An Iranian flag flies at the Sorough oil field in 2005. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
Barnaby CrowcroftMay 9, 2020 6:30 AM
A new book on the Sunni–Shia conflict makes clear that the steady radicalization of sectarian difference in the Middle East was not inevitable.
When you’ve done your day’s viewing of government coronavirus briefings — Governor Cuomo’s, Governor Newsom’s, President Trump’s — spare a minute for Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s. In a cozy fireside-chat format, Iran’s Supreme Leader has been taking the opportunity presented by this moment of shared global suffering to remind the world that the true enemy of mankind is not epidemic disease, but the “vicious, lying, brazen, avaricious, cruel, merciless, terrorist” United States, and atheist, materialist Western civilization.
Throughout the Middle East Khamenei’s clients provide a steady chorus for this kind of invective. One consequence is that the claim he is now broadcasting — that the U.S. government intentionally created the coronavirus — has become a commonplace among his adherents. A French historian once described the young Ali Khamenei as the “Robespierre” of the Iranian Revolution. We are living in the world in which Robespierre won — the one in which that most radical and bloodthirsty of revolutionaries lives on, in his dotage, to spread his message to millions over social media.
Laurence Louër’s new book is a reminder of quite how much the world has lost by not having a responsible regime in Iran. Sunnis and Shi’a is principally an exploration of that second great Islamic denomination, which revolves around the figure of Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib, known as the first Shiite Imam. Louër shows how reason and the embrace of rationalism is central to Shia faith and theology, and explains the contextualism that allows its clergy to adapt to social and historical change — in ways denied to their majority Sunni counterparts. She emphasizes Shiism’s historic role as a creed of social justice, a movement of the weak against the strong, and of the people against unjust rulers — alongside a Sunni orthodoxy that embraces hierarchy and established authority. It was Shiism that would have been the faith most naturally predisposed to bring about a reconciliation of Islam with Western scientific modernity — and yet it is everywhere submerged under the atavism of its political leaders, from Khamenei to Hezbollah to Iraq’s rival sectarian warlords. The world has lost not just by the absence of a moderate Iran, but of a moderate Shia power.
The early history is well known. Ali, who had married Mohammed’s daughter Zaynab, became the fourth Muslim Caliph in 656, almost a quarter of a century after Mohammed’s death in 632. But his reign coincided with deepening division in the growing Arab Caliphate and, amid a revolt led by a powerful rival in Syria, Ali was assassinated in 661. The Sunni Caliphate was continued from Damascus, but Ali’s followers broke away and recognized his descendants as a lineage of divinely appointed Imams who would lead a community of “true Muslims.” When the third Imam, Ali’s son Hussein, was killed in 680 in battle with the forces of the Caliph, his “martyrdom” became a focal point of Shiite belief commemorated in the festival of Ashura, and the site of his death in Karbala in southern Iraq became one of the main sites of Shiite pilgrimage — alongside Ali’s mausoleum in Najaf.
The story of the Shiite Imams to follow is almost a parody of factionalism — and its calcified remains still lie dotted across the map of the modern Middle East. A dispute over the succession to the fourth Imam (d. 713) produced a splinter group known as the Zaydis, who went on to dominate the politics and government of northern Yemen for over a thousand years. A dispute over the succession to the sixth Imam (d. 765) brought us the Ismailis, who now reside in the south of present-day Saudi Arabia, and the Lebanese Druze. The lack of charisma shown by the tenth and eleventh Imams allowed a pretender to arise in the 870s, bequeathing to us the Alawites, whose successors are still hanging on to power as the rulers of modern Syria.
These petty sects are better known as “Alidism.” Mainstream Shiism, by contrast, was the creation of the educated and prosperous clergy of southern Iraq in the ninth century. Frustrated by the proliferation of radical creeds, and impatient with ineffectual Imams, the Shia ulema hit upon a deus ex machina in the claim that the twelfth Imam — a minor, with no obvious successor, who presumably died – had miraculously “disappeared” in 874, and would remain “hidden” until his return on Judgement Day. In the meantime, they would be responsible for interpreting His will — and thus the will of God. As the “architects and guardians of dogma,” these Shiite clergy were able to consolidate Shiism into an organized faith with a sophisticated theology able to rival the established corpus of Sunnism.
The final piece in our contemporary puzzle fell into place in 1501, when a new Safavid king of Persia established Shiism as the official state religion. From that point on, geopolitical and ethnic rivalry was fused with religious schism, as Sunni Ottomans and Shiite Persians confronted one another along a frontier stretching thousands of miles, from the mountains of Kurdistan in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. In the 20th century, it would be this divide, now separating Iran and Iraq, that would form the bloodiest international border outside Europe — one of the few, it’s worth recalling, that had nothing to do with Western colonialism.
Sunnis and Shi’a is also concerned with exploring how the sectarian divide has been managed in practice in a range of national contexts in the present day — including in Pakistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It used to be said of the Washington, D.C., foreign-policy establishment that, having discovered the Sunni–Shia split in the aftermath of the second Iraq war, they started to see its malign hand everywhere. Louër’s survey is an effective antidote. She makes the commonsense point that the pattern of Sunni–Shia engagement throughout the Islamic world has as often been one of coexistence and cooperation as of sectarian conflict and war. We can find, for example, even in the “puritanical” Saudi Kingdom large Shiite populations free to apply their own religious law within their community, and whose leaders have served on the king’s consultative council. In Bahrain, now a major flash-point, we can find a deep history of Sunni monarchs engaging closely with loyalist Shiite subjects, not least because they were valued by their Sunni rulers as allies against the Communists.
What can we learn from this? Well, one thing that seems emphatically not to be a good solution for managing sectarian difference may be the one that governments and international agencies have long pursued — to press Western-style democratic and open political systems upon Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, the main points of Sunni–Shia dispute could hardly have been designed to be more potentially incendiary if freely aired in the public square. One Shia ritual Louër identifies involves the public insulting of Mohammed’s earliest Companions and the first three Muslim Caliphs — that is, precisely those figures most sacred to Sunnis as models for true religious life. (They are known as the Salaf — hence Salafism.) Most modern Shiites have retreated from their early claims that the Koran itself is a Sunni-doctored falsification. But many continue to regard fundamental elements of Sunni worship as false, and do not regard Sunni mosques as “real mosques.” For their part, Sunnis give as good as they get. Louër tells us that there is a school of Sunni scholars today who maintain that Shiism tout court was created as part of an eighth-century Jewish conspiracy designed to sow discord in the Muslim community. One suspects that increased contact, freer debate, and better understanding, rather than building bridges, would simply make people hate one another more.
In a political world that requires tact and subtlety, where struggling factions reach for recognition and toleration, rather than radical equality, there can be nothing so dangerous as “religious entrepreneurs” promising political utopias — which brings us back to Ayatollah Khamenei. In each of Louër’s national audits, the story since 1979 is one of extremist violence and steady radicalization of sectarian difference, as Tehran’s efforts to export revolution throughout the region transformed once-integrated Shiite communities into vectors for Iranian influence and interest. The Shiite pressure groups and civil-society organizations of the 1970s became the “Islamic Liberation Fronts” of the 1980s. Coup attempts replaced compromise, as in Bahrain in 1981.
Many of these national scenes have yet to recover — and so long as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards exist to freewheel around the region as gun-runners and king-makers, it is difficult to see how recovery begins. One doesn’t have to admire John Bolton to share his hope that Iran’s current rulers will come to an unpleasant end, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Sunnis and Shi’a is a reminder of all the reasons to be excited for what may come, once they do.