The latest crisis in the Middle East involving Hezbollah and Israel and ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq has focused attention on an emerging divide between Sunnis and Shiites. The positions of heads of state in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan, among others, who represent predominantly Sunni populations, in not taking a stronger stance in opposing Israel lends credence to the theory that Sunnis are tacitly siding with Israel against Hezbollah in order to check Shiite and, by extension, Iranian influence. In reality, the opposite is the case. Regional capitals and major cities in predominantly Sunni countries have been the scene of regular protests and other forms of dissent in what has been an upsurge of popular support for Hezbollah. In a recent demonstration in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square, protestors chanted: “with our soul and blood we support you Lebanon…oh beloved Nasrallah, hit, hit Tel Aviv” and “long live the Lebanese resistance…long live the Palestinian resistance…long live the Iraqi resistance” (al-Osboa, August 6).
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, is being touted as an Arab nationalist hero on par with Gamal Abdel Nasser. For others, he represents a positive and proud symbol of Muslim resistance. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s July 27 statement reflects this trend and represents an effort on the part of al-Qaeda to exploit the current crisis for its benefit (Terrorism Focus, August 1). On August 3, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, spiritual leader of Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement expressing solidarity with Hezbollah and the Lebanese people and offered to send 10,000 men to fight in Lebanon (http://www.ikhwanonline.com). An opinion piece in an independent opposition Egyptian daily called on Cairo to freeze its commitments to the Camp David peace agreement with Israel and to cut relations with Tel Aviv immediately (al-Masry al-Youm, August 5). Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leading Egyptian Sunni scholar based in Qatar, also praised Hezbollah’s resistance and called for Sunni and Shiite unity. He condemned the Saudi position calling on Sunnis to refrain from supporting Hezbollah and chastised Arab regimes for their weakness (http://www.qaradawi.net). Amr Khaled, an influential Egyptian preacher popular among youth, also issued statements staunchly critical of Israeli attacks against fellow Muslims and all Lebanese (http://www.amrkhaled.net).
The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on July 30 on its website declaring its support for what it described as the “mujahideen from Hezbollah,” proclaiming that supporting Hezbollah constitutes a “duty” for all Muslims (http://www.ikhwan-jor.org). The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on July 15 calling on “all of the sons” of the Arab and Muslim nation to unite and stand in solidarity against Israel and its supporters (http://www.jimsyr.com). Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami is staging demonstrations calling for Muslim unity in the face of what it describes as a U.S.- and Israeli-led war against Islam that is happening with Islamabad’s support (http://www.jamaat.org). There is evidence that the escalating violence and U.S. support for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and ongoing crackdown in Gaza is encouraging Afghanis to join the Taliban insurgency (Institute for War & Peace Reporting, August 3). While the Taliban and other Sunni extremists see Shiites as heretics, this demonstrates how an overarching sense of Muslim identity and solidarity for a common cause can transcend sectarian and ideological differences.
Hezbollah threatens incumbent authoritarian regimes in the region because of its ability to inspire popular dissent. Its successful struggle against Israeli occupation in the past and impressive showing in the latest crisis has galvanized Arabs and Muslims everywhere. While leaders in Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Islamabad are locally seen as oppressive and corrupt U.S. clients, Hezbollah is giving Sunnis and Shiites hope. The timing of the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers also came against the backdrop of Israel’s siege of Gaza, indicating that it was meant to force Israel to fight on two fronts so as to decrease pressure on the Palestinians. This, of course, occurred while Arab and Muslim states stood idle, making Hezbollah look all the more heroic. A reluctance to support Hezbollah persists in some circles, especially centers of Sunni extremism such as Saudi Arabia. Yet the trajectory of the current trend is likely to encourage further Sunni-Shiite unity in the face of what is increasingly being perceived as a U.S. and Israeli war against Islam.