Sooner or later, Donald Trump will have to confront the Middle East cauldron, so Americans need to have a better picture of the its backstory. I’ve referred to the ideological component of the Sunni-Shia divide half a dozen times going back to 2013, but now that knowledge is crucial, as Syria’s ally, Iran, is also threatened with military action on the pretext that it is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, and Qatar, home of Al-Jazeera, is threatened by its Gulf neighbors, Saudi Arabia in the lead, on similar grounds.
When Ramin Mazaheri wrote recently http://www.greanvillepost.com/2017/05/24/iran-socialisms-ignored-success-story/ that Iran is a socialist country, he backed up his claim with a long list of achievements, knowing that few in the west have heard of the socialist theoreticians such as Ali Shariati, without whom the Iranian revolution might not have happened, notwithstanding Imam Khomeini’s charisma.
After the Iranians overthrew the Shah in 1979, they occupied the American Embassy in Teheran for 444 days, keeping 52 Americans hostage. This unprecedented event was routinely reported without informing the American public that the CIA had overthrown the freely elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, that had nationalized Iranian oil in 1953. Nor did the media link that action to the basic socialist principle that key industries should be nationalized so that they benefit all the people instead of only the 1%.
The West will do almost anything to hide the fact that the Sunni/Shia divide is and has always been about the few versus the many. It claims that terrorism is sparked by ‘our way of life’, our ‘freedom’, or at most, our disdain for Arab culture. (Not, however, by the wars we wage in Muslim countries…) Currently, the US alleges that Shia Iran supports terrorism, when exactly the opposite is true: it is the Sunni nations, with their absolutist tradition, Saudi Arabia in the lead, that support ISIS, which forces people to adopt Islam. (Iran’s ally Qatar is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, but it constitutes an exception, as was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.)
The Sunni absolutist tradition, known as Wahhabism, can be traced back to a schism that occured in the seventh century. As with Christians and Jews, the Prophet’s followers argued about God. Competing theories were mainly sourced in Greek philosophy, as documented in several recently published books such as Sari Nussebei’s the History of Reason in Islam and Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason. Unfortunately, due to academia’s enduring love affair with compartmentalization, neither of these works links the struggle between faith and reason to the eternal struggle between the few and the many.
Western media correctly attributes the Sunni-Shia divide to conflicting attitudes toward Ali, the Prophet’s designated successor, who was murdered, but it features Shiites lashing themselves with chains in solidarity, without mentioning that the reason for Ali’s murder was his defense of the lower classes. That attitude was based on the belief that God had attributes and hence could demand that humans treat each other with respect and dignity.
The conviction that God had attributes — such as ‘justice’ — was part of the arguments about him that arose after the Prophet’s death, sparked by disagreement over whether the Quran was an emanation of God, or had always existed. The answer depended on whether God simply ‘is’ or whether, like humans, he has attributes. In the latter case, one of his attributes would be ‘justice’, requiring solidarity between individuals, and between the polity and its rulers, which could only be implemented through each individual’s free will. The opponents of this reasoning believed that individual lives were foreordained by a God who is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’, but simply ‘is’, implying that men must obey Him without question.
Denying God attributes leads to the dogmatism and punishments seen in Wahhabism, the extreme of Sunni Islam, in whose name terrorism is carried out.
During early arguments over the interpretation of certain phrases in the Quran, one follower who defended the notion of free will simply got up and left the group, which resulted in him being labelled a Mutazilla, or ‘one who has left’. Over the course of the following centuries, and mainly under the Abbasid rulers centered in Persia, the Mutazilla movement grew, leading to the development of Shia Islam, with a different set of laws from those of the Sunnis.
The notion of a ‘Shia arc’ suggests a threatening military entity, when in reality it is an ideological one. The original seat of the Mutazilite movement was the city of Basra, located on the Shat al Arab Persian Gulf waterway, and in the twentieth century, the Shiite learning center of Najaf, near the southern Iraq/Iran border, was the headquarters of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Imam Khomeini, during his exile.
After spreading from Iran to Iraq, Shia Islam reached Syria and Lebanon on the strength of its commitment to justice. In Syria, the positive life values of Islam led to the creation of the Baaʿth Party, which in 1953 merged with the Syrian Socialist Party to form the Arab Socialist Baaʿth (Renaissance) Party, which was also the party of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Although both countries belonged to the non-aligned, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist movement, their attempted merger failed. (The US suffered the Baath being the party of Saddam Hussein as long as he was waging an eight-year war against socialist Iran.)
In Syria, Shiism is represented by the small Alawite sect headed by the Assad family. Reaching back to the ninth century, the Alawites, who pray sitting rather than prostrate, and celebrate some Christian holidays, were rejected by the Shiite hierarchy until after Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad, came to power in 1964. Though accused by the US of “killing its own citizens”, the government of Assad’s son, Bashar, heads the only secular government in the Middle East (including Israel) and retains the educational system and Western social customs that prevailed under the French mandate (1923-1964).
In neighboring Lebanon, the Shiite militia known as Hezbollah represents a powerful political force in a tiny nation whose population is divided among half a dozen religions and sects, including the Christian Druze and Maronites. The picture painted for Westerners is of a rabble acting on orders from Iran, but Alastair Crooke’s book Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, shows its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to have a sophisticated knowledge of Western political thought, and attributes the militia’s victories over the Israeli army to ‘horizontal’ organization that encourages a high level of individual initiative. The Shia Hezbollah is allied with the Palestinian Sunni Hamas, because both are committed to justice for the Palestinians in the form of an independent Palestinian state. (In left-wing circles, Syria is known as ‘the frontline country’ against Israel, which, as Assad’s chances of defeating ISIS increase, is bombing his forces…).
The seventh century dispute between adepts of reason and those who defended blind obedience inevitably led, in the twentieth century, to the Shia nations in particular being allied with the Soviet Union, and then with the Russian Federation. If you Google Iran’s revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini, you will find that most of the articles refer to a letter he wrote to then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1989, inviting him to consider replacing ‘materialist’ Communism with Islam as a guide to life. It is said that on the tenth anniversary of Khomeini’s death, in 1999, Gorbachev recognized the letter’s prescience regarding the collapse of “Godless” Communism, and regretted having hastily dismissed it. In 2000, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia, and began almost immediately to re-establish the power of the Orthodox Church. After defeating the Chechen Muslim separatists in the Caucasus, he rebuilt the capital Grozni, and continues to encourage a moderate Islam in the countries that ring Russia’s southern border.
The idea of ‘drawing Iran away from Russia’, is nonsense, not only because these countries are neighbors, but because in addition to supporting strong religious institutions, their leaders believe that in the modern world, government must be the purveyor of human solidarity historically provided by them, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic or other.
As the six-year war in Syria grinds on, risking an eventual confrontation between the US, Russia and Iran, it is imperative that the American public understand that the Shia arc represents the Islamic left, while Sunnis represent the right. The population of a country whose political class is not permitted to affirm that health care is a right, is being made to believe that Syria launches chemical attacks, and because it is allied with Iran, which is accused of backing terrorists, and with Russia, which is accused of meddling in the US election, that military action is justified, even if it could lead to nuclear war.
P.S. It may be no coincidence that almost simultaneously with the accusations against Qatar, home of Al Jazeera, a bill was introduced in the US Congress to declare Russia’s channel, RT, illegal….