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Fouad Ajami is making sense

Fouad Ajami is making sense

I beg to differ with my colleague Henry’s harsh assessment of Fouad Ajami’s piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. Ajami makes a very important point about anti-Shiite prejudice in the Arab world, which is about 85 percent Sunni. Allow me to explain by way of a brief historical diversion.

I spent much of 2005-2006 in Egypt, a country that has an almost negligible Shiite population. Most Egyptians have probably never met a Shiite and know very little about the practices of Shiism. 

Ironically, Cairo was once the seat of the Fatimid caliphate, which stretched across much of North Africa and the Levant from the early 10th to late 12th centuries. The Fatimids were Shiites, and they left many Shiite religious and cultural traditions that have survived in Egypt to this day—though most Egyptians wouldn’t recognize them as such. And yet, as Marc Lynch has documented at length, the Egyptian government has been able to whip up anti-Shiite sentiment in the country with great ease.

So it’s particularly amusing that Egypt’s western neighbor Muammar el-Qaddafi is now proclaiming his intention to launch a latter-day Fatimid empire in North Africa.

Why is he doing this? Pure and simply, to create mischief and rile up Sunni Arab regimes, and deeply anti-Shiite Saudi Arabia in particular. Qaddafi and King Abdullah have a running personal feud that even included a Libyan-backed plot on the Saudi monarch’s life. But Qaddafi’s bizarre antics—and the reaction they’re getting from the Sunni Arab street that Ajami writes about—underscore Ajami’s point. The Sunni world has a problem accepting Shiites as equals, and it explains a lot about why Iraq’s transition from a Sunni Baathist dictatorship to a Shiite-dominated democracy has been so violent. So, as we hear the screams and groans reverberating out of Gulf palaces about rising Shiite power in the region, we should remember that amid the valid concerns about Iranian meddling are some garden-variety prejudices little different from the kind that got Don Imus in so much trouble here in the United States.