Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sunnis and Shiites

Out of the horror and bloody chaos of Iraq is a sign that moderate Shiite and Sunni Muslims are moving closer together against the radicals.

Recently, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Mecca Declaration, a joint ruling from Iraqi Shiite and Sunni clerics forbidding Muslims to shed the blood of another Muslim. Naturally enough, the radicals aren't paying any attention to the ruling. But the ruling is still significant. As Juan Cole writes:

Be that as it may, the declaration is historic. According to al-Sharq al-Awsat [Ar.], it maintains that the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are a matter of personal interpretation (ta'wil), not a difference over basic principles (usul). To have such a declaration sponsored by Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the Wahhabi branch of Islam that was historically negative toward Shiites[,] is a conceptual revolution. The statement has implications for Sunni-Shiite relations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.-- not just in Iraq.

Events in Iraq demonstrated that Western Powers could use the Sunni-Shiite divide to help overthrow governments, dominate major countries in the region, and even break up whole countries. The regional elites are increasingly deciding that Sunni-Shiite ecumenism is necessary to avoid more of these disasters.

In times of crisis, the black-and-white knife-edge clarity of vision offered by fundamentalists and radicals is attractive, but crises eventually pass, even the most red-hot tempers cool, and people get sick of the killing. Despite our flaws, we are a cooperative species -- mostly. We talk, we engage in dialog and compromise.

After every generation of bloodshed, there is a generation that is less radical, more interested in butter than guns, willing to talk and trade, and prepared to reconcile their differences with yesterday's enemy. The tragedy of Homo sapiens is that we are so rarely able to learn from our errors before repeating them, but learn from them we do, for a while.

But not if you are working for the Bush administration, where it seems that ignorance and inability to learn from history is a job prerequisite. As Billmon reports, even the top people charged with dealing with the Middle East terrorism threat are ignorant of the differences between Shiite and Sunni:

Let's review. We have:

  1. The head of the FBI's national security branch

  2. The Vice Chairman of the House Intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence

  3. The Chairwoman of the House Intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s recruiting efforts in the Islamic world

And they each know less -- probably much less -- about the most critical religious divide in the Middle East (the same one that is currently getting U.S. soldiers killed at the rate of about three a day) than your average commentator at Little Green Footballs.

Billmon puts it down to the same old Imperial mentality:

Even the British, renowned for the caliber of their imperial civil service, usually operated in stunning ignorance of the people and cultures they ruled over, certainly so in the case of the Arab world. Which is probably why they, too, were so often taken by surprise -- by the Sepoy Mutiny, the Battle of Isandlwana, the Easter Rising, the Iraq revolt, Palestinian resistance to Zionism, the list goes on and on.

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