe from attacks on their soil.

It might determine whether a new power emerges to threaten Europe, Russia, Africa, Asia and beyond, and what kind of Islam will shape the lives of a third of the world’s population.

Non-Muslims as bystanders?

Unfortunately, there is little the non-Muslim world could do to shape the result. At most, outside powers might be able to mitigate the worst possible outcomes of the protracted battle for hegemony in the Middle East — and even that is questionable.

Outside observers of the Middle East should realize that, for the first time in a century, what is happening across the Sunni Arab world is authentic, but that, in this case, “authentic” doesn’t necessarily mean positive.

It only means that what is happening is an authentic expression of the various pressures and powers of the Sunni Arabs themselves. Ultimately, the Sunnis in general and the Sunni Arabs in particular will have to work out their regional order for themselves.

This is a process that will take time — decades, perhaps a century — and cannot be condensed or accelerated.

No outside power can do it for them. Either a clear hegemon will emerge or the various sides will spend themselves in battles to the point of exhaustion, leading perhaps to a balanced compromise.

Caliphate isn’t going away

Whatever regional order emerges, it will have to be described in terms that come from Islamic, Sunni and Arab history.

Islam is a political religion that has clear conceptions of the proper world order and the way public and private matters should be ruled and arranged.

Whatever regional order emerges, whoever the hegemon, it will be rooted in Islam as the cultural language of the region.

The idea of the caliphate isn’t going away. It is merely the historical Islamic form of Arab and Muslim unity — a fundamental political organizing principle.

Even if the current organization that goes by the name of Islamic State is defeated, the idea of an Islamic state will continue to hold sway as the organizing principle of the Sunni Arab world and the Muslim world more broadly.

Like European unity?

One may be tempted to compare the idea of the caliphate and the Islamic state to the idea of a unified European continent.

That idea has an old lineage. It served not only Napoleon and Hitler, but also Jean Monnet, a founder of the European Union.

Of course, there are clear limits to this parallel. The safest thing that can be said is that an Islamic state, a caliphate and a united Sunni Arab world need not in themselves threaten the world at large. However, under a certain interpretation of Islam, they do pose a threat.

Einat Wilf is a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem as well as an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.