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The Abraham Accords are no victory for religious tolerance

Some sell the agreements as reducing 'Muslim-Jewish antipathy,' but they have also served to further entrench the Sunni-Shi'a divide.

Analysis | Middle East

An American envoy and a Bahraini academic posed for the camera at a Washington hotel in October 2020, grinning ear to ear. They held a copy of an agreement between the U.S. State Department and the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence to combat antisemitism in Bahrain. Ellie Cohanim, then the U.S. assistant special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, called it “a model for a society that actively espouses religious freedom, tolerance and diversity of peoples.”

Thousands of miles away, in Bahrain itself, Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas was sitting in a solitary confinement cell. His family had not heard from him since July. They would not again for several more months. According to a UN panel, the Shi’a Muslim cleric was allegedly beaten, starved, sleep-deprived, chained, attacked with water hoses, forbidden from using the bathroom, threatened with execution, and prevented from practicing his religious rituals.

The Abraham Accords, the diplomatic agreements between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, have been hailed as a victory for religious tolerance. The image of Muslims and Jews dancing together has convinced American policymakers from both parties that peace is breaking out across the Middle East. The Biden administration is reportedly offering the Saudi government a huge bribe — perhaps even a commitment to go to war on the kingdom’s behalf — to get Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords as well.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman seems to sum up the Biden administration’s logic: that a Saudi-Israeli agreement would “open the way for peace between Israel and the whole Muslim world” and “dramatically reduce the Muslim-Jewish antipathy born over a century ago with the start of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.”

But the Abraham Accords are attached to a social order that is deeply unequal, divided along ethnic and religious lines. While Israel allows foreign Muslims to visit Jerusalem, it rules over millions of Palestinians against their will. (That conflict is more about nationalism in the here and now than “Muslim-Jewish antipathy.”) And while some monarchies in the Persian Gulf are beginning to embrace foreigners of different religions, those same states — especially Bahrain — treat their native Shi’a Muslims as a potential fifth column.

For the past few years, some of the Gulf monarchies have been engaged in a project to replace Israel with Iran as the main enemy of the Arab masses. On one hand, these countries have repressed pro-Palestine activism and promoted an image of Palestinians as parasitic ingrates. On the other hand, they have encouraged fears of Iranian power, often conflating Iran with Shi’a Muslims as a whole. Israel has encouraged both prejudices as part of its outreach to Middle Eastern publics. Rather than a victory for religious tolerance, the Abraham Accords are the culmination of an attempt by Israel and its new Gulf allies to rearrange their official enemy lists.

In 2018, as Israel was beginning direct talks with Emirati and Bahraini diplomats, Israeli military spokesperson Avichay Adraee turned into a fountain of anti-Shi’a incitement. Quoting medieval Sunni scholars, Adraee claimed on video that Shi’a Muslims are “fundamentally hypocrites and liars who invent falsehoods to ruin Islam.” A few months later, he complained that Iran is “transforming citizens into Shi’a” across the Arab world.

After the Abraham Accords were signed, Adraee ranted that Sunni Palestinians who prayed alongside Shi’a were leaving the fold of Sunni Islam: “How do these ‘believers’ justify praying behind those who stab the back of the Sunni world?” The spirit of Muslim-Jewish reconciliation, with its emphasis on interfaith photo ops, clearly does not apply to Sunni-Shi’a relations.

It’s worth noting that, although Iran is the largest Shi’a-majority state, most Shi’a Muslims live outside of Iran, in India, Pakistan, and the Arab world. And religious Shi’a have been at the forefront of resisting the Iranian theocracy, both inside and outside Iran. However, casting all Shi’a as Iranian agents serves a political purpose. Unrest in areas like eastern Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, where the majority of the population is Shi’a, can be dismissed as foreign terrorism, rather than a case of Arab citizens demanding equal rights. In the words of one Saudi commentator, Arabs who embrace Shi’a identity politics “have sadly become Persian.”

While trying to terrify Sunnis about the Iranian menace, the Israeli government has also worked to turn Iranians against Palestinians. Last year, when a few Iranian protesters were filmed stomping on a Palestinian symbol, the Israeli foreign ministry loudly promoted that image. The ministry’s Persian-language account is filled with sarcastic jokes about the “oppressed Palestinians,” along with claims that “they teach hatred and violence” to their children.

As the Abraham Accords were finalized, the Gulf states that moved closer to Israel also began to take more of an anti-Palestinian line. Americans celebrated, and rightfully so, when Saudi television or the Emirati school system presented a more sympathetic view of Jews. At the same time, however, Saudi and Emirati media figures got louder about what they considered Palestinian “treachery.” In the words of a Saudi soap opera character, the average Palestinian is an ingrate who “doesn't appreciate you standing by him, who curses you day and night — more than the Israelis.” Given the heavy censorship that Saudi and Emirati media are subject to, this change in tone must have reflected official policy.

Just as political concerns led Gulf states to tone down anti-Jewish prejudice, different political concerns could lead them to tone down other prejudices. At times when Israeli authorities aggressively asserted their sovereignty over Islamic holy sites — especially under the ultra-nationalist Israeli government elected in 2022 — the Gulf has returned to a more pro-Palestine tone. After Saudi Arabia mended ties with Iran earlier this year, Saudi authorities loosened restrictions on Shi’a pilgrims, and prominent Saudi propagandist Hussain al-Ghawi embraced Shi’a as his Muslim brothers. Ironically, American media did not celebrate the Saudi-Iranian pact as the dawn of religious harmony, but instead raised the alarm that Washington was losing its influence in the region.

The American cultural understanding of the Middle East is centered on Israel, and anti-Palestinian racism is normalized in U.S. politics. On the other hand, Washington views Sunni-Shi’a sectarianism as a geopolitical game. During the occupation of Iraq and the decades of war that followed, U.S. policymakers treated “Sunni” and “Shi’a” like pieces on a chessboard, debating which side to favor at any given time. Instead of seeing this sectarianism as a terrible policy failure, U.S. politicians blamed Muslims’ own attachment to “tribalism” and “conflicts that date back millennia,” as former President Barack Obama put it.

And so the Abraham Accords help flatter American elites. Israel and its Gulf allies can make a big show of overcoming Muslim-Jewish tensions — which Americans see as the central moral question of the Middle East — with U.S. support. The other prejudices involved in maintaining the system simply don’t register on Americans’ radar.

Other states are starting to appeal to the West through the same strategy. Azerbaijan is fighting a brutal ethnic conflict against Armenia. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government has made a big show of hosting foreign Christian and Jewish delegations. Those guests often go on to praise Azerbaijan as an oasis of Muslim tolerance — rather than a secular nationalist dictatorship whose ethnic hatred of Armenians outweighs any religious concern.

It’s noble to want American diplomats to resolve conflicts and promote harmony between religions. But the Abraham Accords are intentionally misleading in that regard. Under the guise of peacemaking, the alliance helps authoritarian governments maintain divisions, albeit among communities that U.S. elites don’t care about. The real path to peace comes through justice and mutual respect, not simply rearranging enemy lists.

Washington DC, USA - September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House. (Photo: noamgalai via shutterstock)
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